Officially, Ezra Goldstein and Stephanie Valdez have owned the Community Bookstore in Brooklyn, N.Y., for just under two years. But they've been running the shop for closer to five, and in that time, they've managed to pull the 42-year-old bookstore from the proverbial fire.
In 2007, Goldstein recounted, the store was in bad shape; closure was a very real possibility until a group of "angel investors" in the store's Park Slope neighborhood stepped forward and offered to invest in the store. At around the same time, Valdez and Goldstein, both friends of Community Bookstore's previous owner, stepped in to run the store.
"They thought it was their moral duty to keep the store around," said Valdez, of the community members who invested in the bookshop. Most remain loyal customers, though some have since moved from the neighborhood. Their role, the owners assure, is very, very informal.
Neither Valdez nor Goldstein had experience running a bookstore, although Valdez had worked as a bookseller at Borders. Her other work experience included several retail jobs and a position at a finance startup; Goldstein, meanwhile, had worked for 25 years as a freelance writer. They joined Community Bookstore, they said, because it was their local bookstore and a "vital institution."
"We sort of see ourselves as stewards," Valdez said. Added Goldstein: "We came in to make sure the store was still here."
Community Bookstore has changed significantly since Valdez and Goldstein took the helm. Among their first challenges as owners was figuring out what to do with the menagerie; the previous owner had kept two dogs, two cats, a bearded dragon, a bunny and two turtles in the shop. It got so bad that a former staff member had joked that his real job was zookeeper. Eventually, the bunny was adopted, the bearded dragon was taken in by a local school and the two dogs went to previous owner's mother. Community Bookstore now has just one cat, along with two turtles that live in a pond in the store's back courtyard.
During their first year as owners, they put all money made back into inventory. As the inventory grew, sales increased proportionally. Valdez and Goldstein have seen steady growth over the past three years and, since they took over, sales have nearly doubled.
"The neighborhood was hungry for a serious bookstore," said Goldstein. "It's a community of readers and writers. It's not unusual for customers to ask about which translations we prefer for Swann's Way or The Master and Margarita. We had a big discussion the other week about The Iliad; customers chimed in and gave their recommendations. It shows what kind of community we have."
The pair spent all of 2012 renovating Community Bookstore. They overhauled the interior, buying new furniture, putting in new flooring, getting rid of a 20-year-old carpet, scrapping what was left of an old kitchen and cafe and installing new shelving. The plan for 2013 was simple: focus on selling books. Then Terrace Books came up.
Leonora Stein, the owner of Babbo's Books in nearby Windsor Terrace, approached Valdez and Goldstein for help with finding a buyer for her used bookstore. Valdez and Goldstein visited, initially with no intention of buying, but found a situation not dissimilar to what they'd seen at Community Bookstore before taking over.
"Things were sort of cluttered and disorganized," recalled Valdez, who had just moved to Windsor Terrace. "We thought we could fix it up and organize things. And we couldn't consciously let it close. Especially not a used bookstore; with so many new bookstores flourishing in the past few years, many old used stores have died out. We did not want to let another go down."
Valdez and Goldstein bought the 400-square-foot store earlier this year, renaming it Terrace Books. Valdez's boyfriend runs the shop day to day ("It's a small store--kind of a one person job," Valdez said), while Goldstein ferries books between the two stores via bicycle. She added: "Next year, hopefully, we can just spend time selling books."
Compared to Community Bookstore, Terrace Books hosts smaller, less frequent, neighborhood-centric events. Community Bookstore, on the other hand, hosts an average of about three events per week at various venues. Most events are held in store, but three or four times per month, Community Bookstore hosts large off site events as part of the Brooklyn by the Book reading series.
Events coordinator Michele Filgate, Community Bookstore co-owner Ezra Goldstein, Eleanor Catton, Community Bookstore co-owner Stephanie Valdez. photo: bookseller Allison Devers
On November 4, in her only U.S. appearance, this year's Booker Prize-winner Eleanor Catton read from her novel The Luminaries (Little, Brown) to a packed house at Community Bookstore. Dub Pies, a Manhattan bakery specializing in Australian- and New Zealand-style meat pies, provided food. Last month, the store hosted Diane Ravitch, author of Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America's Public Schools (Knopf) at Congregation Beth Elohim, a neighborhood synagogue. Ravitch drew close to 900 people, outdoing both Donna Tartt and Michael Chabon. Valdez said, laughing: "People joked that we drew every teacher in Brooklyn."
The store's biggest event ever was the 40th anniversary party, held in 2011. Some 1,200 people gathered at a nearby church to celebrate the milestone and hear several local authors (and regular customers), including Nicole Krauss, Paul Auster and Jonathan Safran Foer, read from their favorite books published in the last 40 years. "We'd never done a huge event like that," said Goldstein. "We were thrilled and shocked by the turnout."
This December, Goldstein and Valdez will have owned the store for two years. Given the frantic holiday selling season, though, they'll be too busy for a big anniversary party. Their tradition now is to open a bottle of champagne behind the counter, make a toast, and get back to selling books. --Alex Mutter