In honor of our 20th anniversary and in celebration of our upcoming annual benefit and auction on Tuesday, June 5, 2018, Reach Out and Read of Greater New York is turning the spotlight on local bookstores to champion their work in spreading the joy of books and a love of reading. In the months leading up to June, we will profile the people and the businesses who give families the gift of reading. Our annual benefit and auction theme this year is “Every child deserves a story” and we are asking our community what that phrase means to them. We want to hear from you! What does every child deserves a story mean to YOU? Tell us in the comments below.
Books of Wonder, a renowned Manhattan children’s bookstore, first opened in 1980 amidst the city’s proliferation of niche and used bookstores. In 2017, Books of Wonder’s owner, Peter Glassman, opened a second location on the Upper West Side in 2017. The move was strategic, given the rising rents of the store’s original home in Chelsea and the expiration of their lease in 2019. Reach Out and Read of Greater New York spoke to Peter Glassman about NYC’s bookstore landscape and his favorite bookstores in New York and around the country. To anyone reading this who has ever thought about opening a bookstore or starting your own business, Peter has some smart advice.
When and why did you decide you wanted to own and operate a bookstore?
I wanted to work in a bookstore as soon as I discovered there were such places – probably around 8 or 9 years old. After I finally got a job in a bookstore when I was 15, I soon found myself full of questions as to the why’s and how’s of the business. Luckily, the store owner was a very kind man and patiently answered my questions. By the time I was 18, having worked in the store for three years, I was already busy planning my own bookstore.
When you opened Books of Wonder in 1980. What was the bookstore landscape in New York City?
The city had many more bookstores back then — many of them specialty stores like The Science Fiction Shop in the West Village and Murder Ink on the Upper West Side. There were also legendary stores like The Scribner Bookstore and Doubleday Bookstore on 5th Avenue. And there were also many more used bookstores around the city.
How has that landscape changed?
As the city has become more homogenized and more and more chain stores have taken over the retail spaces in many neighborhoods, rents have risen at an alarming rate, making it harder and harder for bookstores to survive — especially given the very small margins on which booksellers operate. It makes earning the trust and loyalty of your customers and community even more important than ever.
Why did you decide to make Books of Wonder a store that catered to children and young adults?
Because I love the creativity and passion that go into children’s books. For years now I’ve told the young people who work at the store that a good children’s book is good at any age and a bad children’s book is good at no age.
What were your favorite books to read as a child?
My earliest memory is of my mom reading to me from When We Were Very Young by A.A. Milne and I dearly love the Pooh stories. I adored Dr. Seuss, Where The Wild Things Are, and The Snowy Day when I was in pre-school. The first books that made me truly fall in love with reading were Half Magic and its sequels by Edward Eager. I also loved Kenneth Graham’s The Wind in the Willows, Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth, and all the books of E. Nesbit, Lloyd Alexander, E.L. Konigsburg, George Selden, Madeleine L’Engle, L. Frank Baum, Louisa May Alcott, and Frances Hodgson Burnett. But the book that most captivated me was J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, which I read in 5th grade and continued to read again each year for many, many years and still read again when time allows and the mood strikes me.
Name a recent picture book, middle grade novel, and teen novel that you are very excited about.
In 2016, I was incredibly impressed by the first picture book that Brendan Wenzel both wrote and illustrated, “They All Saw a Cat,” which I was delighted to see named a Caldecott Honor Book. It’s a dazzling look at perspective and perception and a lot of fun! Last fall, I was thrilled to discover David Barclay Moore’s brilliant middle grade novel — set right here in Harlem — The Stars Beneath Our Feet, which explores the challenges of coming of age in the here and now. And this year, I am very excited about Claire Legrand’s thrilling new teen fantasy novel, “Furyborn,” a wonderful novel that intertwines two tales of two very strong women living ages apart in a fascinating world.
What has been the most challenging aspect of running a bookstore?
Finding the time to do what I want to do to grow the business, when there always seems to be some urgent priority that needs my immediate attention. Learning to juggle and schedule –and adapt — have proven to be crucial skills.
What has been one consistently positive aspect of operating a bookstore?
Meeting all the wonderful people who come into the store — from the families who’ve grown up in the store to the people who are just discovering it to the wonderful authors and artists who come in to share their incredible stories and art. If you don’t enjoy meeting and engaging with people, owning a bookstore — or at least a children’s bookstore — is probably not for you.
Do you have business advice for bookstore owners or anyone who is thinking of starting and operating a business?
Think long and hard about it and know clearly what you want and why you want it. So often I hear people tell me they want to own their own business because they “don’t want to have to answer to anyone else anymore.” Well, that’s definitely the wrong reason to open any business – but especially a bookstore. As the owner, you answer to everyone — your customers, your staff, your suppliers, your publishers, your insurance company, the city, state, and federal government — I could go on, but you get the point. The other thing I’d recommend is to be open to constructive criticism. It’s never fun to be told you’re not doing things right, but the criticism of your customers, staff, and others in the field is often invaluable. While I’m very appreciative of compliments, I know I’ve learned far more from criticism!
What are some of your favorite independent bookstores in NYC and around the nation?
We are so lucky to have so many great bookstores in NYC and around the country. For me, a great bookstore has a carefully curated selection of books that reflects and embraces the needs and tastes of its customers and community. So many bookstores reflect these qualities, but I’ll limit myself to one in NYC and one somewhere else in the USA. In NYC, the first store that springs to mind is a long time favorite of mine, Three Lives & Company. Outside of NY, I’d have to go with Hicklebees, the children’s bookstore in San Jose, California. Both of these stores are wonderful places where readers feel welcome, appreciated, and taken care of. But there are many, many others in communities all across the country.