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January 9, 2014

Why Should We Care About Bookstores? Who Reads Anymore, Anyway?

By Joan Brunwasser

Bookstores are considered a dying species despite the role they have played in communities as centers for the exchange of information and ideas.I can't predict the future but for people who enjoy the bookstore experience-browsing for books,discussing them with other book-lovers,acquiring them for their libraries-I suggest they take advantage of their existence while they still can. Future alternatives might not be as much fun

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Originally Published on OpEdNews


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"I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library."   Jorge Luis Borges

My guest today is John Doyle of Crawford Doyle Booksellers.  Welcome to OpEdNews, John.

Joan Brunwasser: You're a long-time co-owner of an independent bookstore on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. How did this come about?

John Doyle: My wife, Judy, and I decided to open the store in 1995 after my retirement from IBM. Both of us love books and I wanted to do something free from the constraints of corporate life:  no more committee meetings.

JB: What did the two of you know about running a bookstore before you got started?

JD:  I joined the American Booksellers Association while I was still working for IBM in Japan. We attended several of its annual book fairs while on vacation and I kept up on the literature for several years.  When we returned to New York, I worked as an intern at two book stores to gain first-hand experience. I am not sure whether it was valuable--both of them failed!  We also hired a consultant who helped guide our initial decisions.

JB: How did you settle on a location? Wasn't choosing Manhattan a bit daunting for such newbies?

JD: Judy and I walked the streets in various parts of Manhattan, looking for a suitable location. As luck would have it, one of the stores where I had served as an intern closed and the space became available.  We lived nearby and jumped at the chance to obtain it.  The store is only a block from the Metropolitan Museum. A bookstore has existed on this block since 1938. We wanted to keep the tradition alive and had little doubt that this was the best location in Manhattan for the kind of store we had in mind.  

JB: Serendipity - don't you love it?  So, how did it go?  

JD:  Everything went well from the start. Judy and I threw ourselves into every aspect of launching the store. We hired a first-rate architect to design the space, found a master cabinet-maker to build the fixtures, hired an experienced designer, Louise Fili, to design the logo and choose the typeface for our bookmarks and other graphic materials, and were fortunate to persuade Dot McCleary, a fixture at the previous store, to join our enterprise. A young man, Thomas Talbot, slipped a resume under the door and we had the good sense to hire him. In due course, he became the store manager and has guided the business ever since. Once we opened, we relied upon a wonderful group of neighbors whose book preferences helped us choose our inventory, decide on the authors we wanted to feature, and reaffirmed our decision to concentrate on meaningful, high-quality fiction and non-fiction books.


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JB:  Wise move, that:  surrounding yourselves by high-quality people. That was almost twenty years ago. How has the book selling business changed in that time?

JD: Until now, I would say the book selling business has not changed much for us. We opened our store the same year that Barnes & Noble started its expansion and Amazon began to sell books on the Internet.  So we have faced this competition from the beginning.  Many independent bookstores in Manhattan have gone out of business, including some notable nearby stores.  But our business has developed a loyal set of customers, many who live in the neighborhood, and some from out-of-town or from Europe. They continue to stick with us although many tell us they have electronic reading devices and use them sometimes while traveling. 

Change in the last ten years has certainly affected our suppliers--the publishers--who are undertaking drastic restructuring, cost-cutting, and draconian price-cutting of their books produced in electronic form. They have been able to accomplish this by retaining high prices on printed books. The huge difference in price between digital books and paper books theoretically should result in driving bookstores such as ours out of business.  But most of our customers have recently been telling us they don't get the same experience reading from a screen that they do from a real book.  I would say the jury is still out on the future demise of real books and of real bookstores.

"You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me."  C.S. Lewis

JB: What kinds of "extras" does Crawford Doyle Booksellers offer, besides, of course, the benefit of getting to hold, smell and peruse actual hard copies of books? 

