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NEW OWNERS ‘WIDE-EYED’ ABOUT BOOK BIZ

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Whether they were its customers or not, book lovers of a certain bent had to have been disheartened to learn recently about the planned closing of Princeton’s Micawber Books, a 26-year-old store situated on historic Nassau Street opposite the immensely evocative Princeton University main campus.

As the December 29 story in the New York Times noted:

Independent bookstores, of course, have been under siege for nearly two decades by the megachains and the Web retailers, and have been steadily dropping away, one by one. Now, though, the battle is reaching some of the last redoubts.

Which made us wonder: if an independent book store can’t survive in bookish, high-traffic Princeton, what chance does any bookstore have, let alone one in the somnolent little burg of Fair Haven?

So we decided to drop by for a pulse check at Monmouth County’s only general interest, non-chain bookstore.

What was known as Fair Haven Books for 40 years is now River Road Books, and it’s under new ownership. Karen Rumage of Fair Haven and Laurie Potter of Rumson, each of whom worked part-time at the store, bought it last spring with two partners — Sharon Everett of Fair Haven and Kim Robinson of Rumson — from longtime owners Jill Brunski and Mary Connell.

“It’s certainly a dying breed,” says Potter. “But we wanted to keep it alive, and we felt other people did, too.”

Rumage says there aren’t many such stores left in New Jersey; we found a list with only 17 on it, though we can’t vouch for it’s accuracy. One such shop, the 72-year-old Town Bookstore in Westfield, recently staved off extinction when a buyer was found to succeed the longtime owner. (In what has to be one of the best re-purposings of a public building on record, the store also relocated to the former home of the Westfield Public Library, an Andrew Carnegie-funded structure.)

But however precarious the indies may appear, the new owners are sanguine about their store’s future. “We’re real wide-eyed about the business,” says Rumage.

While they face some of the same challenges confronting their indie cohorts, Rumage and her partners aren’t under the same financial stress as many other bookstore owners.

For starters, the new owners are stay-at-home moms and don’t rely on the store for their livelihoods. They’re also not paying exorbitant rent. Though they didn’t disclose how much they do pay, they’d certainly pay five times as much in downtown Red Bank, they say.

“This is not a hobby,” says Rumage, a former assistant vice president at Deutsche Bank. “We certainly have financial goals. But if we don’t meet those goals within two years, are we going to close? No.”

To succeed, the new owners are doing what all small-store owners do to distinguish their business from the big guys: focusing on the personal touch. In their case, that begins with making personal recommendations to individuals and to book clubs looking for their next literary fix.

The store has a loyal customer base comprised largely of young families and seniors, people who don’t mind paying list for a book, even though they might save 10 or 15 percent on at one of the chains — and then have to drive 8 or 10 miles to get it, or pay for shipping.

Kids are a big market, too. Between them, the four owners have 12 children, and the store is somewhat kid-centric. It derives about 25 percent of its revenue from non-book sales, much of it from items for the wee ones, such as stuffed toys called Webkinz. (Hugely popular as a safe way of introducing toddlers to the Internet, Webkinz have been a staple at River Road Books for months. Now, suddenly, they’re so popular that the store is getting two dozen calls a day from parents desperate to find the items, which Rumage says she’s having trouble getting for her inventory.)

And yes, the store is planning to open at midnight on July 21 (save the date) for the sales launch of the next, and purportedly the last, in the “Harry Potter” series.

Since taking over, the new owners have spruced up the the store and focused on author events. For one, chef and author David Burke, of David Burke Fromagerie in Rumson, arrived not only with his autograph pen but with hors d’oeuvres and desserts. “That,” says Rumage, “was awesome

Another reading featured Red Bank’s own Elise Primavera, author/illustrator of “The Secret Order of the Gumm Street Girls,” who told her young audience not only how she came up with her ideas, but how they were shaped by the major publishing house with which she works.

“Where else can you get that?” asks Rumage.

The Fair Haven location does have its frustrations, starting with being somewhat out of the way for non-Fair Havenites. Asked about the recurring complaint that Red Bank needs a bookstore, Rumage utters a strained, “hel-LO!?” At just over two miles from Broad and Front streets, she’d like to have more Red Bank customers. But she acknowledges also that River Road books needs to try harder to capture all potential customers.

“We’re not really going for being the sleepy-bedroom-community bookstore,” says Rumage. “We take this very seriously.”

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