Independent Bookstores: A New Chapter
Take a tour of Westchester's independent bookstores and meet their community-minded owners dedicated to keeping them alive
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In celebration of National Independent Bookstore Day this Saturday, April 30, Examiner+ explored the role of independent bookstores in our communities. We met with owners of several of the long-standing establishments as well as some newer owners on the block to talk about books, browsing, and business.
“When I was three and my sister was five-years-old, our “treat” after going to the doctor’s office was to go to the Scarsdale bookstore. The building had kind of a medieval feel and when we walked through an archway, we could see the children’s books lined up in the storefront window,” Barbara Davis recalls.
Davis, 68, grew up in Hartsdale in an era when bookstores were a common part of the community fabric. She says, “I was reading Babar at the time. Going to the bookstore really enhanced the experience.”
It is easy for bibliophiles to wax poetic about the special je ne sais quoi quality of being in a bookstore. “It’s the whole experience, smelling the books, seeing things on the wall, the store owners who talk with you about books. That’s the difference between walking into a store and getting a book online,” Davis, a co-director at the Westchester County Historical Society, says.
In recent decades, independent bookstores — like other small businesses — have struggled to survive. According to a Harvard Business School study, the proliferation of the big-box chain stores and Amazon’s online presence in the 1990s led to the demise of a significant percentage of indie stores; however, the surprise finding was that around 2009, they started to make a comeback.
Westchester mirrors those national trends. Records reflect 20 independent bookstores in the county in 1990; by 2002, that number had dwindled to eight. We recently identified 15 indies, some long-established and others that opened as recently as 2021, plus at least two library-operated bookstores.
What explains the change? The HBS study author, Professor Ryan Raffaelli, found three keys: community, curation, and convening.
The existence of today’s indies seems to convey that just as a bookstore influences the character of the community, the community helps shape the identity of the store.
Many shops curate collections and events that appeal to readers’ special interests. To that end, Westchester is fortunate to have a wide array of well-known authors who are featured guests.
On the point of convening, sociologist and author Ray Oldenburg wrote of the importance of third places, or “hangouts,” where kindred spirits can gather for dialogue and camaraderie. In bookstores, that meaningful exchange is often between the booksellers and patrons.
Examiner+ visited six of Westchester’s independent bookstores and talked with the owners about their personal stories, passions, and perspectives.
The Village Bookstore
10 Washington Ave, Pleasantville
Store founded: 1972
In her “before bookstore” life, Jennifer Kohn worked as a marketing executive for more than two decades, which meant a lot of out-of-town business trips. Being an avid reader, she visited bookstores in her travels throughout the country.
During a visit to The Village Bookstore a few years ago, Kohn, a Pleasantville resident, asked the previous owners, a husband-and-wife team, if they would ever consider selling the store. “It was “kind of on a whim,” she says.
Kohn’s question might have been impromptu, but when the couple said they might sell, it opened a real possibility. “It went from being a daydream to being a research project that lasted for about a year,” Kohn says. She and her husband carefully evaluated the opportunity; then in December 2018, her daydream became a reality with Kohn as the store’s new owner.
The Village Bookstore sometimes joins forces with the nearby popular Jacob Burns Film Center and local libraries for book-related events. During the pandemic, they started a virtual “Escape Book Club,” in partnership with the Mount Pleasant Public Library.
Along with well-stocked bookshelves, the store has greeting cards, tote bags, stationery, and other creative reading-themed gifts.
Blind Dog Books
201 King St, Chappaqua
Store founded: 2020
During Richard Pandich’s 40-year history teaching career, he would tell students on the first day of classes, “There is a history in everything.” Now he uses that sensibility to help curate the collection for his independent bookstore.
A Chappaqua resident, Pandich had sold books online (and still does on eBay), then in 2019, he opened a cozy shop in a former antique store near downtown Chappaqua. He dubbed it Blind Dog Books in honor of his and his wife’s little rescue mixed-breed dog, Max.
The store has an array of antiquarian literature and non-fiction, first editions, signed, and out-of-print books, but not limited to only those at a collector’s price point. It also has an eclectic bounty of local maps, prints, and photographs.
Among the wall, decorations are five framed prints from a 16th-century herbal book and four black and white photographs of the Beatles, developed from the original negatives.
He says that people stop in search of a specific item as well as to browse. “I think serendipity plays a big role in terms of people coming across things they want. You come in looking for something and you see something else. It’s the joy of browsing,” Pandich says.
Bruised Apple Books
923 Central Ave, Peekskill
Store founded: 1993
Scott Sailor’s bookstore-owning journey began more than three decades ago when he worked at a salmon cannery in Alaska. An English major in college, Sailor crisscrossed the country from New Jersey to Alaska for several years, buying used books along the way, and stockpiling them into his old Dodge Dart. His fantasy was to eventually open a used bookstore when he found the right place to settle down.
A colleague recommended that he look at Peekskill. “I crossed the Bear Mountain Bridge and fell in love with the town immediately,” Sailor says.
He saw potential in an empty space in an old building. “I climbed up on a ladder and saw an old tin ceiling and then discovered hardwood floors beneath the carpeting and particleboard,” he says. “I lived in my sleeping bag in the back of the building and started renovations.”
That was 29 years ago, and Bruised Apple Books has been a fixture on Peekskill’s Central Avenue ever since.
Bruised Apple has a significant book selection — about 50,000, including a big literature aisle plus multiple other genres, and a wide vinyl record and CD assortment.
