Book ’em, Diane

“I don’t know or care what’s on the best-seller lists” says Greenwich bookseller Diane Garrett. “The only thing I care about is my customers and what’s the best book for them.”

By coincidence, I am talking to the eponymous owner of Greenwich’s celebrated bookstore, Diane’s Books, by phone on what quickly transpires is the store’s 30th birthday. I offer my congratulations. “It’s a hard day for me, because we always have a party and we always wear costumes and we always do…well, all kinds of things on our anniversaries. But we can’t do any of that today.”

To add to her general displeasure, the last block of Greenwich Avenue has been closed to accommodate outdoor dining during Covid-19. “When I opened the store, there was only one restaurant in the neighborhood and in the block which they’ve closed off alone there are now 10. And of course, all those restaurants have waiters and managers and chefs and it’s eight-hour parking back there, which is perfectly ridiculous. They seem to be very concerned about the restaurant business but not about the shopkeepers.

I ask her what she’d like to see done about it. “My back lot faces the train station and the back of the buildings on Railroad Avenue. There’s no reason they can’t build a three-story parking garage. People could park and go to the train, or they could park and come to me. Everyone tells me I’m an institution so you’d think the town might ask my opinion. You’d think with all these established stores that the town would care about us, would make a point of making sure we survive.”

Indeed, it would be hard to disagree. There were seven bookshops on the scene when Garrett first arrived in Greenwich and now there is just one — hers. Given the parking issues, the public’s seemingly endless appetite for upscale designer stores and the behemoth that is Amazon (“a real battle for all of us bookstores,”) I’m keen to know how her bookstore alone has seen all the others off and stayed the course.

There is a thoughtful pause. “I don’t know or care what’s on the best-seller lists. The only thing I care about is my customers and what’s the best book for them.” But stocking and supplying the best books — in a store with an inventory of 35,000 books — elevates bookselling to an art. “I buy all the books in the store and everything is there for a reason. And I think honesty and kindness go a long way.” She tells her staff that it’s not about the cash register, it’s about the customer, “because the cash register isn’t going to happen if we don’t have the customer service that I insist on having.” 

She moved to Greenwich with her husband, Gordon, from Toronto in 1990. He worked for IBM and the family moved around constantly — Canada, Europe and the USA. When she posed the question of where they might eventually settle as a family, he answered her, quick as a flash: “Greenwich — so green, so pretty, so close to New York. Perfect for the family.” “And that,” says Garrett, “was that.”

When it came to the question of what she might do as a career, he reminded her she had a masters’ degree in library science and suggested she get a job in a library. “I said to him, ‘I don’t want to put books on a shelf, I want to take them off the shelf and put them in people’s hands. The Dewey Decimal System (the global library classification system,) nearly killed me in library school.”

And she was struck by how there was no children’s bookstore in the town — not that Garrett believes in children’s bookstores per se. That is to say, she believes only in family — read “regular” — bookstores, ones with children’s sections, because, as she likes to say, “unless the whole family reads, you don’t raise readers.”

She is a flag-bearer for good books and reading habits but never a pendant or, forfend, a bully. For one thing, she believes books are to be enjoyed and for another, she doesn’t take herself too seriously. “I had a boy back from college, a regular customer, just call me to say “hi.” I said, ‘Remind me what your favorite book is?’ You know what he told me? ‘Captain Underpants.’ And I have a lot of kids in their late teens and early 20s that do that now, that just like to call me up. I call them ‘Diane’s Books graduates.’”

She can be arch, too. “When a customer tells me that his 5-year-old is reading, I’m like, ‘Everybody knows how to read.’ Being able to read is not the ‘piece,’” she says. The “piece” is to have fun and to make the child fall in love with reading forever and ever. And while she loves that children have strong opinions, she would like to see adults maintain their influence. If this sounds old-fashioned, Garrett sees it as entirely practical. “You know, these kids are so smart that sometimes parents forget — precisely because they are so damn smart — that they’re the parent and that’s the child.” 

“Parents are always saying to their kids, ‘Do you like it? Do you like it?” and I say to the parents, “Excuse me? I think you’re the boss, applesauce.” 

On burning issues of the day such as race and diversity, Garrett accepts that they form part of a modern library, but warns that they cannot form a complete library alone. She’s also tired of lurid sex in novels. “It’s so unnecessary in a really well-written piece of fiction. It’s just a prop.”

She insists that total “focus” on bookselling — the selling of actual books — is what’s kept her in business. “We don’t sell toys. We don’t have a café. The only service we offer other than bookselling is gift wrap.” (It’s free.) With tiny margins on pure bookselling, most bookstores only survive by virtue of the add-ons. But Garrett is adamant. “I absolutely refuse to go there,” she says.

The weeks leading up to Christmas are when the bookstore traditionally does 30 percent of its annual business, and she is keeping her fingers crossed that faced with the unholy trinity of Covid-19, limited parking and the ever-present threat of Amazon, the season will hold up. Certainly, if a recent visit I made to the shop is anything to go by, when I was able to park less than 50 yards away and the store was lively but social distancing could still be safely practiced, there should be little to fear. But it did bring home to me just how much we must support our local business gems if we want them to survive.

So precarious is the situation, that even the newsletter with news and reviews that Garrett used to mail out has been shelved. Once happy to share her suggestions widely, she is now more circumspect, because she knows people will take her recommendations and order the books online. “I’m now more careful with my secrets,” confesses Greenwich’s institutional bookseller.

Diane’s Books is at 8 Grigg St. For more, call 203-869-1515 or visit dianesbooks.com.

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