The book still lives.
And so does its ever-faithful lover, the independent bookstore.
Despite the economic downturn, book superstores, the ordering ease of Amazon.com and the surging popularity of e-books, independent bookstores in New Jersey have managed to stay alive.
Some have found niches — old and rare books, in particular — no chain bookstore can compete with.
Others concentrate on providing personal, first-name service as friendly neighborhood bookstores.
And when nothing else works, they bring in the occasional sword swallower or fire-eater.
“I like to indulge my impresario proclivities,’’ says a smiling Alex Dawson, co-owner of the Raconteur in Metuchen, which has hosted circus sideshow performers, arm-wrestling and beard-growing tournaments, jazz groups from Paris, radio serials and more — all free of charge.
The Cranbury Bookworm, on Main Street in that Middlesex County town, could fit an entire circus in its 10 book-jammed rooms, but right now manager Andrew Feldman is concerned with bringing the once-doddering aunt of a bookstore into the modern age. He’s adding new shelves and is turning a side room into an event space for readings and presentations.
Margot Sage-El, meanwhile, is worried about e-books.
“They’re the big threat,’’ said Sage-El, owner of Watchung Booksellers in Montclair. ”We have third graders asking parents for Kindle.’’ Sage-El smiles. “And nobody turns down their kids for books.’’
In 2000, there were about 3,000 independent bookstores nationwide. Now there are about 1,700, with about 25 true independent bookstores (as opposed to gift stores that may sell books) left in New Jersey.
It’s not an encouraging number, but Sage-El, for one, believes the worst is behind.
In January and February 2010, sales at Watchung Booksellers dropped so dramatically, it was “horrifying,’’ according to Sage-El.
“I thought, oh my God, is this it? Is this how we’re going to end?’’ she said.
But sales picked up that March and April, and the bookstore is now holding steady.
Oldie but goodie
If Bob Ruffolo hasn’t quite felt the pain of other independent bookstores, he still realizes that he can’t afford to be stubborn when it comes to prices.
Ruffolo is the owner of Princeton Antiques in Atlantic City. It’s an antique store in name only; his father, an antiques dealer, owned a shop in Princeton before moving to Atlantic City. He bought a three-story building on Atlantic Avenue in 1966, and lived upstairs with his librarian wife. “He was married four, five times,’’ his son said, smiling. ”I think my mother was No. 2.”
Books supplanted antiques long ago; Princeton Antiques is now home to 250,000 used and rare books. Most ordering happens online; browsing in-store is by appointment only. Of the 250,000 books, about 100,000 titles are computerized; the remaining titles are listed on index cards.
The store’s specialties include art, science, architecture, ships, and Arctic and Antarctic exploration. Ruffolo owns about 100 early editions of Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice.’’ Ruffolo has a two-volume first American edition of an Austen set priced at $9,000. An early illustrated edition of ”Price and Prejudice’’ costs $750, but the price is negotiable.
“Depends what bills are due,’’ Ruffolo said.
He recently sold a first edition of “A Christmas Carol’’ for $4,500 to an artist. His most valuable item is a collection of 150 books owned by a former president of Venezuela. Yours for $100,000.
But major sales are few and far between; the typical book is about $35.
“The last two years have been lean years,’’ said Ruffolo, who rents rooms upstairs to help defray expenses.
Once a month, he hits the road to check out private collections; most recently he was in Baltimore.
“The pleasure of this business is selling a book to someone, whether they paid $30 or $300 for a book, and getting a thank-you,’’ the bookstore owner said. “They are passionate about paying something for a book they’ve been trying to get for a long time.’’
Place to gather
At first glance, the Raconteur resembles a museum of oddities more than a bookstore.
The decor includes a stuffed pheasant, steamer trunk, Ouija board, a Christmas light made of shotgun shells, giant mounted bugs, a G.I. Joe lunch box, Underwood typewriter, a scarred but in-tune piano salvaged from a shut-down saloon, a knight’s helmet and three beer taps from the Plum Street Pub in New Brunswick, where Dawson once worked.
