Enterprising BookCourt Defies Trend

Hills & Gardens
By Trudy Whitman

Borders book stores recently filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. The formerly indomitable Barnes & Noble closed its Upper West Side mega-store. And only a handful of tenacious independent book stores hang on in the city. Sadly, Heights Books, which relocated from Montague to Smith Street has closed, and Atlantic Book Shop on Atlantic Avenue is in the process of doing the same. These shops featured used and antiquarian merchandise.

Yet Cobble Hill’s BookCourt, 163 Court Street, continues to expand. BookCourt has just announced the addition of a discount floor on the basement level of 163 Court — once a level devoted to such pastimes as travel and cooking, and most recently given over to office space and shipping and receiving. But the shop owners felt it would make good business sense to use the area for remainders, British imports, and used $1 books.

BookCourt is owned and operated by Henry Zook, Mary Gannett, and their son, Zach Zook. The key to the store’s success, said Henry during a previous interview, is customer loyalty. “This is a strong, smart neighborhood, unique in its intimacy and scale,” Zook said at the time.

BookCourt opened in 1981, when Court Street was still a bit scruffy around the edges. In 1984 Henry and Mary bought the building they were renting at 163 Court, renovating the basement level in 1990. Next was the purchase of 161 Court Street, the former home of a florist. It was the greenhouse behind this storefront that provided the footprint for the 65-foot-deep, 1,600-square-foot backyard annex. This light-infused space afforded much-needed book shelving — the shop doubled its inventory — and room for BookCourt’s popular author readings and book discussion groups for adults and children.

Henry Zook may credit the neighborhood with his book store’s success, but BookCourt continues to flourish because of smart merchandising and a decision to work even harder. Customers worried about a “You’ve Got Mail” scenario when Barnes & Noble came to Court. That’s the 1998 film with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan in which a book behemoth gobbles up a beloved neighborhood independent. But Mary, Henry, and Zach applied some elbow grease, increased operating hours, hired more employees, discounted books, and convinced major publishing houses to send their top authors to Brooklyn for readings. (The authors themselves needed little convincing as many of them happen to live in Brooklyn!)

The basement level is a no-frills arrangement now with concrete floors and plain pine shelves. But, oh, the deals you get when you descend! New British Wordsworth Classics are only $5. Among the choices when we visited were The Count of Monte Cristo, The Pickwick Papers, and the Forsyte Saga. A book by the popular novelist Alexander McCall Smith was only $6.95 for hardcover, and a 500-page softcover volume by Joyce Carol Oates was $5.95. A large-format art and design section featured Edward Steichen’s gorgeous Lives in Photography for $39.95, and a lovely annotated Wind in the Willows was available for $15.95.

Future plans for the basement level, noted Zach Zook on a tour of the new space, include an antiquarian section, as well as a European-style food bar serving light snacks, wine, and espresso.

* * *

A new “forever” postage stamp issued last week is an image of Alan B. Shepard, Jr., the first American to fly in space. (See page 2.) The artist who produced the art commemorating the 50th anniversary of Shepard’s celestial feat is Donato Giancola, a resident of Boerum Hill.
Giancola is quoted in a New York Times blog, noting that his commission did not include free stamps.

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