‘We love books, and we were ready not to work for anyone else,” says Pamela Kaye, who, along with her husband, Ira Kaye, has owned Chestnut Tree Books in the Princeton Shopping Center for two years. Impetus for the venture came when the former New Brunswick residents enrolled their 12-year-old daughter, Bess, in the Lewis School. Pamela Kaye was thoroughly tired of driving her back and forth on Route 1. At the same time, her husband, Ira Kaye, was working in New York City as a hospital consultant, and had had it with his own commute.

Neither has a retail background, but they decided to give it a try, and books were a natural product for them. “I’ve moved 12, 13 times,” says Kaye. “Sometimes I have to have a separate van just for books. I’ve always talked about having a book store.”

Ira Kaye took a one-week crash course in bookstore management, and the couple turned what was recently the temporary quarters of the Princeton Public Library into a half-price bookstore. Despite the course, Ira Kaye says that in retail, as in medicine or teaching, there is no substitute for experience. He and his wife are still feeling their way, and making corrections as they go.

The cook books, for example, were recently moved upstairs in the two level store after the Kayes realized that “people can’t get enough cook books,” and, what’s more, the political books on prominent display were depressing their customers. A very Blue State group, they won’t even touch the covers of books by the likes of Zel Miller and Rush Limbaugh, they say. So the conservative pundits have been banished to the basement — the large, finished space that houses most of the store’s books. The couple want positive books that engender good feelings front and center because they are about to install a coffee bar near the front door. People will be more in the mood to sip and read if happy books are nearby, they reason.

Pamela Kaye, who graduated from Duquesne in 1975 and holds master’s degrees in philosophy and religion, worked as a hospital administrator until her daughter was born. She grew up in Pittsburgh and Chicago, where her father, now deceased, worked in the steel industry. Her mother, a former state worker now approaching 90, is a mystery book fan, “but not with too much sex.”

Ira Kaye, who holds a bachelor’s degree in economics from CCNY, earned in the 1970s, and graduate degrees in education and the philosophy of science from West Ontario University, grew up on Long Island in a family “with a commitment to Judaica.” In his family, he says, “it was not reading for reading, but for learning.” His father, a retired stockbroker who had to flee from Germany ahead of the Nazis, “studies Jewish texts three times a week.”

It is possible that Ira Kaye inherited his entrepreneurial drive from his mother, who for years baked “fancy” cookies for Bloomingdale’s. “They sold for $18 a pound,” says her son. “They’re really good.” His mother pitched in over the holidays last winter by baking little packages of cookies for the Chestnut Tree’s customers.

The Kayes had looked for a smaller space for their store, checking out Nassau Street and strip malls for a good location. But when the ex-library space became available, they realized that it was well suited to the bookstore they wanted to have. It has been a good move from at least one standpoint. They have found a supportive community among the other store owners in the shopping center, with whom they trade tips and share frustrations. “The other merchants are my colleagues,” says Ira Kaye. “Some people I see six or seven times a week.”

Kaye is still puzzled by the lack of a pattern in retailing. Some days are good and others are terrible. Some weeks are stellar and others are dismal, and there seems to be no way of predicting which way it will go. “It’s not cold or hot, rain or sun,” he says. “I try to learn not to get too high with the highs, or too low with the lows, but it’s crazy making.” In a recent conversation, a nearby cafe owner expressed just the same sentiment. It helped.

The Kayes have worked hard to make their store attractive, welcoming, and home-like — adding a fish tank and decorating in bright colors. This, strangely enough, has become a problem on two fronts — one a matter of hurt feelings, and the other, perhaps more serious, a matter of retail identity.

Although he tries not to let it, the fact that people don’t treat the store as they would a friend’s home bothers Ira Kaye. “Just because people leave books in clumps, you can’t take it personally,” he says. “But it’s not an easy thing. It’s personal for us, we’re trying to create a sense of community.”

As for the identity issue, the store’s decor throws customers off, says Ira Kaye. “One of our biggest problems is a disconnect,” he says. When people walk in, it’s very pretty. It looks like it should be a full price store, a Barnes & Noble.” That’s a problem because Chestnut Tree is a special kind of bookstore. Nearly all of its offerings are half-price books — often remainders returned to publishers by the Barnes & Nobles of the world.

This means that there are excellent bargains for book browsers, but it also means that not every popular book is in stock. Shopping at half-price stores is something of an adventure for book lovers, not a quick stop to get a specific book. The store, for example, is not able to keep a computerized list of everything on its shelves the way a big box bookstore can. There is no way for it to tell a hurried customer that a particular book is in stock. There is also no way to stock classics that are in constant demand.

“We have people coming in all the time asking for “Goodnight Moon,” says Ira Kaye. “We tell them that we can never get that book, and they say ‘How can that be!’ The impression creates the question.” The reason is that the book is so popular as a new baby present that it never shows up in book warehouses, which is where the Kayes get their stock.

In something of a paradox, while many of the Kayes customers potential customers don’t take to the discount format, most are, nonetheless, eager to pay as little as possible.

“Someone told me that Princeton people weren’t price conscious,” says Ira Kaye. “That is not my experience. Princeton people are bargain driven.” He turns to a customer for affirmation, asking “Isn’t that right, Jack? Aren’t you always telling me you can get it for less at Strand?”

Even where the half-price formula works, it is not yielding the kind of profit the Kayes would like to see. “Kids books are the greatest strength of the store,” says Ira Kaye, “but because they’re so expensive, you have to sell a heck of a lot of them.”

On an up note, non-fiction sells well. “This surprises me,” says Ira Kaye. “Fiction outsells non-fiction five-to-one in the country, but we sell more non-fiction than fiction.” Good fiction, “not pop fiction,” he says, also moves well in the store, which carries no romance novels.

In a promising innovation, Chestnut Tree has put in a large graphic novel and comic book session. Knowing nothing about those genres, the Kayes have partnered with a Levittown store on that section, which sells at full price, and is doing well.

Another growth area is used books. The Kayes give customers a 25 or 50 cent credit for their used books, and Ira Kaye says that the profit margin on these books is good. Chestnut Tree is giving more and more space to the used books.

The store has not yet broken even, but the Kayes project that it will do so within six months. They expect that the coffee bar, a Seattle’s Best slated to open on or about August 15, will be a big help. They plan to issue coupons for free drinks to customers who spend a certain amount of money, thereby reaping revenue from cross-selling.

While the Kayes are not becoming rich from the store, Ira Kaye says without hesitation that it has been a “blessing” and a huge success for them as a family. He enjoys riding his bicycle to work, having his daughter with him so much — and even having his Tibetan terrier, Sami, on duty as the store mascot.

Furthermore, he says that running the bookstore with his wife has given him a renewed appreciation for her talents. It’s a second marriage for them both, he says, and when they married they planned on a “modern” union, sharing work and chores. Soon, however, their daughter was born, and he went off to the city to earn a living while she stayed at home. He is delighted that they are re-united in the store.

The Chestnut Tree plays another role in their lives, too. “Two generations ago, in Germany, my family had a bookstore,” says Ira Kaye. “It was called the Chestnut Tree.”

Chestnut Tree Books, 301 North Harrison Street, Princeton Shopping Center, Princeton 08540; 609-279-2121. Ira and Pamela Kaye, co-owners. www.chestnuttreebooks.com

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