Eric Maywar is a born storyteller, so it is no surprise that visitors to Classics Books and Gifts at 4 West Lafayette Street in Trenton become friends. Until September the store was located at 117 South Warren Street, where it became known as “the” place to meet the most interesting people in Trenton. Now described as a “destination bookstore,” it is the place to enjoy and join in on poetry readings, musical performances, and Friday Night Scrabble, the store’s downtown tradition.
Maywar clearly lives and breathes books. Stories by favorite authors bubble through his conversation. He grew up in Michigan, where his father, the first of his family to go on to higher education, taught sociology at a community college. His mother was a social worker. You could say that social concerns are in Maywar’s blood, but it took him a while to recognize it.
Books were his first love: “When I was a kid, my parents, my brother, and I would go into Ann Arbor to visit the many specialty bookstores there. It was heaven. I had a romantic idea of what it would be like to own a bookstore, something along the lines of sitting in a corner surrounded by books and reading all day.” Maywar double-majored in literature and sociology at Michigan’s Kalamazoo College, graduating with a bachelor’s in 1989 before going on to an MFA in writing from Western Michigan University, which led him to the University of Pennsylvania in the summer of 1990.
It was in Philadelphia, some 20 years ago, that he met his wife and partner, Donna, who hails from Trenton, the town where they’ve made their home. Both were working for Tower Records at the time. They’ve been married for 16 years and have two children: Nia (11) and Noah (7). Nia’s name means “purpose” in Swahili. Noah’s was chosen in response to the flood the couple experienced in their first book shop in New Hope when Donna was pregnant. But we’re getting ahead of the story.
How did the couple become bookstore owners? By accident, says Maywar. When a local minister was leaving Trenton and selling his large collection of books, Eric couldn’t resist: “They were really good books and I bought the bulk of his collection hoping to sell them at a church fundraiser. We sold four books.” The couple was left with a truck load, and Eric started frequenting flea-markets, such as the Columbus market, to sell them. With a basement full of bookcases, Maywar began inviting friends and bookstore owners over: “We’d play Scrabble, and I’d ply them with wine until eventually people began asking me when I’d open a real bookstore.”
Given Maywar’s childhood dream, it was an idea that found purchase. Since he worked in market research, he asked a few colleagues to do a feasibility study. That confirmed what he already thought: a used bookstore in an affluent, arty, high-trafficked touristy town such as New Hope was a “no-brainer.” Donna kept her day job (she now works in human resources in the pharmaceutical industry, making sure that companies are equal employment opportunity compliant) while Eric jumped full-time into the book business. That was 15 years ago, and their first venture was the Book Cellar in New Hope by the Delaware.
Flooding was one reason the Maywars moved their business to Trenton. That and the Trenton Downtown Association (TDA), which, under the leadership of Matt Berkheiser, decided that Trenton needed an independent book store.
As Maywar tells it, the TDA reached out to a bunch of bookstore owners, but only three expressed interest. For the Maywars, the original idea was not to replace their book shop in New Hope but to add a second location. Eric would run the New Hope store while Donna would run the Trenton venue.
“Trenton’s demographics are great,” says Maywar. “There are 80,000 people living in a small area, and that number is increased by a further 20,000 who come here every day for work.” Still they had reservations. The turnover for businesses had always been high in the downtown area. But the couple found the TDA receptive to their concerns. “To minimize the risk, they came up with the concept of a co-op that would bring together a bookstore owner, an antiques dealer, and an art dealer to share the cost of renting space,” Maywar recalls. The art dealer turned out to be a no-show and the antiques dealer eventually dropped out.
But Classics Books found its niche as the only independent bookstore in Trenton: “The TDA were smart and flexible,” Maywar says. “They identified what and who they wanted and they helped make it happen. Bringing new businesses to downtown Trenton creates a sort of perpetual motion machine, a generator that revitalizes the city.” That was in 2005.
So, after two floods, the Book Cellar moved to Trenton to become Classics Books. This past September the store moved again, lock stock and barrel some 15,000 books and 60 bookcases carted from South Warren Street to West Lafayette, from a rented space to a building that Maywar co-owns with his wife, Donna, and his mother-in-law, Laurice Reynolds, who helps run the store during the week when Eric works as a project manager for Educational Testing Service. He mans the store on Friday nights and Saturdays.
The new building signals further deepening of the couple’s commitment to Trenton, where a second generation of Maywar bibliophiles is developing. “Nia just wants to read the books, but Noah is convinced he’s going to grow up and run the store,” says Maywar.
Back in 2005, any new business venture seemed risky, especially a used bookstore at a time when the prices of books were dropping because of the Internet. Things change, however, and Maywar has learned to live with and even embrace online businesses such as Amazon.com. Visitors to the Classics Books website can click on an Amazon button and make purchases for which Classics earns a small commission. As an independent, Classics Books offers a different experience.
Classics Books sells books of all kinds, but there are two sections that do better than others: African American titles and art books. State workers on their lunch break frequent the store on weekdays, and tourists staying at the Marriott hotel across the street find their way there on weekends. The arrangement by subject invites browsing from cookbooks to poetry, from philosophy to golf. There are children’s titles, science, history; something for everyone, including a section at the front of the store for books by local writers from Trenton, Princeton, and nearby places in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
Running a book store is a lifestyle choice. An acute observer of human nature, Maywar has found that the store attracts an eclectic mix of people who are open to community. “Book people are great; they are smart, perhaps because of all the books they read, and when they come into the bookstore they’re at their best; even the most crotchety of curmudgeons is happy browsing through books on a favorite topic.”
