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.
Glen Echo Books: Firmly Rooted, Hoping to Grow
Deb Hunter has come up with a way – actually two ways – to cash in on the tide of retiring Baby Boomers. She is going to sell to them, and, at the same time, have them sell for her. Later on this summer she will open the first of what she hopes will be a large chain of independent bookstores in small towns favored by retiring Boomers. But she isn’t going to run the stores.
"I’m going to set them up and stock them," she says, "and then I’ll sell them as turnkey operations. The owners can only buy their books from me."
She expects that her idea will appeal to Boomers as both readers and would-be entrepreneurs. After all, a number of these folks, who are very possibly the last generation to grow up with reading as a major recreational activity, will enjoy browsing for good books when their 9-to-5 lives are behind them. Others will undoubtedly want something to do – and perhaps extra income – in retirement. And some of the places to which they are retiring, little towns in the south, for example, don’t have a bookstore.
Filling the gap by providing both books and an opportunity to sell them, Hunter is opening her first Boomer-destination bookstore in Hardy, Arkansas, where, she says, "there isn’t a bookstore within 30 miles."
She came to know the town when former neighbors from Hillsborough moved there. They will be her partners in her newest venture, and there is early evidence that the idea will fly. "We already have a bid on the Hardy store," she says, "and it isn’t even open yet."
Closer to home, Hunter has opened her second bookstore in a burgeoning retirement center, but hardly an obscure one. Her Glen Echo bookstore opened at 14 Nassau Street in the fall. It joins Chicklet, a Hillsborough bookstore that carries a full range of books with a special emphasis on books for "moms and kids." That store has been open for two years.
Hunter describes Chicklet as "fun and funky." Her Princeton store, she says, "has a different clientele, more highbrow." Glen Echo shoppers are "as eclectic as you possibly can be." They are snapping up "classics, best sellers, kids, photography, architecture."
Hunter went on the prowl for a Princeton location to take advantage of these enthusiastic readers, and also to have a second space. "I buy books in large quantities," she explains.
By large, she means by the tractor trailer load. She learned about the existence of these huge shipments of books during the five years she worked at an area book warehouse she says she cannot name. Returning to work after raising three children, she took a job as a bookkeeper at the warehouse, but "the owner was a control freak," she says. He would not let anyone touch his books, but did find another role for Hunter. "I was good at sales," she says. So she was dispatched to trade shows and the like to win customers.
By the time that she was ready to go out on her own Hunter had learned that every publisher sells "remainders, hurts, and returns" by the truckload to the highest bidder. She says that the cost of a typical truckload is "about what you’d pay for a high-end SUV, for a Volvo SUV."
Taking a mortgage on her house, Hunter bought books by the truckload, and stored them in two warehouses, one in New Jersey and one in Kentucky. The books that ride in the tractor trailers are all over the place. They can be any genre, and they need sorting. She has hired a warehouse manager and "a guy who off-loads" the trucks. Happily, the manager "knows these people," she says. His contacts come in when needed to do the sorting.
The cost of living is lower in Kentucky, so labor costs less than it would in the Northeast. Kentucky is also a good spot for a book warehouse, she says, because the rent is relatively low and it is centrally located in relation to the states from which most books begin their penultimate journeys – generally Indiana and Tennessee.
Hunter makes a trip to Kentucky about once a month, but filling her warehouse is more difficult – and a little more expensive – than it was when she first got into the business. "A lot of people want the books," she says. "It’s gotten much more competitive." It used to be that bookstore and book warehouse owners would be the main bidders, but now, she says, "anyone with money can bid." What’s worse, "the big players get contracts. They say `I’ll take every load.’"
For the most part Hunter has been cut out of the direct bidding and now deals with contractors. She asks "Do you have more in your warehouse than you can handle?" and scoops up the excess. She also shops "title by title" from the lists that every warehouse generates after it sorts its latest shipment. When that is not enough to fill her stores – or customers’ requests – she makes the rounds of other warehouses. "I tromp through with boxes," she says. Most of the warehouses are nearby, but she "flies to one or two," including a Boston warehouse with a specialty in children’s books.
These trips will remain necessary for Chicklet, but not so much for Glen Echo. Another reason she opened the Princeton store is that Chicklet’ customers kept asking if she could re-sell their books – or just take them. Space limitations made that impossible, and she wanted a location where she could take second-hand books. She is getting such an in-flow of these books – including textbooks and review copies – at Glen Echo that they take up most of her space.
In fact, she got lots of extra space for books from all sources – a totally unexpected bonus – with her Princeton location. She had told her manager, Rosemary Fogelson, Princeton resident and eclectic, knowledgeable reader, that she wanted anything in the town – anything at all, even a hole in the wall. "What she found was a hole in the ground," says Hunter.
She was originally to occupy the underground space that was until recently the home of Witherspoon Art and Bookstore. A wonderful warren of book crannies tucked in and around an old bank vault, Hunter describes it as "claustrophobic." But she was, nevertheless, happy to have the opportunity to set up shop there. Then, before she could move in, the landlord told her that he didn’t want retail there. He offered her a space around the corner, and right on Nassau Street, instead. He also threw in the other space for non-retail use. It is now her second warehouse, and has given her enough room so that she has been able to get rid of her former New Jersey warehouse.
Hunter now has plenty of space, but is very short on time. In addition to the two local bookstores, the store about to open in Arkansas, and her plan for a Boomer book chain, she owns a gift shop, the Purple Door, in Hillsborough. And on Saturday evenings she travels to Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania, where she stays from 9 p.m. to 8 a.m. as her husband’s night nurse. Stan Hunter, formerly a product manager with Williams, a telecom company, was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease eight years ago and has been hospitalized. Paralyzed, he is able to "read and watch movies, speak, and blink his eyes," says Hunter.
While many people sell books because of a life-long love of reading, Hunter got into the business for a more basic reason. "We need the money to pay my husband’s medical bills," she says. "We’re in survival mode."
By "we," she means herself and her children, all of whom are part of her growing retail operation. Her oldest daughter, Lauren, does all of the stores’ graphic design, including newsletters, when she is not working at one of her other two jobs or studying for a graduate degree in criminology at John Jay College. Stephanie manages the Purple Door, and Scott stocks shelves and works in the Princeton warehouse sorting books. "He hates it, but he does it," says his mother.
For the longest time, Hunter did not have time to read. "I’d go for months without having a book in my hands," she says. "Books became a commodity." Now, however, she is reading again. "I’m reading across the board," she says. "From the sixth grade to best sellers."
She is becoming familiar with the books her customers crave, and she is also learning that selling books, the retail niche she pretty much fell into, is hot. It appears that tiny towns in Arkansas are not the only places starved for bookstores of their own. "A town in New Jersey is soliciting me," says Hunter. "They want me to open a bookstore, and they’re making it worth my while."
Glen Echo Books, 12 Nassau Street, Princeton 08542; 609-921-2268. Rosemary Foglesong, manager. www.chickletbooks.com
Chestnut Tree’s Old World Legacy
`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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