While Hudson County is one of the most densely populated areas in the nation, it is woefully bereft of general-interest bookstores, with several closing in the past few years and one Bayonne store closed and selling off its furniture.
Since 2008, the B. Dalton bookstore in Jersey City’s Newport Centre Mall, the Imagine Atrium bookstore on Jersey Avenue in Jersey City, and the Barnes and Noble on Washington Street in Hoboken have all closed. The same fate just befell Unique Books on Broadway in Bayonne.
According to the American Booksellers Association, which represents independent stores, currently 1,410 independent booksellers are members of the ABA, an increase of nine from last year but a noticeable decline from 1,700 members of 2005.
“I want to physically look at and hold a book in my hand like I do when I visit a bookstore.” – Erik-Anders Nilsson
In the midst of such depressing numbers, one local shining light burns on. Symposia Bookstore and Community Center, on Washington Street in Hoboken, is still open after 10 years, offering used copies of best sellers and classics and also a location for residents to network. Also, a Jersey City resident has plans of his own to open a bookstore/café by fall 2012.
Nevertheless, book lovers have reason to lament so few chances to hold and peruse a physical copy of an object they hold dear. Jersey City resident Erik-Anders Nilsson is a fan of bookstores and does not see the appeal of e-books.
“I want to physically look at and hold a book in my hand like I do when I visit a bookstore,” Nilsson said. “You can have a book when there’s no power source.”
Catherine (did not give last name), another Jersey City resident, was browsing the sidewalk table in front of Symposia Bookstore with a friend.
“This is terrible, the Newport Mall had a bookstore that closed, and Barnes and Noble here, very depressing,” Catherine said.
Bayonne is not supportive
Leonard Janes is not a happy camper.
The owner of Unique Books, Bayonne’s only bookstore, has closed his doors for good. Open since 2003, the store has struggled to make a profit.
Janes said the causes leading him to end a lifelong dream were not only the common ones that people cite for bookstores closing. He said rising rent (about $600 more), customers not buying enough books, and owing book distributors money all played a role.
Janes was also critical of the current business climate in Bayonne, which has declined considerably on Broadway, which he sees as a product of Bayonne’s attitude towards small businesses.
“I have a friend with a bookstore in Ridgewood who pulls in a quarter of a million dollars in a year in a town smaller than this one because his town supports him,” Janes said. “This town does not support small businesses; they’re forever building on [Route 440] and nobody shops on Broadway. City officials need to promote shopping on Broadway and provide for more free parking.”
He also thinks his bookstore’s location less than 20 miles from other bookstores and big chain stores that sell books like Walmart, Target and Kmart hurts his business. And he blames parents for not bringing their kids into their store for their summer reading.
Janes said he is considering taking over management of a bookstore in Virginia where his sister lives but is still debating whether to leave the town where he has resided since the 1980s.
Open for the community
Hoboken’s Symposia Bookstore and Community Center, at its current location since 2004, resembles the kind of casual storefront once prevalent in Manhattan’s East Village eons ago.
Wooden shelves teeming with paperbacks and hardcovers of such titles as Complications by practicing surgeon and New Yorker magazine writer Atul Gawande and mystery auteur James Paterson’s 7th Heaven usually sell for $6. And ensconced in the middle of the room are chairs as if a talk show might materialize during a day of browsing. In fact, a public access show by a local resident is taped at Symposia.
Carmen Rusu, who founded the bookstore back in 2001 with her husband Corneliu, can recall a wedding, some birthday parties and author readings, which she sees as part of the community support that has kept Symposia active.
Rusu is still taken aback that her bookstore may be one of the last ones in Hudson County, blaming it partially on the “digital era.” But she believes there is still a place for her business, especially when it comes to children, who make up a good part of her customers.
“Kids need to touch books, look through pages,” Rusu said. “That’s something you can’t do with an e-book.”
Rusu also credits Symposia’s survival with such advantages as being on the town’s main business strip, catering to a affluent and educated clientele, getting a break on their rent though their landlord, former Hoboken Mayor Dave Roberts, and not having to expend a great deal of money on book stock since most of the books they sell are donated.
“We owe it to the people of Hoboken and the surrounding areas because everything we sell is donated by them,” Rusu said. “And many people in this area also read.”
Three steps to a ‘bookhouse’
Rafael Cruz is dreaming big while starting small.
Cruz, 27, is a downtown Jersey City resident with the grand idea of opening Bookhouse Café, a bookstore/café in a storefront near the Grove Street PATH station. Cruz, a freelance video editor and part-time actor (he appeared in the lead role of local theatrical company Arthouse Productions’ “The Constant Never”) has been selling used and new books since April at a discount at his “book tent” at the Creative Grove Market every Friday in the plaza next to the Grove Street PATH station. Cruz is also using bookselling as an opportunity to talk up locals on investing in his new venture.
“This is my three steps toward a bookstore,” Cruz said. “First, I had a table with books and information about my bookstore, then I set up a tent with several tables, and then that will lead to a bookstore.”
He has also set up a website (www.bookhousecafe.org) that outlines his plans and goals.
More significantly, Cruz has been learning the ins and outs of independent bookselling as a volunteer at Symposia Bookstore in Hoboken. It is also what he wants to model his future bookstore after.
“There should be a place to sit down and read, and interact without pressure to buy something,” Cruz said.
Cruz with help from his roommate, Corey Wiggins, has raised a quarter of the $45,000 he says he will need to achieve his goal of opening. But he admits it’s also about “timing,” and he hopes a storefront in his ideal Grove Street/Newark Avenue target area will be available to lease when he has the entire amount.
“With those ingredients and the right location, however, there’s a potential for real alchemy,” Cruz said.”
Ricardo Kaulessar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.