Long Island's best bookstore -- Novelist Wilfrid Sheed takes us to Bookhampton

The ideal bookstore, from an author’s point of view, would obviously be the one in which his books seem to be everywhere and the whole staff goes down on its knees the moment he walks in the door. The least ideal would be the megachain that looks like a sports complex, where they have trouble making out the name on his Visa card, and he needs a map and a couple of native bearers to find his latest (forget his earliest; anything more than three months old is a rare book in a chain store).

Unfortunately for him, and for all of us, the real-life mom-and-pop bookstores where the owners really know and love writers and writing tend, with sparkling exceptions, to be an acre or two too small these days, with only so-so credit, and the long and short of it is that they just sold their only three copies of the book you want and don’t know if or when they’ll ever see it again. Big stores, for better or worse, do have a lot of books in them — and that’s a nice sight, too.

One of the more successful attempts to seize the vast middle ground between ”poor but bright” and ”rich but kind of dumb” has to be the Bookhampton mini-chain, located in the flossy Long Island Hamptons — good book country but not great, since it goes out of existence for nine months every year and becomes regular middle American countryside.

But the Bookhampton idea could probably work anywhere. The only thing ”chain” about it is that it has three locations, which makes it in sum a large bookstore — bigger than almost any private bookstore in Manhattan. But each of the three branches is a small, local bookstore with its own style and crotchets, dictated by the style of the neighborhood — sleepy and mainstream for Southampton, New Yorky and intellectual for East Hampton, and let’s call it bohemian-blue collar for my own beloved Sag Harbor. But if you need a book that your local Bookhampton doesn’t stock, it turns into a chain again and whips you over a copy the same day, at a discount that only a chain could afford to give.

The founders of these ”big little” bookstores are in fact a couple of New Yorkers who were looking for any excuse to get out, and stumbled into the bookstore business by degrees, one store at a time. George Caldwell was originally a drama major from the University of Washington who had wanted to be a play director but had drifted into publishing on the principle that coaxing the best out of authors is much the same as babying actors and maybe even more rewarding. The problem was, the book business is a city business — so how on earth do you do it in the country?

Meanwhile, his partner, Jorge Castello, was backing into the bookstore game from another direction. An MBA and a CPA in his native Argentina (English is his second language), he had tried several businessy careers in New York, none of which quite fit, but two of which probably equipped him as well as you can be for an accidental profession in bookstore management: He learned the art of visual display at Bloomingdale’s and he majored in book-market research at the American Management Association.

And ready or not, off they went, exactly 20 years ago this past May, unpacking their own crates and filling their own shelves, which they still do, and trying to find a staff that would stay put in a transitory neighborhood and a transitory profession (nobody ever plans to stay in the bookstore business, and if they do, you’re not always sure you want them to).

In the heat of battle, the two Georges, as they’re called, learned that the discounts they had to give in the off-season made them a much bigger operation in season as well, big enough to expand and trifurcate, so to speak; i.e., by acting big, they had become big. And they also learned the kind of weird thing you learn only under pressure — namely that Jorge, the businessman, had some kind of genius for ordering books, particularly promising new ones, while George, the bookman, was a whiz at numbers. So they simply changed parts — to a degree: In such a pop-and-pop outfit, everybody can do everything-and the resulting mishmash works so well that even the local authors, who are numerous, are not dissatisfied.

Adulation is too much to ask in this part-hip, part-rustic part of the world, but where else do you find bookstore owners who’ve not only read your books but can tell you which publisher would be just right for your next one?
— Novelist and critic Wilfrid Sheed’s latest book is Baseball and Lesser Sports.