How indie booksellers are staging a comeback on the East End
It’s hard to beat the sights and sounds and scents of browsing a local bookstore. A delicate bell chimes to welcome shoppers to a new world. A scent reminiscent of vanilla wafts through the store, emanating from the wood-based paper. As eager book-lovers scan the rows of covers, the old wood floor creaks under their feet.
Over 300 independent bookstores have opened nationwide since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, per The New York Times. And the East End, it seems, has followed suit.
“I’ve been surrounded by books my whole life,” said Jocelyn Maningo Kaleita, who opened A Book Place at the site of the former Taste of the East End boutique on East Main Street in Riverhead last summer. The East Moriches native has had her name scribbled in the flyleaf of this book journey for a while. Kaleita said she’s been working toward opening her own shop for well over a decade.
Kaleita previously worked at The Open Book, a now-shuttered indie bookstore in Westhampton. She also worked at Hampton Bays Public Library for a decade and spent 12 years at Westhampton Public Library as she continued research for potential locations for a store.
“Riverhead was in the forefront of my brain,” she said. “Everyone uses it to go north and south, and east and west. It would be a great place. But it always had Borders.”
Borders was a go-to for Riverhead readers from 2003 until 2011, when the chain folded.
In November, however, another book giant filled the gap when Barnes & Noble opened in the same Route 58 shopping center where Borders used to be.
Sarah deQuillfeldt, the Riverhead Barnes & Noble store manager, said Borders was “actually one of the things that was wonderful and a little sad about opening in this location.
“We knew that this community had gone so long without a bookstore — and that it was this same shopping center,” she recalled.
DeQuillfeldt previously worked at the Barnes & Noble in the Smith Haven Mall in Lake Grove for a decade. While there, she said customers often requested a Barnes & Noble be opened in the Town of Riverhead.
“From my perspective, I think we responded to that as a company,” she said. “We said, ‘If this is what our customers are asking for, then we want to support that request.’”
Kaleita said she always knew that Barnes & Noble — which opened its doors just four months after she did — was coming to Riverhead. While there was an initial fear of competition, she said doesn’t see the retailer — or other big names like Amazon or Target — as a threat.
“I’m never going to be taking on Barnes & Noble … they’re not my competition,” she said. “It’s like apples and oranges. Don’t get me wrong, I love a Barnes & Noble because they have everything. If I don’t know what I want yet and I’m open to something new, they’re great. The problem is, I rarely want something that I haven’t heard of yet.”
Kaleita has also worked at Burton’s Bookstore in Greenport, which has seen positive growth under owner Scott Raulsome.
While working at Hofstra University in 2014, Raulsome, 49, read an article in The Suffolk Times indicating that George Maaiki, the former owner of Burton’s, was looking to sell the vacated store at 43 Front Street after a roughly 20 year ownership. Later that year, Raulsome moved from Williston Park to the East End to operate the shop.
“I kind of knew the second I read that article that this was my future — probably my one opportunity I’d ever have to own a bookstore, I [hadn’t] even really considered it before,” he said.
But it was no easy feat. “It needed a lot of work,” Raulsome explained, and the “injection of capital, time, and TLC.”
Raulsome has transformed the store, which once struggled to keep current novels on the shelves, into a modern staple in Greenport. He agreed that to be a longstanding bookstore, those modifications were necessary.
So what’s trending in East End bookstores these days? Raulsome said Greenport and the surrounding community run a little different from the norm. Since there’s a heavy publishing influence, books by local authors are more likely to sell at Burton’s than at an average bookstore, he said.
As for genre, Raulsome said he’s seen a pivot from thrillers to drama and romance.
The same appears to be true nationwide. Goodreads, a popular social media platform where users can write reviews and track of what their friends are reading, revealed in December that the top five most-read books tied to the platform’s 2022 Reading Challenge were all romance. Furthermore, author Colleen Hoover — known for her work in romance and young adult fiction — nabbed four of the top 10 spots on the list.
“All this could be the result of people seeking happier endings or a lighter read after the past couple of years,” Raulsome said.
It’s also a clear result of BookTok, a book-loving subcommunity on the social media app TikTok. Burton’s, A Book Place and Barnes & Noble all have sections set up with popular #BookTok grabs.
BookTok is “absolutely huge” and has been an exciting thing for the book community, DeQuillfeldt said. “It’s great to see something like that — this word-of-mouth popularity with readers talking to other readers and recommending books, and then these books get a huge popularity boost.”
DeQuillfeldt said she believes that though Barnes & Noble doesn’t work directly with smaller independent stores, there’s room for small and large bookstores to exist together.
People are seeking happier endings or a lighter read after the past couple of years.Scott Raulsome
The national chain of booksellers has reported “unprecedented” growth in recent years. In January, the company announced plans to open a store in the Bridgehampton Commons this summer. In the decade following the Great Recession of 2008-2009, the company only opened a handful of new stores. In 2022, 16 new Barnes & Noble stores opened and the company says it has more than 30 additional sites in development this year.
“One of the great things about Barnes & Noble now though is that we are so able to tailor things to our community,” DeQuillfeldt said. The store recently hosted a talk with Nina Ross, author of “Montauk Mike,” through the East End Press.
Kaleita said “My dad’s like, ‘How do you know they won’t go on Amazon and buy it?’ And I say I don’t know, but more often than not they’ll come back. Like, I took the time to talk to them, I took the time to write it down, I took the time to appreciate that they’re making a purchase by coming in. I think 90 percent of the time, I’ve had retention. And I’m not in it to make millions — I’m in it to share my love of books.”