Welcome back to our Bookseller Spotlight feature! Rachel Jagareski was kind enough to take the time to tell us about Old Saratoga Books in Schuylerville, New York. Biblio loves to support independent booksellers…it’s what we are all about!
Q: What makes your bookshop special?
A: I think any used or antiquarian bookshop will be special because the books on the shelves will reflect the owner’s personality. As bookshop buyers, we pass on some titles and actively seek out others- oftentimes books we’ve particularly loved to read ourselves- so it’s really impossible to see the same mix of books at another used bookstore.
Beyond that, Old Saratoga Books is a special destination because we not only have two floors of interesting books in over 90 categories in our historic landmark brick building, but we have funky bookends, bookish items and tchotchkes that I’ve picked up over the years adorning our shelves and making little tableaux. In my mystery section I have a little decoration of a bespectacled and stern mouse figurine who gazes at a canary toy that I arrange on its back, as if he were the town constable at a murder scene. I get a kick out of the fact that customers are always setting my upside down canary right side up, though I have seen some folks “get it” and flip it back again.
Q: Any upcoming in-store/online sales?
A: My husband and business partner Dan and I have always had stacks of books in our store windows which are on sale, whether it’s a pile of martial arts books, several titles by an author, a bunch of easy readers or some other category. We also have a case of “Sam’s Specials” right inside the door, that are priced at $1 each. (Sam is our sleepy gray and white bookstore cat).
For our online customers, I always run a 50% discount on a different category each month on our website and on Biblio.com. For the month of July, all of our Nautical Books are on sale and we’re hoping a good chunk will sail out of here to make room for new inventory.
Q: Would you like to share any favorite memories?
A: We’ve had some great times at our shop and our two daughters have grown up during the fifteen years we’ve been in business. My youngest didn’t even walk yet when we were first refurbishing the shop. I fondly remember her crawling across the slippery newly polished wood floor as a baby. Now we hire her to work at the shop and she’s in charge when we’re off book hunting.
One of my favorite memories is of the reuniting one of our friend’s mothers with a missing volume of her Harvard Classics set. Apparently, her mother had been reading the book just before her imminent demise and in the confusion afterward, the volume disappeared. Many years later, her daughter wanted to complete the set and turned to us for help. There are so many editions of the Harvard Classics that were published but we were able to sleuth around and get a replacement with the right color binding with the right amount of wear. Who knows? Maybe it was even the same book that her mother held in her hands on that fateful night.
Q: How did you get started selling books?
A: Both Dan and I have always been rabid readers, gobbling up books about all kinds of subjects and we had the groaning bookshelves to prove it, so when we were tossing around ideas for working at something different than our former jobs (carpenter, city planner) we kept circling back to wanting to open a comfy and cool used bookstore.
We started reading books about books, pestering booksellers with questions and haunting library and estate sales. Right before we opened the shop we bought the stock of a retiring bookseller and got a great education sifting through the thousands of volumes that we lugged back to our house. That was fifteen years ago next month and we’ve been in love with our jobs ever since.
Q: What do you find most rewarding about your job?
A: I love seeing young people in the shop, getting quietly excited about finding an obscure book by a favorite author or picking up an older binding with gilt edges or an interesting dust jacket and feeling that they’ve uncovered a gem. When they transmit this excitement to their buddies, as in, “Dude, you’ve got to read Kafka!” I always smile.
It is also rewarding to help students pick out titles from their high school or college reading lists. It’s like a treasure hunt and they are always amazed to see what the tally is when I total them up at the counter. Used book prices are so much more affordable than their new retail counterparts and we stock a large assortment of paperback classics at $1 apiece and Modern Library versions at $2 each.
Q: What is most challenging?
A: The flip side is the rude or boorish customer. While they are definitely in the minority, it only takes one stinker to color one’s day gray. One still has to maintain a retailer’s grace in the face of rampaging toddlers in need of a nap, the “baronesses” who require constant attention before deciding that they really have enough books at home anyway and leave empty-handed, and the bored tag-along friends of bibliophiles who abandon them at the counter where they pepper me with questions about everything except books.
Q: What was the most interesting book acquired in your shop?
A: One day a man phoned the shop and said that he was interested in selling some books. He noted that the books were his late father’s and that there were a lot of them so we’d have to arrange for a house call to look at them. My husband, who took the call, then asked for his name and phone number and he replied “My name is Kurt Vonnegut”. When Dan finally picked himself off the ground out of his faint, he found out that this was the famed-and-beloved-by-both-of-us author’s nephew.
We did end up purchasing the Vonnegut books, a couple of van loads of interesting books acquired by Bernard Vonnegut, famous Kurt’s brother, who was a meteorology professor. There were lots of books by and about Mark Twain, science, home repairs, philosophy and even one book that had been Kurt the Elder’s high school civics textbook complete with youthful signature and doodle (perhaps a fore-runner to the self-portraits he used to ink into later book signings with a cigarette drooping from his profiled lips?). Dan and I have had booksellers’ remorse ever since we sold that book. Later, we both read Vonnegut’s sort-of memoir “Timequake” and thought the passages about reading together with his brother Bernard were very sweet and gave us insight into all those books that had passed through our hands years before.
Q: Have you had any celebrities visit your store?
A: We’ve had the good fortune to have many interesting writers visit our store during their stay at the Yaddo Artist Colony in Saratoga Springs, including Donald Antrim, A.M. Homes, Jonathan Lethem, and Sheila Heti. We’ve had book signings with the courtly historian Richard Ketchum, the honey-voiced novelist Sheridan Hay, ghost story chronicler David Pitkin and our own local history expert, Tom Wood. I’ve had mail order sales to some wonderful writers of note, too, including William F. Buckley, Nathaniel Philbrick, Luanne Rice, and Mark Kurlansky; the latter being the author of “Cod”, which I had spookily just finished reading the night before he called to order a book from our website.
