turning the page

For years, Jessica Kaplan and Mark Fowler had a good idea of what retirement would look like. They just needed to be patient and devise their plan. Kaplan, now 68, had been teaching elementary and middle school at Rye Country Day School before retiring in 2015. Fowler, her 70-year-old husband, practiced law with Satterlee Stephens LLP and represented publishers in copyright disputes and libel defense cases.

Opening their independent bookstore in Scarsdale, Bronx River Books, was the perfect and logical next chapter for the 38-year residents of White Plains, whose English Springer Spaniel is named Virginia Woolf.

“We entertained the idea years ago, when Reading Writing & Wrapping moved out of Scarsdale Village,” explained Fowler. “We never sold anything prior to this and did it mostly out of a love for bookstores and an urge to undertake something new.”

“And also a desire to connect with Westchester,” added Kaplan. “People move, and when you’re no longer connected to your job, to have a means of meeting new people is delightful. This turned out to be a welcoming community.”

First Year Learnings
“Aside from three or four major holidays, we’ve been here every day, and that’s what we expected to do,” said Fowler. With help from friends, the community and longtime booksellers in Connecticut and Rhode Island, they culled and curated 10,000 book titles.

Despite the enthusiasm about indie bookstores, it’s still a tough business, acknowledged Fowler. “Not just because of the box-store competition and online booksellers but due to all the dynamics of being a retailer.”

The couple live just eight minutes from the book shop by car. “It’s a time-consuming business, and you want to be here all the time – at least at the outset,” Kaplan admitted. “It’s been fun to do it every day, but suddenly you decide to go to a wedding in Ithaca or Philly. Who’s going to cover for us?”

Finding Their Niche
The couple researched more than 62 independent bookstores to gather information and tips, while learning their competition includes bookstores in Bronxville, Larchmont, Rye, Pleasantville, and Chappaqua. “One of the reasons we ended up in Scarsdale is because we didn’t want to step on anybody’s toes,” said Fowler. “We hope we have created a home for some readers.”

The village’s events bring in customers, “And we love when people come in to browse and chat. Everybody’s friendly,” according to Kaplan.

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Fowler’s experience representing publishers gives him insight into why the market is more challenging for big companies than it is for smaller bookstores. “If you’re a publisher, and you know that roughly half of your market is a single customer, (then) that is not exactly an ideal marketplace.”

Having one or two copies of some books allows them to stock a broader selection, and placement copies can be obtained within two days, sometimes even the next day. Customers have also suggested they carry some really obscure titles which, in fact, have sold.

Looking Ahead
“What we’d like to do that we didn’t anticipate the first year is get a variety of books and merchandise into the store,” said Kaplan. This will include more non-book items “that are book-related or that stimulate the brain.”

The couple have started an in-store book club that meets every two months and more events like evening speakers are continually being added. While enjoying this new chapter in their lives, Fowler and Kaplan also plan to spend deserved time away from the store.

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