Eric Maywar talks about the bookstores he haunted as a young boy with the joyous enthusiasm others reserve for ballparks or roller coasters. Now the owner of Classics Used and Rare Books on Warren Street in Trenton, Maywar reminisces about childhood trips to bookstores in Ann Arbor.
“Two times a year we made a pilgrimage to Ann Arbor,” he says. “My brother and I made the rounds of used book stores. There are 25 book stores in a square mile. We went to the original Borders. My brother and I were in heaven.” He doesn’t recall at what age his book obsession began — it is one of those things that was just always there.
The Maywar brothers made the trip with their father, who taught sociology at a Michigan community college, and their mother, a social worker. Both parents were — and still are — book fiends. While some families send holiday letters detailing promotions and acquisitions, the Maywars circulate a list of all of the books they read in the preceding year — complete with recommendations.
“My dad read 85 books last year,” marvels Maywar. He says that his father reads just about equal amounts of fiction and non-fiction. At one time he was reading the biographies of each president in order. He persevered almost all the way to the end, but did have a difficult time finding worthy biographies of more obscure presidents like Polk and Tyler. “He stopped with Nixon,” says his son. “He found that biographies of modern presidents are too partisan.”
Maywar doesn’t even try to keep up with his parents’ reading habits. “With two kids, one and five, I’m too busy,” he says. But his father does pressure him on some books, and he often gives in.
Maywar has been in the bookstore business for six years. He came to it by predilection, but also by chance. He earned his bachelor’s degree in English and sociology from Kalamazoo College (Class of 1989) and then had a fine time working at this and that in various parts of the country while preparing submissions to graduate schools of writing. He was accepted at Western Michigan University, where he studied under Stu Dybeck and earned a master’s degree in fine arts. But one of his stopovers on the way had changed his life’s direction.
“I met my wife at South Street in Philadelphia,” he says. “I couldn’t live without her, so I moved out here, to Trenton.” He worked at a couple of corporate jobs, the last being market research at Ronin, the market research firm at 2 Research Way. Then an Episcopal minister he knew gave him his library when he was leaving town. He donated many books to his church’s flea market, and sold some more at other flea markets. As he was selling, he was also buying, and he ended up with a basement full of books.
“We’d have friends over,” he says. “They’d play Scrabble, drink wine, get drunk, and buy books.”
It was a small step from basement to bookstore. Before making the leap, though, Maywar did a little market research. He felt that “there was no use even trying in Princeton.” He quickly decided that, with Micawber, the U Store, and Witherspoon Art and Bookstore, there was no room for another store. He then cast his eye toward New Hope, where he estimated demand and potential revenue by counting people coming out of a bookstore with bags. Knowing that the average used book store customer spends $7 per visit, he multiplied the shoppers by that figure, and came up with a rough estimate of revenue.
“This is what we can expect,” he recalls thinking. “We can make this happen. This will be great. My wife and I — we didn’t have any kids yet — we’ll hang out.”
Then he and his wife, Donna Maywar, who works at Covance, started a family, and he lost his bookstore partner. “It was just me and friends who would work for books — but it’s not as hard as you think to find people who will work for books.”
New Hope wasn’t quite as good a location for a used book store as he had thought. “It’s great in the summer,” he says, “but the rest of the year, tumbleweeds go through.” And there was another problem, a bigger problem, and, he says, it taught him the most important retailing lesson he has learned.
“Don’t build in a flood plain,” is his advice. His store was flooded twice in one year. “We had notice. We saved all the books,” he says, “but we lost business. It took a year for business to come back.”
By chance, he had another place to move his books. The Trenton Downtown Association had recruited him for its retail incubator on Warren Street near the Marriott hotel. He opened there on the week before New Hope suffered its worst flood in 50 years, in April, 2005. Given warning that the Delaware was set to rampage, he moved his books from New Hope to that store, and never re-opened in the tourist town.
