After a prosperous career in advertising and sales, Bill Reilly moved upstate from Manhattan to Oswego about 20 years ago and, newly married, wondered how to keep busy.
“Shortly after our honeymoon, I turned to her and said, ‘Now what am I going to do with the rest of my life?’ We began looking into options and I knew I wanted something that would involve the community in a huge way. Oswego was my adopted hometown and, as they had welcomed me, I wanted to give something back,” he explained.
The solution was to open a bookstore.
Bill and his wife, Mindy, run it together. “We always found that where we went, we would visit the local independent bookstore,” says Reilly, 66, owner of The River’s End Bookstore since 1998. “It’s been the most fulfilling business opportunity I’ve ever been involved with. Not financially, but in all other ways.”
Among the more than 1,500 independent booksellers around the country is a cluster of baby boomers who came to the profession from other fields, including Reilly, Roxanne J. Coady of R.J. Julia Booksellers in Madison, Connecticut, and Melissa DeMotte of The Well-Read Moose store in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.
Some were idealists, others just looking for a change of pace, but all were drawn to a business that has proved equally demanding and rewarding.
“The baby boomers who opened stores after having other careers have been extraordinarily helping contributors to our community because they brought perspectives from other walks of life,” says Oren Teicher, CEO of the independents’ trade group the American Booksellers Association.
“It was always my dream, owning a bookstore. I suppose many of us have these kinds of fantasies,” says Jeffrey Mayersohn, a former executive at the telecommunications company Sonus Networks who, with his wife, Linda Seamonson, purchased the Harvard Book Store in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 2008.
Some of the country’s top independent stores are run by baby boomers who had been well established in other fields. Politics & Prose in Washington, D.C., has been owned since 2011 by former Washington Post reporter Bradley Graham and his wife, Lissa Muscatine, a former speechwriter for Hillary Clinton.
Coady, who opened R.J. Julia in 1990, had been a national account director for the firm BDO Seidman. “One of the things that really appealed to me about a bookstore is that I really believe in discourse and I wanted a store that was a center of connection and activity,” she says.
DeMotte is a former accountant and CFO who was dismayed that her local community had no bookstore. She had a lifelong affinity for books and planned carefully to become a store owner, attending an American Booksellers Association conference and researching the demographics of Coeur D’Alene. She opened the Well-Read Moose two years ago, and says that sales have been growing steadily and that she is amazed by her customers’ gratitude.
“We’re still getting thank-yous from people who appreciate what we’ve done,” she says. “I’m just shocked at the thank-yous.”
Mayersohn and others say they’re often approached by friends and customers who ask how one might open a store. Their response is encouraging, but practical: Expect long hours and narrow financial margins. Don’t place yourself above cleaning a bathroom or sweeping a floor. And it’s a good idea to have enough money to get through the initial months or years when you’re still working on developing loyal customers.
“It costs more than you think to run a store,” DeMotte says.
Carolyn Brody, whose jobs had included real estate consulting for the World Bank and investment banking, was hoping to open an art and design store in Manhattan a few years ago. Acquaintances suggested that she get in touch with Coady for advice. Brody never did open the Manhattan store, but she and Coady became friends. When the popular BookHampton store in East Hampton was put up for sale, Brody purchased it earlier this year and Coady helped her get it started.
“There’s a camaraderie among booksellers; we all want each other to succeed,” Brody says, adding that bookselling is not an ideal profession for catching up on your reading. “I think there is a romantic notion, clearly, to opening a bookstore. You think you’re going to sit around and discuss great books, but often what you’re talking about is how many different kinds of wrapping paper you have, or you’re taping up a box of books.”
“I certainly have less time to read than I used to,” Mayersohn says. “But I don’t regret it for one second. I’m working with wonderful people, great writers. Our store does about 450 author talks a year, so I’m meeting writers whose work I’ve admired all of my life. So I have no regrets: It’s just not retirement.”