But I got my biggest literary celebrity frisson one day when a demure woman came to the counter with a small pile of books to purchase. She complimented me about the shop, admired my handsome cat, and told me shyly that she had written a book herself. When I asked her what the title was, she replied “Oh, you’ve probably never heard of it. It was written many years ago”. I persisted and then she told me it was entitled “My Father’s Dragon”. “You’re Ruth Stiles Gannett!”, I sputtered, “I love that book and I loved reading it to my kids when they were little”. She beamed and indulged me while I grabbed a copy of her classic children’s book off my shelves and had her inscribe it to my kid. What a thrill.
Right after Skidmore College Professor Stephen Millhauser won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel “Martin Dressler” he came to browse at our shop. Dan and I were both working that day and I recognized him from his dust jacket photos. I was trying to look cool as I casually circled the store trying to ferret out some of his books from our shelves and alert Dan to this celebrity siting, when I heard the heavy and hurried tread of my Dear One as he came up the basement storeroom steps with an armload of books. Millhauser was right near this door, which Dan unfortunately banged open before I could warn our local literatus, whacking him on the hindquarters and sending him toward a much closer look at some philosophy titles. Fortunately, he wasn’t hurt, though I do note that he has not made a return visit to our establishment.
Q: Do you specialize in any genres?
A: We are an open shop with books in all subject areas, but we do have a particularly bountiful selection of titles about colonial and Revolutionary War history (we are near the Saratoga Battlefield), art books, cookbooks and food writing, vintage paperbacks (Dan loves them), mysteries (Rachel’s love) and jazz.
Q: Do you have a piece of book repair/preservation advice?
A: First, do no harm. I am of the school that believes one should not treat a book like notebook or besmirch it with a big, sloppy owner signature, while inking out a previous owner’s name. If you are a book reviewer or editor, or if you are Kurt Vonnegut (see above), you can scrawl in a name and a doodle, of course, but if not, please jot your notes and witticisms on a pad of notepaper rather than the leaves of an innocent book.
And for heaven’s sake, keep your books out of damp basements. Being housed in a sealed box will not protect your volumes from silverfish and the damp and that unholy scent of mildew. If you have a truly precious book with a dust jacket, invest in a box of jacket protectors that are easily folded over your wrappers and keep them from the ravages of dust and moisture. They make your books look like a million bucks. Your local used bookshop may be happy to add a complimentary dust jacket protector to your purchase in-store, or on-line, if you request one. I know that is a service we like to provide.
Q: Do you have any trade tips?
A: Buy your books carefully. It’s an old bookstore chestnut that booksellers make their money when they buy books, but we find that it is the best advice we ever got from our colleagues. One has to be able to calculate a resale price, how quickly a book may be resold, and who the potential buyer will be very thoughtfully to avoid losing profit right at the outset. I’m not saying I haven’t paid more for a book collection than I ought to because there was a really cool volume that I coveted for my shop or my personal library, but I try to limit these biblio-salivating instances to a minimum.
One also needs to resist the impulse to become a Used Book Tsar, attempting to have a copy of every book ever published. I sometimes feel a little guilty that I don’t have a certain author or best-seller on my shelves when a customer asks after it, but the carrying costs of having such a used book empire, not to mention the labor of constantly dusting it, would be crushing.
Dan, aka the Old Saratoga Books Shipping Department, chimes in that wrapping books neatly, expertly and thoughtfully for our Internet customers is important. A book needs wrapping in bubble wrap or brown paper and a cushion of peanuts and then preferably sliding everything into a box or padded mailer (flat-rate Global Priority mailers are by far the least expensive, most reliable shipping methods for our international customers).
Q: Do you have a bookstore cat, or other mascot?
A: New York State Commerce Law requires that all bookstores maintain at least one feline on the premises at all times. Sam is our bookstore cat and is the one that people coo over and greet when they walk in the door. Dan and I get a mumbled greeting, if at all, much later on after the cat love fest is over. Sam’s a former stray, about 11 eleven years old, and loves having his ears scratched. He spends 95% of the day sleeping in the front store windows and the remainder sleeping in his comfy chair at the back of the shop, thus enabling him to make a full patrol of the premises.
Sam’s bachelor pad includes the basement/store room with his beloved food bowl, water dish and litter box, and he’s proven to be a pest control expert, having rid our shop of several bats, one mouse, one chipmunk and one baby snake (I found a snake skull in the front window one morning!).
Q: What’s your clientele like?
A: While we do have a lot of local customers who come in to trade and buy books, most of our clientele is from a wider geographic net. There are the several times a year book junkies who come in for a bag of British mysteries or westerns; college students and book club members scouting up affordable copies of their required reading list; parents who bring in their brood to upgrade their bookshelves as their literacy progresses, tourists arriving by motorcycle, RV camper, or canal boat (we’re on the Hudson River) looking for their favorite paperback genres, and bookseller colleagues ferreting out sleepers in our stock.
People who love books are an intriguing bunch. I am a people person and I love finding out the stories about why my customers are searching for certain books or why they love certain authors or series. I am always bemused, but often happily surprised when someone tracks down a book from my shelf and presses it into my hands with the admonition that I HAVE TO read this title. I feel then like the tables are turned, but in a good way.
Store hours: Wed. through Sun.: Noon to 5 pm, Eastern Standard Time
Dan and Rachel Jagareski
Old Saratoga Books
94 Broad Street
Schuylerville, NY 12871-1301 USA