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Robin Friedman : author and journalist

Two stores between its covers

Tiny Blairstown boasts two independent bookshops

By ROBIN FRIEDMAN | The STAR-LEDGER | January 2, 2003

In what is considered by some the middle of nowhere, tiny Blairstown boasts not just one, but two independently owned bookstores — a few stores apart on the same side of tiny Main Street, and both owned by retired residents pursuing their second careers.

Blairstown is among a handful of towns in the Garden State to host more than one independent bookstore. Among the others is Princeton, which has three (four if you count the university store, five if you count the theological seminary store). But Ivy League Princeton is far better known and more accessible than unassuming Blairstown in bucolic Warren County.

“It's extremely unusual,” concedes Amanda Bailey, owner of Bebe's Books and Beans. “People sometimes tell me, ‘We need so many things. Why two bookstores?’ But that's what we have.”

In recent years, many friendly downtown bookshops have given way to huge chain bookstores stationed along busy highways. These superstores, of the Barnes & Noble or Borders ilk, offer giant selections, slashed prices and attractive coffee bars, and have overmatched the small independents.

But, according to the American Booksellers Association, 4,066 independent bookstores still operate in the United States, of which 89 thrive in New Jersey.

“It's fun,” says Herman Shoemaker, owner, with his wife of 47 years, Pat, of Book Nest. “It works quite nicely.”

Both owners stress that Blairstown’s bookstores complement one another rather than compete. That may explain why both bookshops are able to thrive in an area that barely has the population to support Nathan’s Hot Dogs, which closed last year.

Bebe’s, located at 31 Main St. and housed inside a sea-green building with a mahogany porch, sells new hardcovers and paperbacks for adults and children, as well as children's toys, greeting cards and calendars.

Bebe’s also does a brisk business in gourmet coffee and homemade cookies, breads and scones, baked by its owner, a blue-eyed book-lover with short, wheat-colored hair. In the fall, the sumptuous scent of pumpkin spice coffee greets customers at the door.

Down the street, past the Gourmet Tomato Pie Company, Post-Time Pub and Joyce's Travel Agency, Book Nest, at 17 Main St., does a brisk business in collector's dolls, out-of-print books and gifts like porcelain figurines, scented candles, jewelry boxes and miniature ships inside bottles.

Book Nest, too, is housed in an old building, a handsome blue house with wide white columns and a wooden porch. Both stores fit into the streetscape of Main Street, which, though small, is both historic and lovely.

How a tiny town can comfortably support two independent bookstores, in an age when most towns cannot support one, is a mystery to both owners.

But Pat Shoemaker dares to venture a guess.

“There's nothing else to do around here,” she says with a laugh. “Except read.”

Herman Shoemaker elaborates on the point. “There's a high level of education in this town that bolsters reading,” he agrees.

According to the 2000 Census, about 13 percent of Blairstown's 5,700 residents hold a graduate or professional degree, second in the county behind Allamuchy with 15 percent.

While the northwest region of New Jersey is known for its picturesque farms, wooded mountain ridges and scenic vistas, it also is home a fair number of writers and artists looking for peace and quiet. These customers make up the bulk of traffic at both stores.

“It's true,” says Bailey. “This area is quite intellectual. People like to read.”

Bailey opened her store three years ago. She had spent 23 years as an administrator in hospitals, and moved to the area from Long Island seven years earlier.

“I just kept talking and talking about opening a little bookstore,” she says. “One day, a friend of mine told me there was a store available on Main Street, but I had only one day to make up my mind, because someone else was interested in it. They apparently wanted to open a tire business, but my friend wanted to see a bookstore on Main Street instead.”

Bailey dove in with 24 hours' notice. Her husband, Emera Bailey, a retired U.S. Navy captain and cabinetmaker, designed the space and built all the wooden bookshelves.

Bailey named the store in honor of her older sister, Anita Rothbart, who, as a child, could not pronounce the word “baby” after her little sister was born. She instead called Bailey “bebe,” which stuck as a lifelong nickname. Anita Rothbart died seven years ago.

Book Nest, too, is both snug and charming. Its space is narrow but extremely deep, with rooms that seem never-ending. The children's room contains what the Shoemakers like to call their “book nest,” a cozy wooden box complete with soft blanket.

Shoemaker does a lot of business over the Internet. In addition to out- of-print books, he sells books that are about to go out of print and some new titles, all heavily discounted.

“We feel we're unique,” he says. “We enjoy our customers. People come in and tell us how quaint and friendly it is here. The big chains can't do that for people.”