Book Store Still Booming after 25 Years

By Emily Krohn

Tucked between an empty storefront and a boutique that sells jewelry and novelty pictures is a small, unobtrusive bookstore called bookbook. Located on the southern end of Bleecker Street in New York City’s West Village, bookbook has become a popular spot for locals and visiting tourists to the area.

On warm days, customers mingle on the sidewalk, casually flipping through stacks of sale books that are piled four deep on a card table that straddles in the inside and outside of the storefront. With their selections in hand, they then step through the door and into the main bookstore, which is covered in wall-to-wall books. Signs hang from the shelves and the ceiling, displaying names like “Children’s Books”, “Cookbooks”, or “History” for their respective areas.

A customer, toting a furry white dog named Oliver on a leash, stops to talk to the owners of the store. One of the owners slips the dog a biscuit and pats him on the head before the pair walk out the door.

With every purchase, a customer is handed a bookmark that doubles as a business card with the store’s business information on it. There is an easy-going atmosphere in this bright book covered space. Mega bookstores in NYC like Barnes&Noble and Borders can’t offer the same personalization as bookstores like bookbook can. In fact, its rare to find a bookstore where customers (and their pets) are greeted by name, employees are treated like friends, and the owners joke about their own business faults.

“If you want to make money, don’t go into the book business,” said Chuck Mullen, 59, with a laugh.

As one of the owners of bookbook, Mullen certainly understands the ups and downs of owning an independent store. He and his partner, Carolyn Epstein, 61, have been selling books on Bleecker Street for 25 years.

“Most people who are in the book business weren’t business majors,” said Mullen, “It’s a family based business. My mother had a bookstore in Long Island from the early 60’s through the 1990’s. I helped do all the daily work.”

This past fall, though, the pair uprooted their original store, Biography Bookshop (originally located on Bleecker and 11th), and moved it down the block.

bookbook still

A customer peruses some of the books in bookbook.

“It’s still Greenwich Village, not Missouri. We’re just down the road,” said Mullen.

With the change in location came a change in identity. Biography Bookshop is now doing business as bookbook and has had equal success in its move south.

“We [originally] specialized in biographies. 25 years ago biographies were really popular on the New York Times bestseller list. Over the last 18 to 20 years, it’s become more of a general book store,” said Carolyn Epstein.

The new store is about 400 square feet with a 600 square foot basement for overstock and other supplies. Its storefront has glass-paneled doors that fold in to allow a seamless transition from the inside of the store to their sidewalk sale books outside. On nice days, bookbook employees move some of the tables inside the store out on to the general thoroughfare. Customers peruse these books and are often intrigued enough by the finds outside to step right into the store itself.

Mullen and Epstein live right up the block and walk to and from work daily. They, along with a handful of part-time employees, sell, organize, and hunt down books for their various customers. In fact, the store is open seven days a week until 10 or 11 at night to ensure optimal book buying time.

Bookbook also keeps close tabs on book trends. Mullen buys the new books, often searching the New York Times Book Review, publishers or backlists for what is popular or up-and-coming in the book world.

“As a small store, we kinda do everything. We’re more in touch with what’s selling as regular books,” said Epstein.

The layout of the store, according to Mullen, is a work-in-progress. Every inch of possible indoor space is used. The walls, which are covered in pale wooden shelving about 8 feet high, are laden with literature. From children’s books to coffee table clunkers, bookbook is far from lacking variety, especially when it comes to sale books.

“We do very well with our sales books. We buy them at a discount and are very picky about what we buy. We take into consideration what we sell. It’s more about the book itself,” said Epstein.

bookbook sale books

Sale books are stacked high on a table inside bookbook.

These sale books are not used books, as many would assume. They are actually remainder books and their sale contributes to a big part of bookbook’s revenue. According to the Independent Online Booksellers Association, remainders are new books returned to the publisher as unsold, then resold at a discounted price.

The distributers of these books sell them to remainder houses that in turn sell to bookstores. These books often are “marked” by a slash, stamp or another visible sign at the bottom of the book. However, remainders are non-returnable so whatever bookbook chooses to buy, they have to sell or risk losing profit.

“I’m really aggressive about buying [remainders],” said Epstein.

Richard Epstein, Carolyn’s brother, works part time at the store, helped the shop switch locations, and doles out his own book philosophy from behind the counter. Having worked as a book sales representative for 26 years, he said that personalization is key when it comes to owning a book business.

“If [bookbook doesn’t] have a book, they’ll call the other bookstores in the neighborhood to get the book,” he said.

On the chance that they do not carry the book or cannot find it in the neighborhood, they don’t have to wait long to order and receive it. Shipments of books come almost daily from distributers. The books are then priced and restocked on the shelves or placed in the basement storage area.

The book business, according to Epstein, is a mark down business. Sale paperbacks are marked down 40%, and all hard covers receive a 20% discount. The store does not specialize in selling particular brands or types of books.

bookbook still

Customers browse for books in the back of bookbook.

“We don’t carry used or rare books. We will occasionally get a first edition. It’s a funny thing. Other parts [of the book business] don’t know what [the others] do all day. People sell different kinds of books, “ said Mullen.

With the new location of the bookstore came a change in bookbook’s demographic. Because Bleeker Street is littered with specialty food stores and is part of a weekly food-based tour through the West Village, bookbook has begun marketing themselves as a reliable stop, offering tour goers a 10% discount.

“It’s a big ‘foodie’ street. We’ve started selling more cookbooks. You have to diversify. We sell based off of the neighborhood.”

Though this laid back attitude may have caused the downfall of other business, it has been successful for bookbook and continues to help it operate in these tough economic times.

“We don’t push books on people. We don’t have a strict business model. This is who we are,” said Mullen.

bookbook is located at 266 Bleecker Street, New York, New York.

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