"Never, never, never give up."COVID-19 #SmallBizSpotlight | A bookstore dedicated to Winston Churchill takes his immortal words to heart. Published: January 19, 2021
Programming note: This article is part of a weekly column on small businesses in New York during COVID-19. To get #SmallBizSpotlight articles straight to your inbox, sign up here. You'll receive one email every Tuesday afternoon. Thanks for reading!
I hope you’re staying safe and well. This week’s interview is with Barry Singer, owner of Chartwell Booksellers — “The World’s Only Winston Churchill Bookshop.” Since 1983, Singer has been running his small, elegant study of a store from inside the public shopping hall at Park Avenue Plaza, an East Midtown office building that’s seeing significantly less traffic than its pre-pandemic bustle. Over our hour-long conversation — Singer has a library of amazing stories, including hosting Henry Kissinger the night before he gave Nixon’s eulogy (apparently, Kissinger practiced much of his speech on the Chartwell Booksellers audience) — I felt an overwhelming hunger for New York City. I miss luxuriating in a “non-essential” store, just because; meeting brilliant conversationalists like Singer in 3-D space; discovering niche boutiques like Chartwell Booksellers.
But until then, phone calls and FaceTime and Zoom and Google Hangouts and all the other virtual communication tools will have to suffice. As Churchill said, "If you are going through hell, keep going."
Keep reading for my conversation with Singer.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What prompted you to open the bookstore in 1983?
It was not my idea. I was approached by the guys who were developing Park Avenue Plaza. One of them had a graduate degree in English Literature and wanted to put a bookstore in his building. We had met socially. I was a writer then, and still am, and at the time I was writing for Rolling Stone, and he thought that was cool. He asked me what kind of bookstore I would put into the space if I could, and off the top of my head I said, "An English country library that’s an oasis away from the city and the street." Ultimately, over a couple of conversations, he said, "If you give me a five-year business plan and a construction budget, I'll back you." And that's how the store opened, with his support. He gave me favorable leasing terms to make it possible for the store to survive over those initial five years. The only thing he asked in return was that I call it Chartwell, which was Churchill’s home [in the English countryside], because he said, "I'm a big Churchill fan and collector.” I thought about it, and to me, Chartwell Booksellers had a nice ring.
How has it evolved over the years?
It was initially going to be a general interest hardcover bookstore [with a] library feel. But in the first year it became clear to me that we needed a focus, particularly since we’re inside [an office building] and didn't have a lot of traffic, and Churchill seemed like an obvious one. I bought a couple of used Churchill books and started [circulating] a newsletter in the building … We were mimeographing at the time, that's how far back this goes … One day, the secretary of Saul Steinberg, a corporate raider of the period, called down and said, "Mr. Steinberg got your newsletter, would you please get him everything Churchill wrote in first edition and have it bound in leather?" That was the signal for me to go to London and start buying Churchill, for Saul and for the store. I built a really beautiful collection for Saul, and with the onset of Barnes & Noble and then ultimately Amazon, it became clear to me that we could not possibly compete as a general interest bookstore, and the best thing to do was to become the definitive Churchill outlet for the world of rare books. And that's what kept us in business.
Are your customers primarily New Yorkers?
No, worldwide. Even at the beginning, people [abroad] would hear about us and write. The Internet, which destroyed a lot of independent bookstores at the time, was terrific for us because once we built a website, you didn't have to come to New York or even call us to become a customer. And the Internet has obviously been our salvation this year because the store isn't open to customers. It's all online or on the phone.
What was the store’s atmosphere like pre-pandemic?
Like going into the library at Downton Abbey and having a cocktail party. Our customer base is not just collectors, but readers. Even Saul Steinberg, as rough and tumble as he was as a corporate raider, he read the books. We discussed them a lot. He wasn't just buying the books and socking them away. A lot of what I know about Churchill, I've learned from the customers. They frequently tip me off to new books that I didn't know about.
It used to be that I never knew who would walk in because there were a lot of very interesting and powerful companies and a lot of well-read people in the building. One of the only things that I have really lost in this pandemic is the walk-in customer who could become a long term collector. But in some respect I am still getting people online: I've had people buy some very expensive and interesting rare first editions this year, so it's not like we've lost them completely. But I miss the customers because it's fun to talk to them.
Who makes up your staff?
I have two employees. It's a very small operation. I've managed to keep them both on payroll, which I'm very pleased about.
How did you manage once non-essential retail shut down in March?
I'll tell you in one anecdote, because it really was one thing that saved us this year. Over the years Sotheby's has been pitching me to do an online auction with them of my best Churchill stuff. I never saw the point of doing it, because I'm perfectly content to sell the books myself directly to my customers, but literally the day I closed the store back in March, I emailed the guy at Sotheby's and said, "Are you still interested in doing that?" And he said, "Absolutely." So we did an auction at Sotheby's in May on the 80th anniversary of Churchill becoming prime minister and I top-loaded a great deal of our rarest books for that auction. The auction was tremendously successful and brought in enough money right off the top to secure us for the year, so that I didn't have to feel terrified if nobody came in. And subsequently, we had a very decent December. That combined [with the auction] made it a fairly decent year, a little under last year but nothing serious.
