Against the tide

Story and photographs by Mary Shustack

There’s something special about stepping into an independent bookshop.

It might be the greeting you get, the handwritten recommendations that accompany some editions or maybe the way the familiar owner seems to know just what you want, even before you do.

“Each bookstore has its own personality,” says Annabelle Siegel, a longtime manager at Anderson’s Book Shop in Larchmont.

And that is certainly true. Unlike chain stores, where uniformity is desired, independent shops reflect the personalities of their owners, the needs of their communities – and offer a respite in today’s big-box world.

When a shop closes, a community loses something.

Susan Hodara, a Chappaqua-based journalist, memoirist and author, was one of many locals who frequented The Second Story Book Shop. Though it closed several years ago, people still talk about the Chappaqua institution noted for its selections and customer service.

“Definitely, it is a loss,” Hodara says. “An independent bookstore, to me, feels like a venue for community.”

But Hodara is well aware of the challenges that face today’s shopkeepers.

Her new book, “Still Here Thinking of You: A Second Chance With Our Mothers,” written with Vicki Addesso, Joan Potter and Lori Toppel, is due out in March from Big Table Publishing. As it’s on a small press, the authors are at work figuring out the promotions.

“Bookstores are a low priority, whereas five, 10 years ago, they would have been a key source,” Hodara says.

Bookshops aren’t a go-to place for most people anymore, she says.

“It’s one of the things that we’re losing in the process of gaining a lot of other things,” she says.

Still, she and her fellow authors do indeed hope to do some book readings and signings.

She hopes that the independent bookshops will continue to be around, sticking it out in the face of many challenges.

“A bookstore has a special feeling to it,” she says.

And a random tour of our area’s indie shops over a few days proved that to be true.

Customers crowded around the register on a recent morning at Elm Street Books in New Canaan, asking for staff suggestions and help. Later that day, people streamed in and out of Books on the Common in Ridgefield, where a bowl of water outside the entrance welcomes four-legged visitors, while banners in the window proclaim: “Find it here. Buy it here. Keep us here.” And “Eat Sleep Read Local.”

Of course, everyone has his or her favorite shop. Following is just a random sampling, a meandering tour through a few of our area’s finest.

A family affair

There’s a sense of family at Anderson’s Book Shop in Larchmont, and that’s not surprising.

The shop is owned by Tamara Greeman, whose son Tim often stops by to be sure things are in tip-top shape, as he did on a recent morning.

He was there checking in with Annabelle and Jenny Siegel, the mother-daughter team that has managed the shop for years. (Annabelle proudly shares she’s a 30-year employee).

Open shelving adds a contemporary feel to the spacious shop, tucked around the corner from bustling Palmer Avenue.

And while books are the heart of the offerings at Anderson’s, which is edging toward its 70th anniversary, there is plenty more.

“We’ve done gifts for the last 10 years and they keep expanding,” Annabelle says, pointing to the collection of chic Baggallini bags, Crane & Co. stationery, Mudlark personal-care products and the like from “companies carried by upscale stores.”

People are just as likely to grab a frame, puzzle or children’s earrings from local entrepreneur Elka Raved as they are to pick up the latest best-seller from a national author.

The children’s section is expansive, complete with petite table and chairs and all kinds of crafts and toys (“with an educational angle,” Annabelle notes) surrounding the books for all ages. Story times are offered twice a week. A miniature Radio Flyer red wagon stands on a shelf, ready to be customized with a selection of books that makes it a wildly popular baby gift.

A large tween section – a book by Lauren Conrad or one on Kate Moss are featured among the accessories – adds appeal for those a bit older.

Throughout, local authors always have a place with shelf space, even for self-published efforts, near the counter and frequent signings. A glass case just outside the front door puts the local authors in further spotlight.

“They can walk by and see they’re actually in a bookstore,” Annabelle says. “You want to encourage writers. You’re a local bookstore and you want them to have a home for their books.”

Antiques, a special interest of the owner, add a personal touch, with book-themed choices – think varied and interesting bookends – always in the spotlight. There are also custom consignments, such as framed vintage New Yorker covers.

“It adds something,” Annabelle says.

And that’s why customers keep streaming back.

Anderson’s Book Shop, 96 Chatsworth Ave., Larchmont. (914) 834-6900.