“If you are looking to have an experience and browse, you may find that particular book you were looking for, or you might find one that turns out to be just as important in your life,” Sailor says.
Hudson Valley Books for Humanity
67 Central Ave, Ossining
Store Founded: 2021
Last year while spring cleaning, Amy Hall gathered a large collection of what she calls pre-loved books. “I started to consider how to give new life to old books. Rather than donate them, I told my friends about my idea to open a bookstore. Then they started giving me their books,” Hall says.
Hall and her husband consumer tested her idea. “Everyone told me, ‘We need a bookstore in Ossining,’ and I realized I need to make this happen,” she says. She opened Hudson Valley Books for Humanity opened in late November.
Hall says that the use of the word “humanity” in the store’s title reflects her intention to use the space to bring people of all income levels, races, and ethnicities together. “It’s meant to be a place to serve and welcome people.”
She wants to demonstrate that it is possible to run a for-profit business with strong community values. The spacious and sunny store has books at all price points, with an emphasis on amplifying minority authors.
“We are going to have an Asian American teen book club over the summer. There are all kinds of different things happening here ― Hudson Valley artisans, entertainers, authors, and artists.” Hall says. “We recently had our first music event with a Gypsy Jazz Band. It was terrific.”
Along with her work at the bookstore, Hall works 30 hours a week in sustainability and human rights for Eileen Fisher.
It is optimistic that bookstores continue to open, but it doesn’t mean that the industry is financially thriving, especially given the pandemic’s impact. The need for communities to shop locally and support small businesses has never been more obvious. A 2020 New York Times story carried the urgent message about independent booksellers, “Buy from these shops, or they won’t be around much longer.”
When a beloved store closes, as many have through the years, it affects the community. Jackie Granzino, a part-time librarian with Montrose’s Hendrick Hudson Free Library and an archivist at Westchester County Archives, recalls such a loss. “In the 1980s, my nerdy English major friends and I would hang out at Books and Things (in Briarcliff Manor). It had room after room of interesting and quirky books and staircases that led to more books. The staff was laid-back and fun,” Granzino describes. “When it closed, it was heartbreaking.”
76 Pondfield Rd, Bronxville
Store founded: 1938
On a recent warm and sunny day, downtown Bronxville was bustling with shoppers and diners. For Morin Bishop, co-owner of Womrath Bookshop, it was a welcome change from colder weather and people being sequestered from the pandemic.
Bishop and his wife Barbara bought Westchester’s oldest established independent bookstore in 2019, just six months before the pandemic forced them to temporarily shutter the doors.
This Bronxville couple spent most of their careers on the creative side of the business ― Morin as a writer and editor and Barbara as a graphic designer. Together, they have produced numerous illustrated books, like Rediscovering the Founding Fathers.
Morin explains, “We’ve always been big readers and had visited the store. When we heard it was for sale, we started joking about buying it. Then after a couple more weeks, we started to think about it seriously. After meeting with the previous owner and thinking it over, we decided, ‘let’s do it!’”
They hired a bookstore interior designer and gave the space a facelift, adding new shelving to optimize the number of outward-facing book covers. Four comfortable, colorful reading chairs form a circle in the back near a large history collection.
“My favorite thing about this job is talking with people about books. We have an avid reading community here,” Morin says. “We haven’t started back with events yet but are very much ready to do that. We look forward to getting back to growing.”
Andersons Larchmont Bookstore
96 Chatsworth Ave, Larchmont
Store Founded: 1946
Paulene Greeman was introduced to her future husband and future vocation thanks to the matchmaking of her tenth-grade friend, Jenny Siegel. In 1981, long before their bookstore story, Siegel introduced Paulene to her future husband, Tim Greeman. Then, in 2000, Andersons Bookstore, where Siegel’s mother had worked for 40 years, went up for sale. Being family friends, Jenny’s mother urged Tim’s father to buy the bookstore. He did and Jenny joined as the shop’s business manager, a role she continues in today.
After Tim’s parents both died, Tim and Paulene got involved with the store full-time around 2018. Sadly, Tim died in January 2021. For Paulene, the local community was tremendously supportive throughout the pandemic and Tim’s untimely death.
“I want Andersons to be a community hub,” Paulene says. Author lectures and book signings are part of their featured events, along with activities like quarterly Scrabble tournaments, sing-along days, storytime, and arts and crafts.
The pandemic curtailed some happenings, but Paulene, with her background in creative movement and storytelling, is excited to see them resume. “We like things that stir the imagination,” she says.
Along with books for all ages, there’s a dedicated children’s room with plush stuffed animals, puzzles, art and craft supplies, and a model train for kids of all ages to enjoy.
Other Westchester Independent Bookstores
Arcade Booksellers, Rye
Bronx River Books, Scarsdale
Booksy Galore, Pound Ridge
By-the-Dam Books, Croton-on-Hudson
Galapagos Books, Hastings-on-Hudson
Riverrun Books & Manuscripts, Hastings-on-Hudson
Scattered Books, Chappaqua
The Bookstore at Grace, Mount Vernon
Transom Bookshop, Tarrytown
Library Owned & Operated Bookstores
Sherrie Dulworth is a lower Hudson Valley freelance writer whose stories range across healthcare, careers, literature, and human interest. She often finds tranquility with her nose in a book or her feet on a hiking trail, but not simultaneously. Check out her blog for fellow bibliophiles at www.curiouscatsread.com, and her website showcasing her other works, www.sherriedulworth.com.
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