There’s a substantial amount of fresh paint and only a few empty shelves, accompanied by fruit, cookies, Gimme! coffee, and the hum of people mixing. It’s April 17 and the opening party for the new Bookery II. Upwards of thirty people came to the re-opened bookstore to send the business, and its owner, former Ithaca High School In School Suspension (ISS) teacher Gary Weissbrot, off with a cheer.
Not surprisingly, most party-goers were happy and enthusiastic about the bookstore’s rebirth. Jack Goldman, the former owner and current owner of the used bookstore, the Bookery I, said of the new store, “After twenty-five years, Bookery II died and went to heaven.”
Regardless of the Bookery II’s beauty, or of the number of dedicated Ithacans who came to its opening, the question remains as to how an independent bookseller can survive with such stiff competition from big box stores like Barnes and Noble and Borders. Barbara Mink, wife of Jack Goldman, succinctly said, “If enthusiasm and intelligence have any merit, then it will survive.”
Others looked at the Bookery II’s chances of survival from a practical perspective, citing the several allures of the new store. Gimme! coffee will be served, customer service will be exemplary, the New York Times bestsellers will be 20 percent off, and Weissbrot promises that the bookshelves will be stuffed.
Because former owner Goldman split his time between two stores, he couldn’t devote as much energy to customer service. But, according to John Dopyera, who works at Dewitt Mall and helped with remodeling of the store, “Gary has a different take on customer service. He knows he has a tough competitor, [although they don’t have] much customer service.”
Jarrett Villines, who was working at the opening, said that “Gary has a lot of energy that he’s willing to invest.” This energy will be manifested through other new ideas Weissbrot has to get people interested, such as weekly newsletters and author readings.
In light of the perils of running an independent bookstore, Weissbrot researched his decision extensively before reopening. He even went on a road trip, visiting college towns with thriving independent bookstores.
Weissbrot said that most of the businesses he encountered were in fact niche stores, but he did find a few models of sustainability. “I asked: how? ‘How come you’re a survivor? There’s a camaraderie…[the owners] spent hours advising [me].” The trip proved that independent bookstores can work and showed Weissbrot the techniques to make his store work.
After deciding to buy the store, Weissbrot got loans from friends and family, as well as the Ithaca Urban Renewal Agency. He then took time to restock and remodel. There is a new floor in some parts of the store, and one wall has been knocked down, giving the space a more open feel. At the opening, 12,000-14,000 books were on the shelves. Amazingly, the books went up in a matter of days, with Weissbrot’s minions working tirelessly to organize the stock. In the end, he hopes to have around 20,000 books filling the store.
Between large grins and frequent interruptions from attendees of the opening congratulating him on the new store, Weissbrot proclaimed, “I love independent bookstores.”