Six years ago Kathy Rodgers walked into The Chatham Bookseller and now she owns the joint.
Rodgers is an accomplished lawyer who at one time was acting president of Barnard College, after which she headed Legal Momentum, the nation's oldest women's legal rights advocacy organization. She explains her journey to becoming a bookstore owner this way: “I am a long time book collector and for many years I had a dream of retiring and owning a used bookshop. I moved home to New Jersey and was introduced to bookshops out here. One day I walked into The Chatham Bookseller and saw an untold number of boxes, so I said, ‘Gee, you need some help.’ It was a Monday and the person at the desk said, “I’m leaving in a couple of weeks.” I got the job as the “Monday person” in charge of the shop every Monday. The Sunday person retired and I became the Sunday-Monday person. I was always interested in doing more in the shop. Gradually I learned more and took on more responsibility.” Eventually, after being offered a position as head Theologian librarian at Drew University, Jesse Mann, Kathy’s boss and former proprietor of the store, decided to sell. “It pays to walk into a place with something in mind and ask. It’s called making your dreams happen,” says Rodgers.
Unlike Rodgers, Richard Chalfin, the former owner of The Better Book Getter, an online establishment, did not see himself owning a brick and mortar book store. Mr. Mann brought the two together as co-proprietors. “I always feared doing retail.” Chalfin admits. “But I enjoy it. Turns out I like the exposure to humanity. You get to share what you have an interest in. You get to find out how much people know and learn from them. People come in and I recommend books. I get a kick out of that. I see people looking at the books and when the place is full, there’s an energy going on. They feel comfortable like I did as a kid in my dad’s bookstore. I felt at home. That’s what I want our customers to feel -- that there’s no obligation, they can just come in, browse and enjoy the space. But, y’know, if ya buy a book it really helps.” (Point of interest: Chalfin was a professional stand-up comedian for 15 years and started book-scouting on the road.)
Chalfin has come full-circle. “My grandfather had a brick and mortar store, my father did, my uncle did, and my great grandfather sold books out of a backpack in Russia. I’m a fourth-generation bookseller. I didn’t envision this, but life takes a turn sometimes. My business was on the internet! Jesse Mann and I go back a long time. I used to buy my stock from him when I was operating The Better Book Getter. One day I called him up and I asked,‘Whaddya got for me?’ and he said ‘You better come soon. I’m closing at the end of the month.’ It just seemed like it was meant to be.”
One may well ask, what does make an old, used bookshop still viable? According to Rodgers, there will always be a market for two things: “First, it’s the serendipitous discovery of something you weren’t looking for. There’s always going to be people who love the search. They love finding something unusual, that obscure thing that’s of particular interest and use to them, which they’re not going to find when they walk into a Barnes and Noble. The other thing is that people like the physicality of a book. Many books are art objects. But even your tattered paperback is your friend because you remember that that paragraph you loved is on page thirty-five and you can just turn right back to it. You remember where it is on the page. You remember holding the book. With a Kindle everything looks the same. It’s just words on a screen. It’s not the same experience. It’s very interesting how they tried to imitate the book with the sound of the flipping page, or being able to highlight something. But that's not the real thing. These new devices have their uses and they’re not going away, but there will always be a market for the material book.” When asked about the future of books for today’s tech-native kids, Rodgers was confident. “Children love books. If we read a book to child, she remembers the emotional attachment of being read to, she remembers sitting on someone’s knee. She will associate books with these good experiences.”
Another element of the Rodgers-Chalfin vision for The Chatham Bookseller is that of creating community; they see the store as a destination. “A bookstore as a community makes a lot of sense. It’s a place of discovery and interaction in real time. Not just with us, but among customers too. People get into conversations. ‘Why are you picking that book?’ ‘Did you hear about this one?’ It's really fun!” says Rodgers. And, of course, there is the location. “Madison is a lovely town. It’s a beautiful town.” observes Chalfin. We want customers to think, “Let’s go to Madison. We’ll get some coffee, we’ll get something to eat and we’ll go to the bookstore. It’s a place to bring the family. It’s a mental amusement park. And the sound of the old wooden floors creaking and the smell of old books are added enticements!”
The partnership of the two owners is a crucial component of how they see the store going forward. Rodgers’ forte is running the shop. Chalfin puts the books online. Select stock from The Chatham Bookseller can now be found on Abebooks, Amazon, eBay, and all other major book sites.
Carrying on the quality of service that has been traditionally offered by the store is a top priority, but the new ownership is also expanding into other areas including ephemera, appraisals, and book searches.
The town will be celebrating the grand re-opening of The Chatham Bookseller on Saturday, June 27th from 11-3, with a ribbon-cutting ceremony at 11. The store is located at 8 Green Village Road in Madison, New Jersey.