Reassuringly familiar

It could be a few weeks or a few months between visits to Bruised Apple Books & Music in Peekskill, and a visitor will find that not much has changed.

And that is not a complaint.

This classic space, complete with hardwood floors, tin ceilings and a laid-back sensibility that reflects longtime owner Scott Sailor’s personality, is ideal whether you have to run in for a quick gift – or want to while away a few hours getting lost in the soaring stacks filled with most everything you might imagine.

“We’re still kind of all about the browsing experience,” Sailor says.

There are step stools for reaching higher shelves and cartoons dotting the walls, quirky seating areas complete with velvet chairs and elaborate lamps and hand-written section labels throughout.

It all echoes Sailor’s commitment to his chosen field.

“Books are iconic,” Sailor says of his tens of thousands of volumes. “Books aren’t going anywhere.”

A stalwart in the northern Westchester area drawing book and music lovers from all over the region, Bruised Apple remains strongly independent.

“There’s not too many of us left,” Sailor, who opened the shop in 1993, says with a wry smile. “We kind of draw our own audience, so to speak… We’re fortunate because we’ve been well-loved by the book community for a long time.”

Bruised Apple is officially a used-book store, though a large music section has come into its own as well.

“We actually have new books, but we don’t sell them as such,” Sailor says, noting they have a steady supply of review copies and other books where “the binding’s not even been cracked.”

“We have rare, collectible stuff, but we are really more of a bookshop that has an eclectic approach and hits all the needs.”

Sailor always makes room for local-interest books, with a section right near the front dedicated to books on local history and regional titles.

“Those are the only new books that we stock,” he says.

To be approaching the 20th anniversary is something, Sailor acknowledges, in a business that’s far from routine.

“It’s still changing and it’s kind of hard to know exactly where it’s going now,” he says. “My guess is that certain kinds of books will become fetishized, kind of like vinyl records. I’m kind of wondering which areas of the books will do the same thing.”

No matter what changes have come, Sailor says he’s long felt community support when it comes to local business.

“Westchester County has enough educated people, people who are educated enough to realize that every dollar is a vote, and how you spend it determines what your world looks like.”

And Sailor plans to be around serving those customers for a long time – with something that will never go out of style.

As he says, “Sometimes you just want a good old-fashioned book in your hand.”

Bruised Apple Books & Music, 923 Central Ave., Peekskill. (914) 734-7000 or bruisedapplebooks.com.

Destination shopping

It’s a good bet that if you’re at riverrun bookshop in Hastings-on-Hudson, you meant to be there.

After all, the of-another-time shop is set smack in the middle of a steep hill that makes its way down to the Hudson River. You can reach it easily, for sure, from the town’s main shopping district, but this isn’t a place where you’ll wander by accident.

And that’s almost fitting, since owner Chris Stephens says his customers are often serious about their purchases.

“Books are not an impulse,” he says. “We’re definitely a destination.”

And it’s a destination for a dedicated group that has been seeking out riverrun for more than three decades.

“We get a wide variety of people,” Stephens says, which is reflected in the inventory.

Selections might touch on topics ranging from Americana to economics, medicine to music, philosophy to architecture, travel to sports. Some volumes may date from the 17th century, while others are just a few decades old.

Art books are very popular, as are “big books on little subjects that are not going to be done again.”

Those, he says, catch the eyes of a collector.

These days, Stephens says he does do between 60 and 70 percent of his business online – a well-written blog is another shop feature well worth a visit – taking orders from around the world at all hours.

“They come in day or night, if somebody’s in France,” he says.

There are, he says, investors, who might want to collect books that will go up in value, but he cautions them.

“You have no idea what is the next generation going to like,” he says. Authors with staying power, from Hemingway to Steinbeck to Fitzgerald, have passed the test of time.

The stock is ever-changing as Stephens is constantly traveling to seek out new finds.

“Basically, I buy books out of houses,” Stephens says. And when looking at the books, should there be some artwork, antiques or even jewelry for sale, he might also buy some of that for the shop. It adds up to a wonderfully eclectic mix that makes for a discovery at every turn, whether it be a Mario Lanza poster for his latest album to a porcelain tea service to a stand of tin soldiers.