Oh yes, and 25,000 books, neatly arranged, although some are intentionally stacked on the floor because people “like sorting through the piles — that’s where they think the treasure is,’’ according to Dawson.
The former bartender, bouncer and Central Park carriage driver wrote and designed 15 plays for the New York stage, but could never get used to the “fleeting, ephemeral’’ nature of theater.
So he opened the Raconteur six years ago, envisioning it not just as bookstore, but a “free cultural center’’ and community gathering place.
Dawson holds about 80 events a year in the bookstore — author appearances, readings, musical performances (everyone from chamber music to hard-core punk), and film screenings. And let’s not forget the annual arm-wrestling competition, called the Santiago Armsport Tourney in honor of the arm-wrestling fisherman in Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea.’’
There’s a record store of sorts downstairs, 4,000 DVDs for rent (“Mad Dog Morgan,’’ anyone?) and a children’s corner in the back.
Dawson is the author of an adventure book for young readers titled “The Rapscallion Club,’’ which manages to include french fry contests, bullet ants, umbrella combat, dead pirates, lost treasure and a Titanic survivor. The first ”draft’’ sold about 500 copies; a fuller version, the first in a projected series of 10 books, is due out in a month or two.
In the 1980s and 1990s, bookstores “didn’t have to be good to make money,’’ according to Dawson.
Those days are long gone.
“Recessions don’t affect independent bookstores because you’re always struggling,’’ he said wryly.
Last weekend, John Wesley Harding, the esteemed neo-folkie singer/songwriter, appeared at the Raconteur under his real name — Wesley Stace, author of “Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer.’’
The Raconteur is not your typical neighborhood bookstore, but there is still a bottom line to maintain.
“I don’t want to be a bright grocery store of books,’’ Dawson said. ”It’s all about creating a singular experience. You don’t get a singular experience online.’’
“We’re kind of purists,’’ Sage-El says when told of the dizzying variety of events at Dawson’s bookstore.
But that doesn’t mean just put out books and hope they sell.
Watchung Booksellers opened in 1991 above the old Bradner’s Pharmacy. In 2001, it moved to its present location, just down the street. Sage-El, who previously worked in educational publishing, calls Montclair “a town that really values the word.’’ Sixty authors, by her estimate, live in town.
There are bi-monthly “Writing Matters’’ panels where local authors talk about writing and publishing, and an annual event where children write for an in-house magazine, then read from their work at the store.
Sage-El also donates $8,000 to $10,000 in books a year to schools, churches and civic groups.
But hard-core punk bands in her bookstore? That’s where she draws the line.
Many customers who order from her online pick up their books in person. They want the personal touch, the connection.
Sage-El says publishers are paying more attention to independent bookstores. She is encouraged by the “renaissance’’ of indie bookstores in Brooklyn, with five stores opening there in the past three years.
The future of her bookstore?
“I am concerned,’’ she replied. ”So far we’ve been able to ride out any other obstacle. I’m proud I’ve never had to lay anyone off or cut anyone’s hours.’’
The old-fashioned way
After all these years, the Worm still turns.
For many years, the Cranbury Bookworm was a cheery chaos of a place, with books scattered on the floor, jutting from shelves, housed in a warren of 10 rooms that Alice in Wonderland would have appreciated. One upstairs room is smaller than a bedroom closet; even the bathroom has been turned into book space. When it opened in 1974, the Cranbury Bookworm occupied just one room in the Victorian home; the other rooms were occupied by municipal offices, a dress shop and a Venetian blind shop.
The original owner, Ralph Schremp, died in 2002. Today, Feldman and his father run the bookstore; Schremp’s widow, Ann, owns it, and the building.
There are about 100,000 books in all, and some are on the floor — but in post office crates. Books on the back porch are six for a dollar. The books inside are in alphabetical order by section, but nothing is computerized. Prices are marked in pencil inside each book; most hardcovers range from $5 to $8, all paperbacks are 50 cents.