JD: The founding principle of our business has been to help our customers personally to secure whatever books they want, whether in print or out-of-print, whether they remember the titles and authors or have only a vague hunch about them, or whether they simply are searching for something to read that they will enjoy.  The members of our staff are widely knowledgeable about books, of course, but their success results from matching this knowledge to the often undefined wishes of the customers.  Acts of clairvoyance must occur regularly for us to be successful! We believe our skill at stocking really good books in our limited space also makes it fun for customers who want to browse by themselves. They don't have to sort through stacks of publishers' promotional materials to find an interesting book. Customer service is the "extra" we offer. It means focusing respect, concentration, and inspiration on every single customer--in person, on the phone, on the internet, or in our newsletters.

JB: Sounds divine! I happened upon your shop when I was in NYC several weeks ago, visiting my son. I was wandering down the street, stalling before meeting a friend, and I was magically drawn inside. I immediately sensed what a special space it is and would have happily stayed there for hours, had time allowed. Within seconds, I found three books that I was dying to read, so yes, you make very good use of your limited space.  Take this opportunity to speak directly to the wide OpEdNews readership, John. What would you like to tell them? 

JD: Bookstores are considered a dying species despite the role they have played in their communities as centers for the exchange of information and ideas. I can't predict the future but for people who enjoy the bookstore experience--browsing for books, discussing them with other book-lovers, acquiring them for their libraries --I suggest they take advantage of their existence while they still can. Future alternatives might not be as much fun. 

JB: Amen to that. Just a few minutes in your shop was all it took to get my juices going!  I know you have a manager, which gives you freedom and flexibility. How much time do you and Judy spend at the store and what do you most like doing there? 

  JD: At the beginning, we both worked full time. In the last few years, we have slacked off--except at Christmas, when everybody works. Judy says she likes most to observe the variety of customers, their book choices, and their comments about life. I am a member of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America and I take the responsibility for buying and selling the rare books we offer. We do a lively business selling modern first editions of such authors as Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, Graham Greene, and our friend Tom Wolfe.


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"A room without books is like a body without a soul."  Cicero

JB: How do you find those rare books, John? Is it done mostly online? Do you ever come across a find at a yard sale, for instance, or have I fallen for a romantic myth? 

JD: There's a food chain for rare books.  Spotters sometimes find a valuable book at a flea market or yard sale--but not very often.  I buy first editions up the chain from other dealers by consulting their catalogs or attending book fairs or auctions.  Customers or other owners of rare books sometimes offer me rare editions.  Sometimes I take books on consignment and sell them at a commission for the owners.  Recognized book dealers, however, still drive the market--similar to antique furniture dealers.  Do you know the story about putting three antiques dealers on a desert island with a Hepplewhite desk?  They'll all make a living.

JB: Cute! I understand that you had a talented employee who died a while back under tragic circumstances. Crawford Doyle was involved in setting up a scholarship in his name. Can you tell us a bit about that?

JD: We established a scholarship several years ago for Nicholas Pekearo, a talented young man who worked for us while studying creative writing and serving as a volunteer auxiliary policeman for the New York City Police Department.  In 2007, while patrolling in Greenwich Village with his partner, they encountered an armed man and made the mistake of chasing him.  He turned and shot and killed them both. Neither Nick nor his partner was armed. We were devastated by their deaths.  Nick was very popular with the staff and with many customers.  The scholarship was established to assist other aspiring writers.  Mayor Bloomberg (who lives around the corner from our store) contributed. Nick's first book, The Wolfman, was published in 2009.

JB: A lovely way to celebrate Nick.  I read about the Crawford Doyle Library in one of the articles [below] that you sent me.  What can you tell our readers about that? 

JD: Our store sells primarily new books with only about 250 rare books on display because of space constraints.  The remainder of our rare book collection is housed in a library contained in our home a few blocks away, where customers occasionally visit.  It is the base from which we also operate our internet business in first editions and where I do my cataloguing.  

JB: My two favorite places on earth are libraries and bookstores so, of course, I'd love to visit your library as well! Apparently, there's also a Crawford Doyle book club. How does it work? 