In addition to the books, Stephens has a collection of some 20,000 postcards plus assorted memorabilia such as campaign buttons.

“We like the old things,” he says.

And so do we.

riverrun bookshop, 12 Washington Ave., Hastings-on-Hudson. (914) 478-1339 or riverrunbookshop.com.

Of books – and brushes with celebrity

Gene Sgarlata is a Bronxville notable.

And that’s to be expected, since he has owned Womrath Bookshop for 28 of its nearly 75 years.

“My kids when they were little said ‘Dad, how come they all know you?’” he says.

And he would reply simply: “Because they shop in the bookstore.”

That is still true, though things have certainly changed over the years.

“It’s much harder than it used to be,” Sgarlata says. “At first we were up against the big chain stores. Then we were up against Amazon.”

Now, he adds, it’s the electronic competition.

“Each level has nicked just a little bit… But it’s made us, I don’t know if I would say better business people or smarter business people.”

He says he sees what the changes are doing – and feels he’s able to react.

“We hustle,” he says. “We place orders every single day… You have to monitor the inventory continually so you’re sure you don’t have dead wood on your hands.”

And his shop is filled with an eclectic, timely mix, from a Will Shortz puzzle book to a Neil Young memoir, with wrapping paper, reading glasses and other book-related gift items in between.

Sgarlata says he’s always tried to adjust to the times.

“I feel lucky that we do have a lot of town support, but I’m not fooling myself,” he says. “Many of our customers in this affluent community have e-book readers.”

And so many, he adds, simply opt to shop online.

“When customers do that they don’t realize the money they’re spending is going to some far-off space. It’s not staying in their local community.”

And the effects trickle down, no matter the economic bracket of a community.

“There’s no more small pharmacists. There’s no more hardware stores. You know it’s… it’s just created a world of big-box everything.”

But Sgarlata still feels the community has a soft spot for Womrath for its history and the fact he is a neighbor, too.

“We know each other and there’s a bond of some kind,” he says. “We’re interested in each other.”

Special events both on and off site, including a very popular “Where’s Waldo?” treasure hunt that drew some 150 young participants, keep things interactive. Sgarlata is already looking forward to being a host store for World Book Night, an international event in April designed to spread the love of reading.

Though the shop doesn’t do many author signings these days, there is still room for a bit of celebrity spotting.

Sgarlata delights in telling of how two recent film crews were in town. Both Kevin Bacon’s “The Following,” a new television thriller, and Tina Fey’s movie “Admission” had the stars filming in the shop.

So even Hollywood’s heard of Womrath now.

Womrath Bookshop, 76 Pondfield Road, Bronxville. (914) 337-0199 or womrath.com.

Sign here, please

There’s a fun “game” you can play at Diane’s Books of Greenwich, and it will keep you both charmed and busy.

Once you notice the white walls are covered with the most artistic of scribblings, you’ll be hooked as your eyes dart from one to the next.

No, it wasn’t some children gone wild but rather the uniquely effective way owner Diane Garrett decided to commemorate the countless authors that have visited her shop over the years. No need for a stuffy guest book. Writers from Mary Ann Hoberman of Greenwich to classic teen author S.E. Hinton (“The Outsiders”) have just taken up a felt-tip pen and added their praises, commentary and often, cartoons and drawings to the walls and ceilings.

It’s a singular decorating touch that signifies just how much this incredibly bustling shop means to both the authors it supports and the readers it fuels with books of every kind.

The shop is abuzz on a recent afternoon, as customers crowd the children’s section, where stuffed animals and other toys surround book selections for all reading levels and interests.

For older readers, there are stacks and shelves and even an upstairs getaway called Diane’s Garret. Handwritten suggestions (“For the Downton Abbey lovers”) abound, with employees at every turn. There are experts for each section, each possessing a wealth of information readily and enthusiastically shared.

It’s all as Garrett had envisioned when she opened her doors in November of 1990. Though she has a master’s degree in library science, she never worked in a library.

“I realized instead of putting books on the shelf, I wanted to get books off the shelf,” she says with a laugh.

She calls her shop a family bookstore.

“The majority of lifelong readers are from families that are readers,” she says.

After a customer picks out a book for her child, Garrett says, “We always say to her, ‘Now, what about you, and what about your husband?’”

