The used-book business is a rough and humbling trade fraught with perils new as the Internet and as old as Dickens, who undoubtedly would be thrilled to know how many dog-earned volumes of his life’s work have reached its dusty shelves.
It’s a business that can swallow the most learned ego whole, teaching her in one cruel cash register “bing” that pure brilliance often sells for less then a roll of really absorbent paper towels. It is also a business with which one can fall in love.
Freebird Books & Goods, at 123 Columbia St. near Kane Street, is one example of both phenomena, one of those places where the clerks — some volunteers who live nearby and love the place as much the shop’s owners— spend more time chatting to customers than ringing up sales. It has the feel of a bohemian hangout in an off-season fishing village, more charming than profitable.
Until now it has survived on the tireless enthusiasm and creative budgeting of two neighborhood residents, Samantha Citrin and Rachel London, first-time entrepreneurs who met while working at nearby restaurants. As the founding myth tells it, the pair decided to open Freebird while sunbathing one day on a nearby rooftop.
But now, Citrin has decided to quit the book-selling business, leaving London in search of a new partner, someone with a “passion for books, willingness to take a risk in an upcoming neighborhood with enormous potential for change” and the resources to make “a significant financial investment,” the team wrote in a friendly “Help Wanted” e-mail sent to store supporters this week. Here we return to the humbling effect of the used book trade.
Citrin and London have created one of the city’s greatest sitting rooms — a cozy corner of good books, microwavable corn dogs and front-row views of the Statue of Liberty, which you can enjoy over a cold can of rare Moxie soda. (If you arrive in time: Apparently there is one guy who likes the bitter, New England elixir so much that he tends to roll in a few days after the delivery truck and buy the entire supply.)
The store attracts a Round Table of literary talent ranging from upstart post-modern darlings like John Haskell, author of “I am Not Jackson Pollack” to New York Times bestseller Robert Sullivan (“Rats.” No, that’s not jealousy. That’s the name of one of his books).
At a recent fundraiser for the store, Sullivan read from his latest non-fiction epic, “Cross Country,” and then played an old-time fiddle duet with his elementary-school-aged daughter. She hit all the right notes.
And even with all that, business is tough at the shop.
“People are still getting over the idea of crossing the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway,” said London. “We gave ourselves a double challenge by trying to run a used bookstore, which is hard anywhere, and doing it so far off the beaten path.”
Citrin’s departure puts another challenge on the homey store. And as London put it, “The question is how we grow and make money while keeping the store feeling like [the neighborhood’s] living room?”
I don’t have an answer. If you do, Freebird’s number is (718) 643-8484. Tell London you are up for the toughest job you’ll ever love.
A very reliable source told The Sink this week that a “retailer that young people will be excited to see” is about to sign a lease with Two Trees Management for the Independence Savings Bank building at Atlantic Avenue and Court Street, which the developer plans to convert for retail use later this year. Trendy Urban Outfitters was eying the landmark location earlier this year. …
Or is Atlantic Avenue on its way to becoming the new hipster row? Ever notice the roomy, glass-front retail vacancy at 164 Atlantic Ave., just east of Court Street, and also owned by Two Trees? Word is, so has the city’s newest cheapie fashionmonger, H&M. If trendy stores were armies, The Sink thinks H&M would beat out UO for the hearts and minds of Atlantic Avenue. …
Last week, everyone’s favorite Gowanus sludge-fighters, the Urban Divers Estuary Conservancy, hunted pollutants on the canal with a team of science students from City Tech led by professors Nasreen Haque and Niloufar Haque. The Divers say they uncovered a “thin layer of mucus like substance and host microbial colony” on the deep-canal trek. Study will continue, they say. Good luck with that, we say!… Our pal Regina Duggins, who is not only day camp director at Gowanus Houses, but the daughter of Smartmom’s nanny, Beautiful Smile, is raising money for rides, activities, food and entertainment for a camp carnival in August. If you can help, call (718) 807-8599.