Mark Fowler and Jessica Kaplan are bucking a tide. Or perhaps they are really riding a wave.
For years, we have heard how first, bookstore chains like Barnes & Noble and, then, Amazon would sound the death knell of the independent bookstore. While several shuffled off their mortal coil in the Great Recession of 2008, Fowler says, “I think they’re making something of a comeback.”
“There are some good ones in Westchester,” adds Kaplan, who with Fowler, her husband, has visited some 62 from New Jersey to Washington state.
Now the Scarsdale couple hope they’ve added one more to the places you’d like to cozy up in. Bronx River Books opened last month in a 1,200-square-foot space on their hometown’s Spencer Place with the motto “Shop the village. Read the world.”
Surely, if there were ever a place to read the world, it is Scarsdale. You need only visit its packed public library — particularly on the late-summer weekend of its annual book sale, when you can’t get into the parking lot — to realize that this is a most literary community. Indeed, during the interview, shortly before the bookstore launched, passersby couldn’t resist peeking in, hoping against hope that maybe, just maybe the new shop was already open. While it wasn’t, Fowler and Kaplan paused graciously to greet them briefly and answer eager questions. Might the new store have some wrapping paper and greeting cards in the manner of the late, lamented Reading, Writing and Wrapping? (It might.) Might a new author leave his contact information? (Certainly.)
New authors are just part of the plans for the shop — a most contemporary space in black, white and a pop of red with enough shelves in oak veneer with a fruitwood stain to hold 8,000 to 10,000 books. Many of the bookcases are on casters so that they can be rolled away to accommodate 40 chairs for events, such as authors’ readings and story hours. A table in front will support local book clubs, while nooks allow for individual readers/browsers. (Seating was one of the tips the couple picked up in doing due diligence in bookstores across the nation, Kaplan says, adding “I think it’s a great idea.”)
Seated or standing, patrons are apt to conclude that this is not your average bookstore. Volumes are organized in an interesting way, with “The Human Condition” replacing the old philosophy and religion sections and romance giving way to “Passion.” While the titles are mostly contemporary, some are classic, so that the shop has both Homer’s “The Odyssey,” and Daniel Mendelsohn’s “An Odyssey: A Father, A Son and an Epic,” about an octogenarian who enrolls in his son’s classics class at Bard College before they embark on an odyssey of their own. And while the books range across subject matter, Fowler says they are probably “overrepresented with fiction.” That’s because he is a writer and lawyer who has spent his career in the publishing industry, poring over cases involving libel or freedom of information. (He’s still associated with the Manhattan firm of Satterlee Stephens LLP.) She is a retired middle school English teacher who taught at Rye Country Day School, Greenwich Academy and the French-American School of New York.
Both have been involved in The Center for Fiction, which is moving to its new home in Brooklyn in December — he as a board member and she as a reader/rater for the center’s First Novel Prize.
In addition to their three grown sons, Fowler and Kaplan are the pet parents of Virginia Woolf, an English Springer Spaniel who may become the bookshop dog. (The writer Virginia Woolf counted a Cocker Spaniel, Pinka, among her dogs and wrote a book from the viewpoint of the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Cocker Spaniel, “Flush: A Biography.”)
Now Virginia Woolf, Fowler and Kaplan have set sail on their own odyssey, for as the poet Emily Dickinson wrote, “There is no Frigate like a Book.”
Bronx River Books is at 37 Spencer Place. For more, call 914-420-6396 or visit bronxriverbooks.com.