Books, she says, simply add something to life. She wants people to stop in her store and find a “real treasure.”

“It’s all about storytelling,” she says. “It’s all about imagination. It’s all about getting lost in a story.”

Garrett, though acknowledging the economic challenges, says books continue to be published at an incredible pace.

“I don’t think I’ve ever had so much selection,” she says. “If independents aren’t thriving, there’s something wrong.”

For her, though, the goal remains broader.

“The only thing that matters in my store is that we put the right book in your hand,” she says. “It’s not about the cash register. It’s never been the cash register.”

And those who have signed their names to the walls and ceilings surely feel that, too.

“We’ve gone through the walls three times,” she says.

And you can bet a fourth one is on the way.

Diane’s Books of Greenwich, 8A Grigg St., Greenwich. (203) 869-1515 or dianesbooks.com.

A job for all hours

It’s well past closing time at Arcade Booksellers, but Patrick Corcoran’s day has yet to end. He’s lost track of time as he works away in the office on a recent evening.

The shop, which has just celebrated its 30th Christmas in business on Purchase Street, is a well-ordered corner space jam-packed with all kinds of books. It’s straightforward and welcoming.

“I have a charming little shop,” Corcoran says. “People like to come in here.”

And they do so for both his selection and his advice, as he’s known for helping pick just the right title for a child – or the perfect gift for an adult.

“I try to nail down the whole show here,” he says of his wide and varied selection, though he is soon to expand in some ways.

“I want to try to beef up certain gift-book selections,” he says. “You can’t duplicate an art book on Kindle.”

Corcoran says things have been a mixed bag in recent years, though 2012 was not so bad. He continues to team up with the local library on special events, while also recognizing the support he has in the general consumer.

“People have to make a conscious decision to support a small bookstore,” he says, especially in today’s economy.

“Things are OK, but you know, things are just so tough,” Corcoran says. “I think the economy is probably the biggest factor and because of that people will go for the cheapest, the lowest price they can find. Everybody’s got a bookstore in their home with Amazon.”

But things aren’t all grim, he says.

“Borders’ bankruptcy helped all the independents,” he says.

And for that bonus, there’s the other challenge of the Internet and the e-book.

“None of the technology is going away,” he says. “I have to find a way to make my store attractive on levels I haven’t quite figured out yet.”

But he works well into the night thinking about it, that’s for sure.

Arcade Booksellers, 15 Purchase St., Rye. (914) 967-0966 or arcadebooks.com

 

A sign for the times

 

There’s a sign in the window at The Village Bookstore in Pleasantville that sums things up nicely.

“A book is a gift that can be opened again and again.”

And that seems to be the philosophy behind Roy Solomon and Yvonne vanCort’s sunny shop just steps away from the Metro-North Railroad station.

“We just finished nine years,” Solomon says of the business he runs with his wife. “We’ve developed a lot since we owned it.”

And, he adds with a laugh, “We’re better at it than we were when we first started.”

Indeed, one move and a fine-tuning of the stock have brought the couple a good measure of success.

Solomon is quick to also credit its proximity of the Jacob Burns Film Center as another reason for their success.

“We’ve had very late evening hours all the time, so we’ve attracted a lot of customer from the film center. We, for a long time, we felt we were the alternate lobby.”

While not everyone going to see the foreign, independent, documentary or classic films buys from Village, Solomon says it certainly helped its profile and raised awareness with an ideal audience.

“It’s a good mix,” he says. “It’s a population that’s interested in current affairs, alert to cultural happenings – and alert to new books.”

Shoppers savor the hand-written book reviews found near many titles, recommendations with a truly personal touch.

Surrounding it all are gift and art items along with standout greeting cards and countless styles of journals, perfect for budding writers.

Many author and book-themed events, held in the shop and at outside venues throughout the county, keep the shop vibrant and an active participant in the book community.

“We do events in a lot of places outside our store,” he says.

Solomon says like most shops, they are challenged by the “spreading of electronic reading” but also benefited from “the collapse” of Borders.

He says he sees good things in the future for his field.

“I think small bookstores will start reappearing in places where Borders and Barnes & Noble are closing.”

That is good news for everyone.

The Village Bookstore, 10 Washington Ave., Pleasantville. (914) 769-8322 or pleasantvillebooks.com

 

 

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