After a winter that was "almost apocalyptic," seed money from a famous author to help keep the lights on at Book Revue in Huntington was a welcome addition to the bottom line.
"It just kind of went into the mix," said Robert Klein, co-owner along with his brother, Richard, of the independent bookstore that is often a destination as part of a night out in the village or for a book-signing event by a favorite author.
Book Revue was one of 54 bookstores nationwide that received funding in February in the first wave of grants from James Patterson, bestselling author of suspense thrillers such as those featuring the Alex Cross character, as well as young adult and middle-grade books. Patterson pledged last fall to donate $1 million to independent bookstores, encouraged readers to nominate their favorite store and then personally read the applications. Grants ranged from $2,000 to $15,000. About $750,000 remains to distribute. The only requirements are that the business be viable and have a children's section.
Book Revue's grant, which was intended to go toward operational expenses, "fell right in the middle" of the award range, Robert Klein said. "We planned to do certain things, but the winter was so difficult it just went into the stew to pay the bills."
Book Revue used the money to help fix the floor and pay taxes, among other things.
"What Jim [Patterson] did is a lovely thing to do and it certainly helps," Klein said. "We're looking forward to spring. We have a lot of good events planned."
Like most other independent bookstores, Book Revue doesn't just sell books. In addition to calendars, bookmarks and a large stock of used books, the store works with local authors to hold readings and book signings where family and friends can come out in support; gives book groups that register with it a discount if members buy their selections at the store; holds events for children, from toddler story hour to music time; and sells books to schools.
The children's section has a large wooden fire engine that youngsters can climb on or sit in to read while parents browse.
"That fire engine is the best purchase we ever made," Klein said.
Where the money goes
Bookstores across the country that received grants indicated that, in addition to brick-and-mortar repairs, they plan to use the money for everything from buying a van for mobile author events and book fairs to posting and streaming video of in-store events; retrofitting an old school bus and taking it to schools, where children could walk through it; to creating book-based curriculum enhancements for schools by providing art, music and social studies tie-ins for books by local authors.
Judith Mitzner, owner of The Dolphin Bookshop in Port Washington, said she doesn't know what she would use a Patterson grant for but will look into applying for one. Like Book Revue, her bookstore tries to program events for younger readers. It advertised a youth book discussion group for "Allegiant," the third in Veronica Roth's "Divergent" trilogy, on a recent Sunday afternoon, offering snacks and a signed copy of the book. Response wasn't huge, said store owner Judith Mitzner, but it was another avenue to drive business.
In addition to offering books and gifts such as soaps, candles and Stonewall Kitchen items, and toys in the children's section, The Dolphin has a cafe that offers Stumptown coffee and free music every Friday night. It all adds to the store's ambience, Mitzner said, and helps create a destination feel.
"It brings people in, and we hope they shop afterward," she said. "It's an interesting part of our business."
Book Revue also runs a cafe that, while not a moneymaker, "is good to have," Klein said. Like Mitzner, he sees it as another way to draw in shoppers.
"The idea that people are not reading as much isn't true," Klein said. "What's true is they're getting their material from Amazon or from e-books. We maintain a certain share of the market, and that is enough for us to squeak by. I couldn't start this business today, but we've been here 37 years. Thank God this community has always supported us."
Competition and community
Amazon is probably The Dolphin's biggest competitor, concurs Mitzner, but one thing she said customers come to her store for is the personal service.
"They can read reviews, but online they can't ask staff to help them pick a book, or to recommend one to give as a gift," she said. "People still come to us for guidance."
The Dolphin is organizing its third book signing event for local indie authors, Mitzner said. "We have five or six authors come in and set up, we publicize it, and it's a fun day. We carry their books afterward on consignment for a month. It's a chance for them to get some publicity."
Small stores have a symbiotic relationship with their communities. Maryann Calendrille, a co-owner of Canio's Books in Sag Harbor, said Canio's offers workshops, special events and a gallery to display works by area artists. Calendrille said the store plans to apply for one of Patterson's grants and would use the money to hire someone to help redesign its website.
She said customers count on the store for socialization, especially during the winter.
"We need to have things happening year-round," Calendrille said. "People are looking to us for intellectual stimulation. You can't get that online."
That is something customers have come to value more as bookstores close, Calendrille said, noting the village used to have five bookstores but now only Canio's remains.
In December, customers showed their appreciation by organizing a "cash mob" meant to spark shopping during a two-hour event.
"We served cider and popcorn and made it a party," Calendrille said. "It really was encouraging and felt like a great group hug."
HOW BOOKSELLERS CAN APPLY
Author James Patterson still has $750,000 to distribute to worthy independent booksellers.
To receive a grant, bookstores must meet two requirements: 1) the business must be viable; and 2) it must have a children's section.