Four small suburban independent bookstores buck the trend and stay active and important to their communities
By John Addyman
“Everyone knows you can’t make money selling books,” she said.
Carrie Deming was sitting behind a table at her Palmyra bookstore, The Dog Eared Book. Next to her, on the floor, was Riley the dog — the star of the bookstore’s Facebook page — and he was snoring.
“This space became available to lease and my husband, Nick, and I decided to become complete lunatics and open a bookstore and see what happens,” she said.
Despite the common wisdom, Deming is one of four owners who are bucking a trend and managing small independent bookstores that are thriving because of smart merchandising, community service, and a thirst for overwhelming customer service.
These bookstores — and more dotted throughout the area — have an established customer base of middle-aged and older readers who would rather hold the book than look at a screen…who would rather talk to someone who has actually read the book instead of responding to a computerized rating algorithm…and who would like to browse and experience a shop that speaks to them.
“We’re really, really focused about what we put on the shelves,” said Bethany Bradley, owner of Stomping Grounds in Geneva. “Our selection is hyper-curated. I know how to buy books and I know what appeals to people. There was a moment in the early days of this store when I was trying to anticipate what other people wanted, rather than offering what I wanted to offer. I was trying to sense what customers were looking for, and there came kind of a tipping point where I realized that the thing about what makes Stomping Grounds special is my aesthetic, and my customers will find me.”
“Bookstores need to have their own niche and serve their communities,” said Kay Szewczuk from her White Paw Books & Curiosities shop in Newark. “You have to get to know what your community needs in a bookstore. Make sure the community is supportive of it.
“It doesn’t matter how much you love the books or love the idea of selling books, if people don’t come in to buy your books, it’s not a bookstore. When we opened, we had a lot more ‘general’ books; now we’ve got a lot more science fiction and fantasy because we have gotten a lot of requests for them. Make sure you hear what the community wants.
“That community interaction is so important,” Szewczuk said. “Connecting with the schools, connecting with the chamber of commerce, connecting with other businesses in the area…we try really hard to collaborate with other businesses. That goes really well.”
“I love books,” said John Cieslinki, owner of Books ETC. in Macedon. “I love being surrounded by such intelligence. The books offer a particular spirit to any bookstore that other stores don’t have.”
Cieslinski has watched Deming establish her Palmyra Dog Eared Book store, which is about to move down the block into a much bigger space on April 25, and is keenly aware of what Szewczuk is doing in Newark.
“Three bookstores in a row in Wayne County,” he said. “That’s magic.”
Independent bookstores have to be nimble and frankly, have to do more than just sell books to survive.
“You’ve got to have the frills,” said Cieslinski. For him, that means offering a comfortable, living room-like space in the back of his shop where people can socialize, have a cup of coffee, and enjoy his two store cats. Books ETC has a monthly list of meetings for poets, people searching for a healthy lifestyle, shaman drumming, local artists, aging issues, sketchers and his favorite, discussions about abundance.
“The idea of our abundance workshops is to take all the teachings of the self-help gurus and renew them on a weekly basis to renew positive thinking in each person,” he explains. “I try to keep people positive, accepting of themselves, knowing their power.”
Books ETC had 18 special sessions scheduled for February.
“John has a very ‘social’ bookstore,” Szewczuk said, “with a lot of conversations and meetings where they do plays and exercises and spiritual stuff. He has so many groups that meet there. The social interaction of a bookstore — that’s their thing.”
Bradley had run Kavanagh Books in Palmyra for eight years before moving to Geneva so she and her husband, James Haswell, had about the same commute to work.
“When we started Stomping Ground, the focus was not on the books, the focus was on fine art reproduction of antique maps and photographs, and framing. That’s why the business is named ‘Stomping Grounds’: we were representing the local community in terms of illustrations and maps.
“I happened to have some books left over, either from reproducing images from them or from my previous life as a bookseller, so we threw some of them on the sales floor and we had such a strong response, I just kept adding more. At one point, I told James I don’t want to be in the book business anymore, but we looked at the numbers and we realized that we had gotten to the point where we couldn’t afford to drop the books.”
