The (not so) Little Bookshop that Could

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BookCourt is something of a visual aberration for anyone walking down the northern part of Court Street. Sandwiched between a deli, a UPS store and a Starbucks, the bookshop stands out against the background. It’s too indie to be there, only blocks away from Barnes & Noble – and too nice.

The store was already quite the oddity when Henry Zook and Mary Gannett opened it in 1981. Not because it was surrounded by chain businesses: it simply was one of the only shops on the street.

“The number of people walking by was nothing of the order of today,” Mary says. “People told us we were crazy when we opened BookCourt. But then people came in and bought our books.”

They still do.

In theory, the business model behind independent bookstores is flawed: the product they sell isn’t anything different from what chains – and Amazon.com – provide. Places like BookCourt, three decades and still standing, appear to be an anachronism. So why – how are they still there? Oran Teicher, CEO of the American Booksellers Association resorts to quoting Mark Twain: “the reports of our death have been greatly exaggerated.

A less literary answer would point to the fact that some people actually prefer buying their books from small brick-and-mortar stores. It’s called localism – a community’s hostile response to “the corporatization of economy,” according to Prof. David Hess, a sociologist at Vanderbilt University.

Brooklyn would seem an ideal place for reading – and buying — local. But this alone doesn’t explain BookCourt’s success, given that so many other stores in the borough (including their former Smith Street neighbor Heights Books) have failed. The shop has expanded three times. When it opened, its gross income was $75,000; now Henry says it’s “in the millions: let’s say I’d like it to be three million someday.” The staff has increased from the two original founders to 20 employees, including their eldest son, 27-year-old Zack. Although the couple is separated now, they still run the place together.

While selling books isn’t a lucrative enterprise – if anything, it only provides single-digit profit margins, Henry says – the store has found a way to endure, and prosper.

Hess says that a bookshop needs to differentiate itself for localism to function. This means three things: selling products that can’t be found elsewhere; offering lower prices than the competition; and most importantly, turning the business into what sociologists call “third spaces” – public gathering spots that function much like bars or barbershops. What independent shop owners need to sell is a sense of identity.

And that’s precisely what BookCourt set about trying to do.

From the start, Henry and Mary had an eye toward selecting books that would grab the attention of an already literary Brooklyn. The couple wasn’t entirely new to the book business: they’d moved to New York to go into publishing, and had previously worked at the Wordsworth bookshop in Boston. After a year and a half in the city, they realized they missed “the excitement of all the books as opposed to one publisher’s books,” Henry says. They rented an old barbershop near their Cobble Hill apartment and made the transition to bookselling.

It was a bold move for two 27 year-olds. BookCourt was on the wrong side of Atlantic Avenue, closer to Smith Street’s crack dealers than to wealthier Brooklyn Heights. But the couple didn’t see it that way: though some places were “sketchy” at night, they say, the neighborhood was otherwise “friendly” and “solid.” It had a strong community of publishers and literary people who started going to BookCourt. Some never left.

Tom Jory, now a close friend of the family, walked past their door on the day of the opening. He says he was immediately “struck by the quality of the stock: literary, current and important non-fiction.” For him, Henry’s and Mary’s strength always lied in their ability to adapt to their customers’ tastes and provide them with titles from small and university presses difficult to get from other places, especially from chains.

Zook and Gannett, though, explain their success in a more pragmatic way: they’ve owned the building since 1984.

“The ‘biggie’ is the rent,” Henry says. “That’s what kills a bookstore.”

He’s right. St Mark’s bookshop, in the East Village, just went through months of negotiation with Cooper Union to get its rent reduced and avoid closure. Yet Henry and Mary wouldn’t have been able to purchase the store in the first place had they not managed to pay off their initial investment in merely three years. Granted, the cost had nothing to do with current real estate: they bought BookCourt for $160,000.  Still, Henry says they had to “work like dogs” to get there.

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Zack Zook with Michael Moore

It was more than a clever business decision. Replacing the rent with a mortgage sheltered the family from the sharp increase of housing in Cobble Hill. It also anchored them in the community as they moved above the store. The situation came with more advantages than drawbacks.  While the demands of work never slackened, regular customers became friends. Mary says the bookshop became the place where her two sons’ friends “always gravitated.” Zack remembers the “terrible influence” the staff had on him as a nine year-old; he enumerates early reads: the Cursed Poets – Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Lautréamont.

BookCourt grew with the area. In 1990, it added space in the basement. Six years later, the store expanded to the contiguous flower shop as their neighbor moved away. Meanwhile, the neighborhood grew wealthier. Families who’d been there for generations could no longer afford the rent. “Wall Street people,” Zack says, moved in. And so did Barnes & Noble, on Court Street — Zack and his friends went to throw eggs at it. The family thought their time had come, but it was the customers who kept coming.

“People made it a point to tell us: ‘we’re here, we’re not there’,” Mary says. “That Christmas was one of our best ever.”

By the late 1990s, BookCourt had built a community of loyal customers, both for its general stock and for the children’s section built by Mary. But competing with a chain remained a challenge. Mary says they pushed back where they could: customer service and special orders. “Special” meant that Henry could hand deliver the 20 volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary to a client’s house.

While Barnes & Noble made them work harder, having their son enter the business made them more creative. “When Zack decided to join us, that was a big thing,” Henry says.

Before Zack started managing BookCourt in 2005, the store did host the occasional event. He pushed to make the readings regular events and brought in famous writers like Don De Lillo, filling the store to capacity. At the beginning, the readings took place twice a week; now, they happen every day. The store has become so quintessentially “Brooklyn” that it was featured in the third season of the HBO series “Bored to Death” written by Brooklyn author Jonathan Ames. When the series premiered at BookCourt at the beginning of October, the shop was packed. A week earlier, Michael Moore had “occupied” the place to give a reading in front of a crowd of nearly a hundred.

Zack and his parents do not charge for events – even as some bookshops have resorted to selling seats. Publishers cater for the readings; customers can buy the books.  On a good evening, they manage to sell a hundred copies.

Zack has also created a literary magazine, “Cousine Corinne’s Reminder,” where he publishes Brooklyn authors, poets and photographers. Some of them, like Emma Straub, the author of “Other People We Married,” work at BookCourt, too.  Future plans include building a new website for the store, where events will be live streamed, and opening a café if Zack gets his way. Henry and Mary aren’t convinced.

“We didn’t open a bookstore to sell coffee,” Henry says. “Zack is more of a social animal than his parents.”

The truth is that BookCourt has already turned into a social hub. For the space it has grown to offer, for the authors it attracts, for the community it has built along the years. During the readings, Zack isn’t the only one who shakes the hands of regulars – the whole family does. But success is not taken for granted: their last extension opened the day the stock market collapsed in 2008. “It’s ironic,” Mary says, “ Our most successful time is also the most unsettling: we don’t know where the economy is going.”

Related articles:

Michael Moore Occupies BookCourt

Praise for the Good Book (Store)

 

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