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BY JOSH ROGERS | A toddler followed her brother and squealed with delight as he held up books she obviously liked. “He asks to come here all the time,” Jordana Blitz, the children’s mother, said on a rainy Saturday afternoon.
And her daughter of course enjoyed the visit too. Squeals are a common sound in Books of Wonder, the children’s bookstore at the easy-to-remember 18 W. 18th St. Sometimes the sounds are happy, sometimes they are voices of complaint about leaving the store, and sometimes they’re just because that’s what children do.
Blitz’s husband, Justin, said, “We care about patronizing a local business that isn’t owned by CVS. They have the best selection.”
Shopping local is a common reason customers give for going to the bookstore. Perhaps an even more typical response is that the staff knows books and make great recommendations.
A few months ago, a clerk turned me on to the “Inspector Flytrap” series when I asked for something for my four-year-old that “was like ‘Captain Awesome’ [it is, BTW] but geared more for girls.”
Cryptic or vague requests like that seldom faze the staff. In this case, “Flytrap” proved to be the rare book that appeals to my daughter, and her eight-year-old brother.
“My staff is my not-so-secret weapon,” Peter Glassman, the store’s owner, said in a phone interview.
Glassman, 58, said unlike the Strand, which gives prospective employees a test, he just talks to them about books to see that they’re knowledgeable, and to get a sense of how they’ll interact with customers looking for a recommendation.
Books of Wonder opened in 1980 at 444 Hudson St. in the Village almost accidentally as a children’s bookstore. Glassman, only 20 at the time, said he wanted an antiquarian bookstore, but found he had extra shelf room in the cramped ($400 a month) space. So he put out children’s books and the idea grew. He thought it would be a mix of science fiction/fantasy and children’s books, which is how he hit on “Wonder” to capture both.
He moved the store to Chelsea in 1986, and settled at the current location on 18th between Fifth and Sixth Aves. (some may say Chelsea, others Flatiron) 10 years ago. He opened an Upper West Side store last fall, in part to prepare for a likely move in two or so years.
His lease is up at the end of next year, and he wanted to have at least one store to avoid many layoffs in case there’s a transition period finding a new Downtown location.
“I have been very lucky. Most of my landlords have been very reasonable,” including the current one, he said.
He guesses he won’t be able to afford the lease renewal, but is confident he’ll find another Downtown spot if he has to move. He said the store has had a small drop-off in sales as some of his Uptown customers now have a more convenient option, but there’s enough business for two locations.
Barnes & Noble never worried him, he said, but Amazon “is a problem because they use their entire book line as a loss leader.” It’s hard to compete against a behemoth that is willing to lose money in one area.
E-books don’t interest or concern him. “People see a value in having something to touch and hold, particularly with children’s books,” he said. “They see a value in sharing something with their children.”
Glassman always loved books, but had to wait until he was 15 before he got a job in a bookstore.
“I was the kid who every kid’s parent knew to buy me a bookstore gift card for my Bar Mitzvah,” he said.
Part of the store’s success, he said, is over the years, renowned authors like Maurice Sendak (“Where the Wild Things Are”) and George Selden (“The Cricket in Times Square”) took a liking to it and helped with appearances and signings. He’s particularly proud a little-known British author he calls Jo, came in for a reading 20 years ago during the short window of time before “Harry Potter and Sorcerer’s Stone” reached the best sellers list.
Jo, much better known as J.K. Rowling, creator of a multi-billion dollar book series, “only did two US tours, and we were one of the lucky few who got her twice.”
Voldemort doesn’t always win.
The Downtown location of Books of Wonder is at 18 W. 18th St. (btw. Fifth & Sixth Aves. Call 212-989-3270). The Uptown location is at 217 W. 84th St. (btw. Broadway & Amsterdam Aves. Call 212-989-1804). Store hours for both locations: Mon.-Sat., 10 a.m.-7 p.m. and Sun., 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Visit booksofwonder.com. Email them at firstname.lastname@example.org.