Now the Stomping Ground’s framing section is about a quarter of the store, but the books — that hyper-curated selection— features new books, rare books, and good-quality used books Bradley lovingly restores and spiffs up, using skills she learned in working with John Westerberg at the old Yankee Peddler bookstore in Ontario. Artists’ supplies and gift items fill out the rest of the inventory in an airy shop.
Deming, too, sells new and used books, with an occasional rare book offered. And on any given day, the commerce can be swift.
“People bring in books for us to buy,” she said. “It would be great if more people did. We’re always sourcing used books. Getting quality used books keeps us busy. New books come directly from the publisher or there’s one distributor we order from. The rare books are the hardest to fund, for sure. Most of those come from people walking in or from estate sales. Unfortunately, people think that just because a book is old it’s rare, and that’s just not the case.
“People really like first editions and if it’s signed, all the better. We like books that are attractive — nice leatherbound editions, that kind of thing. Within the age of the internet, they say nothing is really rare anymore — if you want to find a Gutenberg Bible, you can. We also deal with a lot of rare Church of the Latter-Day Saints materials because there’s such a high demand for it here.” Deming said her children’s book section is vital and expanding and she sells a lot of unique baby shower gifts. And for adults, her “sassy socks” collection with R-rated content is a sales winner.
Just as Books ETC. often hosts local writers, the Dog Eared Book also stresses getting local — and national — authors in front of audiences. Deming said a Harry Potter night filled the shop to capacity, and “New York Times” best-selling author Bridget Kemmerer’s visit last year was a high point.
White Paw Books & Curiosities hosts groups more often than others because the shop highlights board and card games like “Magic: The Gathering.” Szewczuk’s husband, Graham Tedesco-Blair, the former director of the Newark Library, is a gamer. They welcome groups of gamers, and every Friday night the store is super-active.
“There isn’t a store with this kind of entertainment in Newark,” Szewczuk explained. “When we opened, we didn’t know if we were going to include antiques because an antiques store had just closed in Newark.” A games store had similarly shuttered. “We knew diversification would be really important in a small town like Newark. If we stuck to one thing, we wouldn’t have broad appeal.”
“People want a ‘third place,’” said Deming, “a place where you can go that’s not home, not work, where you can be comfortable, where you can attend an event or talk about your passion — which in our case is books [or games] — so the store becomes a community hub.”
Szewczuk stressed that someone’s passion for a subject can be answered by a knowledgeable bookstore. “A woman came in and she was really trying to find out stuff about druids and ancient religions. We had a couple of books for her here. But she was trying to get a lot more than that. We sent her to John at Books ETC. because he does a lot with spirituality and religion. I told the woman, ‘This is where you need to go. This is the guy who knows.’”
All four booksellers stress individuality and customer service skills as their strengths, but also recognized that tourism is a big factor in their sales.
“The Finger Lakes are really taking off in terms of annual visitations,” said Bradley. “People are coming here from all over the world. It’s surprising where they’re coming from. They’re here for the wine, the scenery, and the agritourism — the hiking and biking. It’s really stunningly beautiful here.”
She also had advice for anyone considering jumping into a business that requires such complete dedication: “Care about your customers honestly and truly. Be excited about what they’re excited to read. They can tell if you care or don’t care. Never, ever complain to a customer about something that’s going on behind the scenes. Never make your problem the customer’s problem.”
“A lot of people who talk about opening a bookstore think it’s an easy job where you can just sit and read all day,” added Deming. “I work more hours and for way less money than I’ve ever worked in my life. You never have time to read a book during the day — ever. In fact if you do have that kind of time, it’s going badly. It’s an all-in job. You have to be really dedicated to it. If you have a passion for it, go for it. If you think you’re going to open up a book store and get rich, you’re not you’re definitely not.”
“People who come in here tend to be middle-aged or older,” said Cieslinski. “The most remarkable thing about our store is that cell phones don’t work in our meeting room. That means we have to rely on the very, very old technology of conversation. And conversation — I don’t care if you’re talking on the phone for hours — it’s not the same as talking face-to-face with someone and experiencing that. Even gaming: you can be online with people in Russia or China, but to sit with people and play that game with people right there, and laugh and talk with people it’s vital.”
Photo: Back room at bookstore Books ETC in Macedon. The store holds a monthly list of meetings for poets, people searching for a healthy lifestyle, shaman drumming, local artists, etc.