Running the Cranbury Bookworm has been a labor of love for more than 30 years. Today the unusual bookstore in the historic district of Cranbury continues almost unchanged despite the sudden death of its founder, Ralph Schremp, in 2002.
After Ralph Schremp died of a heart attack at the age of 57 while on a house call to buy old books, his best friend, Larry Feldman of Plainsboro, took over the management of the business. “It just happened,” he says. Anne Schremp, Ralph’s widow, agreed. “It wasn’t a formal decision; there was no contract,” she says. “It just evolved.”
There was no question of Anne running the business. She had her own career as a nurse practitioner for a health care company in Piscataway and is the author of a law book on medical issues that she updates annually. She’s also mom to the Schremps’ son, Jamie, who is now a student at Mercer Community College.
Feldman, 55, was already running two businesses — a contract cleaning company in Princeton that his father had owned, Princeton Building Maintenance at 3490 Route 1, and an antiques/collectibles company. But because the Feldmans and the Schremps had become like family over a period of more than 20 years, with close friendships and shared interests on many levels among all the members of two generations, Feldman’s decision to keep the book store running was made with little debate.
It helped that Andrew Feldman, Larry’s oldest son, now 26, fell in love with the business at the age of 15 and has worked there ever since — at first, part time while in school, and full time when he graduated. The knowledge and experience Andrew has amassed over the years contribute to his ability to handle house calls, negotiate with dealers, and work on the day-to-day details of the business.
The staff who worked with Ralph have stayed on and Feldman attributes the store’s success to this continuity and to faithfulness to Ralph’s philosophy. “To Ralph,” says Feldman, “the business was about relationships. He loved his customers and would do anything for them. Some people are regulars, coming in weekly and even daily for buying and browsing. Here there are no coffees, no signings, no speakers, just lots of interesting books and people who care.”
The inventory includes some 100,000 books, priced from many thousands of dollars to six books for a dollar, he says. A recent Anita Shreve hardcover in excellent condition was 25 cents. A seventeenth century German book sold for $8,000.
Among those who browse the shelves are dealers from many states and collectors who come for discovery. There is no catalog, so everyone — casual buyer and professional alike — has to browse the shelves.
Both Feldman and Anne Schremp speak of feeling Ralph’s presence whenever they are in the store. “I can’t be here without his being here,” Feldman says.
“Ralph’s memory in the shop informs our decisions,” his wife says. “Sometimes I even hear him talk. He also lives on through his art.” His woodcuts, ceramics, and photography have been exhibited in museums in Canada, where the Schremps enjoyed a second home in Newfoundland.
Anne and Ralph met in 1976 when she came into the store to buy a children’s book. At that time the bookstore shared the downstairs of the two-story building on Main Street with the Cranbury City Hall and other offices, while upstairs were single room occupancy tenants.
Schremp’s lifetime love of books began when he was growing up in Rahway and a neighbor, a teacher, spurred an interest in reading and collecting. His father was a collector of coins and other objects. As a boy, Schremp would go with his father to flea markets to sell books. After graduating from Rutgers, he was teaching English in the South Brunswick schools when he opened the store, but as the business grew he decided to devote all his time to it.
While Feldman describes his friend as “laid back,” Schremp also managed to run a 12-acre farm he and Anne owned on Petty Road on the Plainsboro-Cranbury border and would bring fresh produce into the store in season.
“Ralph had an interesting style,” says Feldman. “He was always concerned about everyone else, his customers, employees, friends. He was a farmer and businessman. He knew how to bond with people. And he knew so much about so many things.”
“The Bookworm never made us wealthy,” Anne says, “but it brought a special richness into our lives. Ralph saw it as a place where intelligent people could gather and relate. His vision was a light in the darkness where people come to see each other as well as to see what new books have come in.”
She talks about two shy people who would come in every Sunday to see each other, and who eventually married.
While much of the store’s inventory is amassed during home visits to people who are selling collections of various sizes, Larry has continued Ralph’s policy of open houses for sellers at the shop on alternate Sundays.
“‘If you need a book, you go to Barnes & Noble or the library,’” he quotes one customer as saying. “Here you come for discovery. There are always new discoveries.”
Anne Schremp won’t discuss the future of the Cranbury Bookworm. “Who can predict the future after what happened to Ralph,” she says. “We lived in the moment — we traveled, we didn’t wait until magical retirement. We made everything happen and that’s what I’m doing now.”
Meanwhile, Feldman is ready to pass on lessons he learned through running a business without even a week’s notice — let alone a business plan:
The skills of running a business are transferable. “I’ve been a business person all my life,” he says. “I didn’t want to see this end, but my regular business is a service business. Retail is totally different. We need to be sure that the books keep coming in.”
Review the records and the systems to familiarize yourself with the operation. In the case of the Cranbury Bookworm this took almost a whole year. “But we couldn’t skip a beat,” says Feldman. “There wasn’t time to plan. We had to be sure the employees were paid, that bills were taken care of. We just jumped right in.”
If the business is successful, don’t change too much. The Cranbury Bookworm hasn’t changed in 30 years.
Be willing to give up your free time and make a lot of sacrifices. “But if you love what you’re doing,” says Feldman, “all of this is fun. And it gets easier.”
Have a supportive family. “My wife of 30 years, Jane, is as committed to the endeavor as I am,” says Feldman, “and her support is more than just emotional. She helps with the pricing and other hands-on chores as well.”
It’s all based on relationships. “Ralph and I were friends,” says Feldman. “Jane and Anne are friends. Anne and I are friends. Our children were part of this.” Then there are the relationships built up over the decades with customers, book dealers, and collectors. Ralph is gone, but the relationships continue.
Cranbury Book Worm, 54 North Main Street, Cranbury 08512; 609-655-1063.