April 17, 2014
A conversation with a community bookseller
by Claire Kelley
John Scioli has been in the book business for over forty years. “It started with my ex-wife when we founded the Community Bookstore on 7th Avenue in Park Slope in 1971,” he told me while smoking a cigarette on a dark rainy evening in the doorway of The Community Bookstore in Cobble Hill located at 212 Court Street. “We split up and I moved to Montague Street in Brooklyn Heights in 1974. That store had a mix of new and used books.”
A New York Times article from 1985 chronicles Mr. Scioli’s losing battle against his landlord on Montague Street, who eventually evicted him in favor of a new ice cream parlor. But Scioli didn’t give up easily. In the process he was sued for “arranged protest demonstrations, letter-writing campaigns, news media exposure, threats of violence, threats of economic boycott, political and community pressure, and coercion and violent protests.”
Mr. Scioli said the only protest was a ”meltdown” where 10 ice cream cones of different flavors were allowed to melt on a shelf of books outside his store… To dramatize the call for commercial rent protection, a concept opposed by Mayor Koch, as well as the tripling of the rent, Mr. Scioli offered Mr. Koch’s book Mayor for $53.85—three times the list price of $17.95.
He eventually moved his bookshop to its current location in Cobble Hill, where he says the neighborhood—which recently landed on a top ten list of neighborhoods with the highest incomes in New York—used to be more rough. “You see a lot more couples and babies now,” he told me. “This space used to be a neighborhood bar. When we moved in, the police stopped by and said they were glad to hear that it was going to be a bookstore because they wouldn’t have to be called in to break up brawls.”
These days, The Community Bookstore is open when Scioli decides it will be—usually opening its doors in the afternoon and closing around 11pm. He takes at least a month’s vacation in the summer to visit his step-son in southern France and to go to Russia.
When I asked what books he likes to read, he told me, “books on Russia and the Soviet Union, Hemingway, various things. I like books like AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) books that are signed from the person who bought the book saying best of luck for staying sober—kind of touching. The good thing about having a used bookstore is that all kinds of stuff catches my eye.”
The bookstore is piled from floor to ceiling with books in haphazard stacks, with only narrow passageways for customers to squeeze through. Stuffed animals, a shovel, and all sorts of eclectic items are mixed in among the books, which are roughly organized with section labels — there’s an art book section, law, “books about poetry,” and a horror section in a particularly dark corner.
I asked how the book business has changed over the past forty years, and Scioli shrugged. “It’s more difficult now. There’s ereaders and the internet. A lot of books get published, and there’s more for people to choose from and less time to read. But some people still like physical bookstores, thank God.”
Claire Kelley is a the former Director of Library and Academic Marketing.