A Big Bookstore Birthday

Since it opened its doors in Park Slope in late fall 1971, the Community Bookstore has served as an anchor amidst a sea of change in the neighborhood. In the 1970s, the bookstore anchored a swath of Brownstone Brooklyn teetering on the edge of a downward spiral. Decade after decade, it served a community that eventually became one of the most desirable places to live in all of New York City. Today, it’s an institution in a neighborhood that has managed to retain its diversity and character despite its recent “discovery” by mega-developers and big-box national chains.

Jonathan Safran Foer, Mary Morris, and Paul Auster (from left) were among the local authors at the Community Bookstore anniversary.

Iska Alter, English professor emeritus at Hofstra University, put it succinctly on a recent visit to the bookstore, where she has been a regular customer for many years. “If the bookstore were to go, that would be it,” she said. “I would know it was time to leave the neighborhood.”

On Sept. 17, the bookstore celebrated its four decades in the neighborhood at the Old First Church on Seventh Avenue. A standing-room crowd of at least 800 people heard local authors Paul Auster, Siri Hustvedt, Jonathan Safran Foer, Nicole Krauss, Mary Morris, Jon Scieszka, and Hayley Tanner read from their favorite works of the last 40 years. Civic Council President Michael Cairl opened the proceedings by praising the bookstore as an example of what makes Park Slope a vibrant, close-knit neighborhood, and Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz presented the store with a proclamation honoring its 40 years in the community.

The event and the open house that followed at the bookstore were organized by current store owners Stephanie Valdez and Ezra Goldstein. The pair, who have been running the store for the last year, are just the third owners in 40 years, following the store’s founder, Susan Scioli, and Catherine Bohne, who took over in 2001.

“Susan had the vision and the courage to open a bookstore when Park Slope was still a risky place to do business,” said Goldstein, who shopped at the store for 25 years before starting work there. “Then she built the store’s reputation as a literary haven: where book lovers knew they could find the best literature and salespeople who loved to talk about it.

“Catherine worked alongside Susan for several years — helping the store weather the onslaughts of Amazon and of Barnes & Noble down the street — before taking over just a few weeks before 9/11,” Goldstein continued. “The bookstore became a gathering place and a safe haven in the weeks after the tragedy, and then Catherine went on, in many other ways, to make the word ‘community’ in its name real.”

Plaques honoring Bohne from the Civic Council and the Park Slope Chamber of Commerce hang in the bookstore.

“We have great plans for the future,” said Valdez, whose experience includes working for a hedge fund and helping to launch a successful web-based business. “Already, we have vastly expanded our inventory, inspired by Susan’s vision of being the go-to bookstore for a neighborhood filled with passionate readers. Many of those readers are just learning to walk, so we’ve grown our children’s and young-adult sections by nearly 40%. Every day, we become more adept at tracking down hard-to-find books and, often, can fill our customers’ wish lists overnight.

“Both Susan and Catherine had a wonderful sense of literature and we have expanded on their long tradition of featuring independent presses and international authors,” she added. “We now have several shelves devoted to our favorite small presses.

“It may sound like an oxymoron,” Goldstein noted, “but our goal is to be anchored and nimble at the same time. We treasure our place as an anchor to our neighborhood — a small space with an outsized role — but to survive as an independent bookstore these days we have to always be on our toes, looking for new ways to serve the booklovers of our Brooklyn home.”

Community Bookstore is located at 143 Seventh Ave. between Carroll Street and Garfield Place. To learn more, go to www.communitybookstore.net.

—  Ezra Goldstein was editor of Civic News for several years before becoming a co-owner of the Community Bookstore.

from the September 2011 Civic News