JD:  Our book club is pretty informal.  Essentially, it is based on us sending a book each month to various customers around the world who trust our judgement.   Each customer receives  books selected specifically for him or her based on our knowledge of books they have enjoyed in the past.  Willa Robertson, a very astute young lady, makes the choices, sometimes consulting with others.  Thomas, our manager, also has an individual following of people who trust his judgement about what they should consider reading. Most independent bookstore staffs eventually develop these relationships, in my experience.  I know a number of collectors who expect me to let them know if I obtain a book in their area of collecting, such as a Faulkner or Steinbeck first edition which I obtain.

JB: Wonderful! I've heard that authors whose books grace your shelves come in to shmooze and peruse your wares. Is that true?   


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JD: Lots of authors visit us.  Over the years, we have made friends with many of them and look forward to their periodic appearances. One of my favorites is William Boyd, one of Britain's most popular authors (Restless, Any Human Heart) who visits regularly when he comes to New York.  He just wrote the latest James Bond Novel, Solo, so we are hoping he will stop by soon on a tour. Other British authors we see include A. S. Byatt, Ian McEwan and Martin Amis. Woody Allen stops in to check out the latest releases. And a great friend of the store is the Irish author, Colum McCann, whose Let the Great World Spin won a Pulitzer.  His latest book, nominated for several awards, is Transatlantic. Colum tipped us off a few years ago to Stoner by John Williams, one of the least-known, best novels of the last 50 years.  We persuaded the editors at The New York Review of Books to reissue it and now it's their number one seller.

Many notable neighbors shop in our store, of course.  Candace Bergen is a favorite.  So are Diane Sawyer and Mike Nichols. Tom Wolfe, as I mentioned, is a neighbor and friend.  A few years ago, to our surprise, Benjamin Netanyahu came in and asked if we carried his father's book.  I told him we had just sold out the day before.

JB: Crawford Doyle is clearly The Place to be!  Anything you'd like to add before we wrap this up?

JD: Just a reminder that all of us at Crawford Doyle (as well as at many of our fellow booksellers) consider books about the most precious objects we have in our society. We urge readers to avail themselves fully of the gifts our authors have given us.

JB:  I couldn't agree more. Thanks so much for talking with me, John. You and Judy are terrific examples of people loving what they do and doing what they love. And Crawford Doyle Booksellers is yet another good reason to draw me back to the Big Apple. Can't wait!


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"There is no friend as loyal as a book."  
Ernest Hemingway

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All quotes about books from goodreads.com at suggestion of OEN Managing Editor, Meryl Ann Butler 

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Crawford Doyle Booksellers website

Twitter: @ Crawforddoyleny 

Other places to read about Crawford Doyle:

http://nymag.com/listings/stores/crawford-doyle/

http://bookriot.com/2013/04/09/saying-goodbye-to-a-beloved-bookstore/

http://www.examiner.com/article/living-literature-crawford-doyle-booksellers

http://www.newyorksocialdiary.com/node/1908345



Authors Bio:
Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of transparency and the ability to accurately check and authenticate the vote cast, these systems can alter election results and therefore are simply antithetical to democratic principles and functioning.


Since the pivotal 2004 Presidential election, Joan has come to see the connection between a broken election system, a dysfunctional, corporate media and a total lack of campaign finance reform. This has led her to enlarge the parameters of her writing to include interviews with whistle-blowers and articulate others who give a view quite different from that presented by the mainstream media. She also turns the spotlight on activists and ordinary folks who are striving to make a difference, to clean up and improve their corner of the world. By focusing on these intrepid individuals, she gives hope and inspiration to those who might otherwise be turned off and alienated. She also interviews people in the arts in all their variations - authors, journalists, filmmakers, actors, playwrights, and artists. Why? The bottom line: without art and inspiration, we lose one of the best parts of ourselves. And we're all in this together. If Joan can keep even one of her fellow citizens going another day, she considers her job well done.

Joan has been Election Integrity Editor for OpEdNews since December, 2005. Her articles also appear at Huffington Post, RepublicMedia.TV and Scoop.co.nz.

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