Still, dry or not, he was not sure of how well his new location would pan out. “I hadn’t done any market research in Trenton,” he says. “There wasn’t a bookstore, but I didn’t know if there shouldn’t be a bookstore, or if there was a need.”
He quickly found out that Trenton was an ideal spot for his bookstore — better than New Hope. “In New Hope,” he says, “if someone falls in love with your shop, he lives in New York, and you don’t see him for a year. In Trenton I have 30,000 state workers within six blocks. If you win a friend here, he’s here all the time. Lunchtime is effortless.”
These daytime Trentonians keep him hopping during the week. When they go home, he courts locals and people from surrounding towns with a Friday night chess and Scrabble club. His regulars come from as far away as New York City for the 6:30 p.m. to midnight sessions. “One guy drives down from Manhattan,” says Maywar. “He’s a book nut and a Scrabble nut.” Does he always win? “No,” he says. “He’s not a shark. He doesn’t memorize dictionaries.” That is the norm for the bookstore’s Scrabble players. “We’re more social,” he says, “not competitive. We meet with the Princeton club and a Levittown seniors club once a year. Princeton always wins. They’re really good.” (The Princeton group meets at the Borders bookstore on Route 1 on Tuesday evenings.)
In addition to Scrabble and chess night, Maywar uses book signings and poetry readings to bring in “the local folks.”
When he started out, Maywar planned to stock used books that people would buy for the pleasure of reading them. He had not expected to get involved in buying and selling rare and collectible books. “But,” he says, “the first time you come across something special, you fall in love.” His stock is still made up mostly of books ready to be taken home, read, and passed along — and priced at as little as $1. But he also has rare books, and they sometimes come packed in big cartons along with much more pedestrian wares.
He tells the story of his greatest find to date.
“It was a Saturday in New Hope, after the first flood,” he recounts. “We were jammed. A woman came in with a covered box. She just wanted to drop it off. She had just had a garage sale.” This type of drop off is common, he says. Some people want to be paid a little bit for their cast-off books, but others just want to get rid of them.
“She just took off,” says Maywar. The box sat unopened for weeks and weeks. Then, before the second flood, it was taken to the Trenton store along with lots more boxes. “The store was jammed,” he says.
When Maywar finally opened the box he found a first edition of “The Cat and the Hat” inside. “It’s worth between $3,500 and $7,000,” he says. Also in the box were a number of other children’s first edition classics, including works by Maurice Sendak valued at between $600 and $800.
He sells rare books like these in his store, and also on the Internet. He doesn’t have his own website, but rather sells through Abe Books, Alibris, Amazon, and Biblio. He recently listed a $200 Sherlock Holmes collection edited by Ellery Queen after his “mystery guys took a pass.” He estimates that about 20 percent of his sales are conducted through the Internet.
As for buying books, he says that he makes few forays into the market. “Books come to me,” he says. “Most of them come in when people are moving, downsizing.” He finds that area residents are big readers, amassing large collections. “I’m blessed that they read good books,” he says.
Art and history are big in his store, as are books by African Americans. So great is demand in the latter category that he bought out the entire stock of books in that genre from the Phoenix bookstore in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania.
No less smitten with books now that he is with them all day than he was as a boy on bi-annual trips to Ann Arbor, he says that “if you don’t love what you’re doing, you’re not doing something right.”
He says that selling books is not the route to a fortune, but that, on the plus side, it is a very inexpensive business to get into. That was especially true in his case. After years of collecting, he had all the inventory he needed. “I just had to get some shelves,” he says.
He encourages others to join him on Warren Street, and says that he is ready to help booksellers get started. He will contribute expertise, and also stock, to create a book zone in Trenton.
“My dream is to get more bookstores on the street,” he says. “Ten bookstores in five blocks, like Ann Arbor.”
Classics Used and Rare Books, 117 South Warren Street, Trenton 08608; 609-394-8400.