Feldman, who started working here when he was 15, goes on estate calls: Orange, Lakewood, Robbinsville in recent weeks. And he and his dad are regulars at flea markets and garage sales.
The 30-year-old has gotten used to first-time customers walking in, spotting him and asking, “Can I talk to the manager?’’
“ ’08 and ‘09 were trying years,’’ Feldman said. ”There were weeks we made $500. You can’t make payroll that way. It was scary. But we made it. We survived.’’
Really fun Pitchapalooza on KCUR-FM/KCUR-HD1 | Kansas City Public Radio
“I’m reading a new book I downloaded on my Kindle and I noticed an underlined passage. It is surely a mistake, I think. This is a new book. I don’t know about you, but I always hated underlined passages in used books…. And then I discovered that the horror doesn’t stop with the unwelcomed presence of another reader who’s defaced my new book. But it deepens with something called view popular highlights, which will tell you how many morons have underlined before so that not only you do not own the new book you paid for, the entire experience of reading is shattered by the presence of a mob that agitates inside your text like strangers in a train station.
“So now you can add to the ease of downloading an e-book the end of the illusion that it is your book. The end of the privileged relation between yourself and your book. And a certainty that you’ve been had. Not only is the e-book not yours to be with alone, it is shared at Amazon which shares with you what it knows about you reading and the readings of others. And lets you know that you are what you underline, which is only a number in a mass of popular views…. Conformism does come of age in the most private of peaceful activities–reading a book, one of the last solitary pleasures in a world full of prompts to behave. My Kindle, sugar-coated cyanide.”
–Andrei Codrescu on NPR’s All Things Considered
After having travelled America coast to coast Pitchapaloozing, we were extremely excited and slightly terrified to bring it to our own hometown: Montclair, NJ. Because Montclair is populated with publishing professionals (shake a tree here and an editor from Harper Collins or a New York Times writer will fall out), we were worried that the jaded been-there, done-that mentality might make our event seem passé. But we also know that basically everyone in Montclair wants to write a book, so we were optimistic that there were enough writers who would be hungry to dine at our publishing buffet. Plus we had an all-star panel of judges: Dominick Anfuso, Editor-in-Chief of The Free Press/Simon & Schuster, agent Liza Dawson, founder of Liza Dawson Associates, and Pamela Satran Redmond, New York Times bestselling author and founder of MEWS.
While we started a little late in the game with publicizing our event, we ended up working our tails off to get the word out. We hooked up with Meetup groups, sent stuff to the Montclair State University student newspaper, and its writing department. We got something up on Baristanet, and a couple of pieces in the Montclair Times. Margot Sage-El, the amazing owner of the amazing bookstore, Watchung Booksellers, did her part getting the word out via her website and emails. We also put up posters in the bookstore and at strategic spots in town where writers like to hang and sip their decaf soy lattes with just one shot. The piece on Baristanet sparked some flaming, hate spewing in the comments. Montclair seems to be such a liberal, happy place, but there can be an undercurrent of profound anger bubbling just below the surface. Very David Lynch-ey.
It was a freezing, frigid night. David arrived at 6:15 to help the videographer who was nowhere to be found. The library tech guy announced at 6:40 that the sound system they promised us “wasn’t working.” David, seething, asked the library tech guy what he meant. He explained, that the sound system they had promised didn’t, in fact, work. David, now livid, demanded an explanation. The library tech guy explained that the sound system wasn’t working and he apologized very nicely. David, overwrought, immediately began to assemble his portable sound system–yes, David travels with a portable sound system for just this very reason. And since we were videotaping this Pitchapalooza, we had to have sound. Arielle had not yet arrived, but Montclair’s best and brightest were already piling in by the score. The wonderful staff of Watchung Booksellers, who were sponsoring our event, were frantically putting out more chairs, always a good sign 10 minutes before an event. The videographer finally called, her GPS sent her through Chinatown from Long Island.
