On a Saturday afternoon, at the back of the Austin Book Shop in Richmond Hill, owner Ray Harley is reading about Hollywood’s biggest flops. His business is on the opposite side of the success spectrum: Austin Book Shop is one of the few brick-and-mortar secondhand bookstores in the city that has thrived in a world of digital book sellers.
The shop, less than a block away from the 104th Street station off the J train tracks, looks out of place among the bodegas, bars and barber shops that line one of the busiest streets in Queens.
Its storefront tells why: Austin Book Shop’s founder (Harley’s predecessor), Bernard Titowsky, opened the store in 1954, the year Harley was born, and not far from Harley’s birthplace (the now-defunct Kew Gardens General Hospital). The original shop was around the corner from the Austin Ale House in Kew Gardens, which inspired its name. Titowsky had moved the bookstore to Richmond Hill in the 1980s, after a basement flood wiped out most of his inventory.
Cue Harley, who lived close by and owned a baseball book collection. When he and his wife welcomed a new baby in 1983, his hundreds of books began crowding their apartment. Harley sold Titowsky his collection. It was a hit. Titowsky asked Harley if there was more where that came from, and that was the start of a longtime friendship.
When Titowsky died a decade later, Harley was the family’s sole choice for acquiring the store, he says. He would be the guy to keep the community staple going. Over the years, Austin Book Shop became a place where locals could have an old-fashioned bookstore experience. It’s a spot where generations had discovered gems like a 1930s-era feminist detective series in the dollar wagons outside.
“I’d like to think it’s where people know they can come and get an interesting book,” Harley says.
It was also a place where the owner might not know your name but would always remember your book. Harley’s favorite part of the job is still learning about esoteric topics from Richmond Hill neighbors. “I remember somebody from around the corner came in and his purchase was a book about the Mississippi Chinese,” Harley recalls. “The secret is, the more specific the book, the better it is.”
Little shop of survival secrets
The dollar-book wagons at the storefront are passersby’s treasure chests. Inside are the dominant American history and baseball book sections. (Harley’s affinity for baseball books was borne from attending games at Ebbets Field with his dad, a die-hard Dodgers fan.) There are also hefty stacks for American music and performing arts, immigration, African-American studies and New York City history.
Harley bought the Austin Book Shop building in 1994 for $125,000. Not having to worry about rent hikes was key to the store’s long-term survival, Harley says.
Around the time of Harley’s purchase, Amazon changed the bookselling game forever. A relative helped him make the move to an online catalog soon afterwards. Austin Book Shop has since done most of its business online.That early shift might be another reason why the secondhand bookstore stayed strong while its peers closed shop or came close to it.
Harley also attributes his success to a piece of advice he received from the former owner of a used bookstore in Kingston, New York: “I remember him telling me very early on, ‘you’ve got to keep buying [books],” Harley says. “ ‘Because they notice when there’s not the same old stuff.’ ”
For new old books, Harley regularly scours yard sales around New York and used book stores just outside the city. Twice a year, he also takes a trip up the Hudson Valley to visit various bookstores in Kingston and Monticello. He carts off a few boxes of out-of-print books at “reasonable” prices.
Harley often gets calls from potential sellers: “I just got a guy talking to me today who wants me to come to Middle Village to look at his late father’s collection,” Harley says.
He takes a call from one possible seller during Epicenter’s visit. With space in the shop at a premium, Harley tells inquirers he takes baseball and American history books only. Some are regular sellers, says Harley: “I have several people who work for real estate agencies and say, ‘we got this house and there’s books. You want to come look at them?’ I go, ‘sure.’”
Booking it with Harley
For Harley, the biggest challenge in running his business has nothing to do with the shop itself: “being a landlord,” he says. “I have lovely tenants upstairs, but worrying about not only buying books but the building — I wake up in the middle of the night and [ask myself], ‘did I fill the furnace?’ — that’s the thing.”
During Epicenter’s visit, one of his tenants comes through to coordinate a fridge replacement after his old one “bit the dust.”
“You know what happened?” Anthony, the tenant, explains to Epicenter. “[The fridge] started going like a whining ‘weeeeeeeee, kuh-kuh-kuh-kuh-kuh,’ loud!”
Harley’s vision is more subtle: “As Robert Klein, the comedian, once put it, ‘90 seconds after you’re dead, you don’t care.’ So whatever [family members] do, I will hopefully wave from above and say ‘OK, nice job.’ ”
Harley’s daughter-in-laws are “after” him to get the yard cleaned up so they can host events and readings, he explains. And Harley’s 11-year-old grandson is fascinated by the business.
His grandson’s favorite question: “How much do you pay for books?”
Austin Book Shop
Location: 104-29 Jamaica Ave, Richmond Hill, NY 11418
Hours: Saturday-Sunday 10 a.m.- 4 p.m.
Contact: 718) 441-1199