The book store has become a center where you will find board games atop piles of books. Local clubs meet there. Flyers promote local events such as the recent Holiday House Tour in Trenton’s historic Mill Hill district. Through its “Books at Home” program, the store supplies free books to Trenton schoolchildren for their home libraries. “That’s been going for the past six years, and in the first year we gave away some $4,000 worth of books,” says Maywar. The program operates on book and dollar donations (a big jar on the store counter) and an annual fundraiser. After one such successful event, some $10,000 worth of books was given away. “Teachers came by and loaded up their cars,” he recalls.
Like its previous incarnation on South Warren Street, the bookstore on Lafayette is a modest 1,000 square foot space but the layout is different. On Warren the store was long and narrow. Here there is room for bookshelves back to back, allowing for more titles. The new location has the bookstore on the first floor, office space let to the New Jersey Library Association on the second, and room for a rental apartment on the third: “Donna has big plans for a penthouse of sorts that would include a roof garden,” laughs Eric. You never know, it just might happen. This part of the city is being transformed, as the work going on outside the building testifies.
In 2006 Maywar went to work for the Trenton Downtown Association. Between then and 2011 he held a variety of positions with the organization, including the business development manager (serving as ombudsman and fixer for businesses located within the city’s Special Improvement District) as well as organizer and manager of Patriots’ Week, a six-day Revolutionary War festival. Under his leadership, the event grew in size and garnered the attention of local media and a mention in the New York Times.
A grant from the Princeton Area Community Foundation helped support the bookstore’s Friday night and Saturday events as well as the 2008 Trenton Book Fair, which featured Pulitzer Prize winners, HBO Def Poets, and local writers. Besides these, Maywar helped the Passage Theater Gala Committee bring in a $15,000 profit with its 2009 Fundraiser Gala.
For his efforts, Maywar has received recognition in the form of a 2011 Spirit of the Community Award from the community group Living a Powerful Life; a 2010 Spirit of the Community Award from Isles for community work and its Books at Home program, which also won a 2010 Key to Education Award from the Trenton Public Education Foundation. In 2009, he received an Ally of Humanity Award for community work from the nonprofit organization BOOST, and in 2008 the Trenton Council of Civic Associations named the bookstore its Business of the Year.
But more than awards, the best aspect of the store is the people it attracts, says Maywar. People such as visual artist and Scrabble champ Barbara Keogh (whose art work is displayed and who works several hours a week in the store) and Scrabble enthusiasts Dan and Sarah Robinson of Pennington, who have been visitors since the days of the Book Cellar in New Hope. “Now that Sarah and I have two kids, Abby is 2 and a half and Ethan is just nine months, we don’t get there quite as often but we love the place,” says Dan Robinson. “Abby will play scrabble with anyone who is willing.” Robinson works for Grapevine Visual Concepts designing trade show exhibits and is a talented origamist. “Book people form very tight bonds, and this is a great community,” he says.
Many of the bookstore’s regulars are artistically inclined. When asked for his take on the Trenton bookstore, renowned photographer Jon Naar E-mailed his list of “Ten Reasons to Love Classics and Eric Maywar.” Number one is that it is “one the rare places in downtown Trenton where you can interact cordially with members of all races, genders, and ages,” says Naar. As a resident of Trenton’s historic Mill Hill district, Naar lives within walking distance of the bookstore. He commends Eric for his knowledge of the store’s hundreds of book and for the lengths he will go to in locate “any used book you ask him to find.” Also a Scrabble player, Naar describes Maywar as a champion player and his favorite opponent to beat. “That very rarely happens,” he says.
Princeton poet and publisher Ellen Foos is also a fan. “Years ago, I got an invitation through a book group friend to go to a party in the basement of Eric’s home to play games and buy used books. I was impressed that he knew and loved so many games. Over the years I participated in his store-sponsored Scrabble tournaments and online Family Feud games. He is a master at building community (first) and customers (second). In 2008 I brought poets to the store to read and also participated in the book fair. In 2009 I helped a bit with the publication of the Trenton Review,” says Foos.
The store is at its busiest on Friday evenings and Saturday afternoons. The Friday night Scrabble tradition now draws an impressive range of aficionados, and each year the bookshop hosts a grand Scrabble tournament to which the top players are invited to compete. For that event a local soprano is brought it to sing the National Anthem “as befits a sporting event of this magnitude,” says Maywar.
One recent Saturday, author Carmen Rubin read her books “The Gifted Guitar” and “Ashti Meets Birdman Al.” Rubin has known Maywar for five years, since the publication of her first children’s book. “Eric very kindly offered to host a reading and book signing,” says the Manalapan author whose books are published by her own Peppermint Press.
After the reading, the visitors linger. The conversation ranges from jazz and jazz artists to art and aspirations for the future. Young listeners are engaged; adults delighted. This is what happens at Classics Books. The small space fosters immediate connections. As Naar put it “Classics Books is one of a dying breed of independent bookstores and the best one within 75 miles of Strand Books in New York City.”
Classics Books and Gifts, 4 West Lafayette Street, Trenton. Monday-Thursday, noon to 2 p.m.; Friday noon to 2 p.m., 6 p.m. to midnight; Saturday 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. 609-394-8400, firstname.lastname@example.org, or www.classicsusedbooks.com.