Arielle had still not arrived when David had managed to hook up and amplify three mikes. Made them hot. The judges arrived. Steven Pace and Michael Rockliff, two of our favorite people from our publisher, were there. At 6:55, the videographer arrived, a whiff of Chinatown wafting after her. She began frantically setting up. At 6:58, Arielle showed up. The babysitter had been late, some horrendous accident with ambulances had blocked up the streets of Montclair, and there were no parking spaces. Her cheeks were radiating red as she tried to catch her breath as she settled into her judge’s chair. Imagine our gratitude and joy when we started the show at 7:07, exactly as planned, with the cameras rolling and someone from the Montclair Times snapping pix.
Compared to places like Denver, Colorado and Naperville, Illinois, it seemed at first to be a rather subdued crowd of about 125. But once the train started rolling, we heard some top-notch pitches. Ani, an autistic artist and visionary had a stunning book that’s a visual representation of how her autistic mind/soul/spirit sees the world. Plus she has cool green hair. A poet writing a memoir from the POV of a house. A guy who had been tortured by nuns as a kid. But the winner blew everyone away. Wearing a sweatshirt that said, “Careful or you’ll end up in my novel”, she rocked a revisionist historical novel about the Founding Fathers and the creation of America. Spellbinding, smart, timely and timeless, historic and au currant. Plus—get this–she was 15 years old! David confessed afterwards that he had never felt stupider remembering what he was doing at 15.
As usual, our panel doled all kinds of precious info. At one point Dominick said, “I don’t know exactly what your book is. The voice isn’t distinctive and unique. I wouldn’t know which editor I would send assign it to.” Fascinating to see the world through the eyes of a guy deciding which editor to choose. Liza Dowson pointed out the basics clearly, precisely and warmly. Who is the audience? What are the comparable writers/books? Why are you the person to write this book? Pamela Satran Redmond, gushed over a great pitch for a grandmother naming book (she is the author of some of the bestselling naming books of all time) and handed out helpful hints and bon mots about locating, reaching out, and touching your audience.
After the event, the grandmother naming book lady was besieged by admirers and publishing peeps. Our 15-year-old winner (the youngest in Pitchapalooza history) was wide-eyed, stunned, and giddy with glee. Apparently she’s finished five drafts of the novel, but is not quite satisfied yet (why can’t all writers think like this?!). Afterwards people were so nice. It was great to catch up with Montclarian amigos and make lots of new friends among our homies. Laura Schenone, James Beard Award winner and author, and Herb Schaffer, President of Schaffner Media, sat right in front. Laura and Herb also happen to be our closest friends here in Montclair. It was strangely comforting to have our extended family in the hizzle laughing and nodding in all the right places.
We also tried something new. We announced a paid workshop at the Pitchapalooza, then rented a room a week later to do our Stanford University presentation: How to Get Successfully Published. We had no idea if it would work. But we’re constantly trying to evolve the way we get our ideas out into the world. Trying the next thing to see what you can learn to make your thing more easily accessible, simpler for someone who wants it to say: YES.
There was a lot of Montclair love at the Montclair Public Library. The library was great, sound system notwithstanding, and they continue to be an incredibly underrated resource in our community, one that must be supported, nourished, and treasured. Thanks Montclair. We’ve been here 3 years and change, and we can honestly say, Montclair has been very, very good to us. Next stop, Kansas City!
Consider 25 Sophie’s Choices.
Consider 25 juicy, delicious pitches.
Consider that you only get to choose one.
We did. And after much consideration, we have chosen a winner. It was not an easy choice! There were just so many great pitches. But we kept coming back to one. And that one, as you may have guessed, is Sparrow Migrations by Cari Noga. Cari’s storytelling ability , strong voice, and her idea to revolve her book around an event that captured America, won us over. We really wanna read this book. Congratulations Cari!
As for the fan favorite, the fans have spoken and the winner is…drum roll… Out of the Woods by father-son team, David and Ben Ash. Congratulations guys!
Thank you all so much for participating in what, for us, has been a fabulously fun Pitchapalooza. We hope EVERYONE gets happily published!