How have you been connecting with your community from afar?
I used to email the customers a sort of newsletter whenever the urge struck me, but I made it a rigorous weekly thing starting with the pandemic, and that has helped to keep in touch. When we were literally closed by the lockdown, I called it "Churchill in Hibernation." Each week, I addressed one of the books Churchill wrote by giving a little history of what it was about, how it came to be published, a picture or two of the first edition... Not terribly long, just long enough to get all the facts out. And then when we emerged from lockdown it became "Churchill Out of Hibernation." Now we are up to his war speeches. I rarely push or sell anything in the newsletter, I’m just telling a story. And candidly, I present the book in a way that comments on the pandemic, too, because there's something very inspirational about how Churchill dealt with adversity throughout his career. I believe he lost at least five elections over his career. He was constantly counted out and then came back. His resiliency and his magnanimity are the two things that attract me to him the most. And nothing could be more important right now than resiliency and magnanimity.
What’s an example of his character that you’ve recently written about?
I just sent something out quoting Churchill's comments after he was voted out as prime minister with the war still on in 1945 … I thought it was pertinent to the disgusting things that are happening in Washington today. When he was voted out he said, "Well, the British people have given me the order of the boot." And someone said to him, "Don't you consider that gross ingratitude?" And Churchill said, "Quite the contrary. They've been through an awful lot."
Wow, that gave me goosebumps.
Right? There you go. There's the whole difference between him and what's going on today. That's what these emails have been about. Also, I just wanted to keep in touch. We all need a little support and encouragement in this whole mess, and nobody was better at that [than Churchill]. His whole outlook was, We can get through this together, but we have to do it together.
Are you going into the store these days?
Yes. I'm not there every day, but I'm still buying books and shooting them for the web.
What does Midtown feel like right now?
Tragic. A lot of boarded up shop fronts. We've lost a lot of neighbors, the restaurants are in terrible shape, the traffic is almost nonexistent. It's a ghost town. When I come in [to work], I often ask the security guards who I know really well, "How many people upstairs today?" And they'll say, "Oh, 60, 70." In a 52-story building. Everybody's working from home.
I'm not sure how it's going to all come back. But I do feel fairly secure that we can carry on; it's just going to be tricky. The customers have made it clear that they remember we're here, and that's great. It's really important to me to have a physical store because I think it helps out in the universe that they know we're there. So even though we've gotten through the year and I could probably say, "We could do this all online," I don't want to do that and I won't do that.
You advertise virtual shopping appointments on the website. How have those been?
Useless. Nobody's done it. I've spoken to more customers on the phone in these last months than I had in a long time, so it's not radio silence, they're just not into the FaceTime shopping experience. And I can't say that I blame them. Also, let's face it, my customers skew older and they're not necessarily web-savvy or care to use their cell phone to shop.
You’ve had a global customer network for a long time; was your website set up for online shopping before the pandemic?
The website was ready for this. I did a two-year redesign of the website because the systems were old and cranky, which we finished about a year before the pandemic. The only thing we really missed out on, and it wasn't serious, is that around Christmastime people began to ask for gift cards. I have very old fashioned gift certificates that we write out by hand and hand to the customer or send in the mail, but the website was not equipped to accept them, so you had to call us. I've been working with my web guy [on e-gift cards] since December when it hit me, but we didn't get it done [in time for the holidays].
Recently, you filmed a socially distanced webcast to celebrate the publication of a new book by Catherine Grace Katz; how did it feel without a live audience?
It felt a little sad and a little weird and also a little scary. But it went pretty well. We debated doing it as a Zoom so [Catherine] could talk with people asking questions, but I decided that I would much prefer recording it, so it would be secure and attractive and interesting and have the same vibe as the ones we've done before. I got tired of Zoom really fast. Zoom is irritating; we all feel it. It's hard to sit there looking at those heads.
Without any foot traffic or live book readings, how are you feeling about sales at the outset of 2021?
Nervous. I managed to juggle the year, but the Sotheby's auction gave me the cash I needed to pay my employees and my rent. I don't think I can do it twice. We'll see ... Business is steady, but it isn't strong. I need to sell some expensive things to get through the year. None of us know whether this thing is going to return to any sense of normalcy this year. I'm skeptical that it will. So I'm very worried.
Have you applied for any COVID-19 relief grants or loans?
I did and I didn't get one. But we may do it again. It was complicated to apply, and initially, I wasn't sure that we were even eligible for it. By the time we got the application in and I confirmed with accountants that we might actually be eligible, they were all gone. So we'll see. Ultimately, I didn't need it [last year], but I don’t know about this year.
You've been in business for 38 years; have you ever weathered a crisis at this scale?
Yes. Well, maybe not quite at this scale ... But we went through 9/11. Nobody was coming in during the aftermath of 9/11. There were troop carrier trucks blocking 52nd Street and Park Avenue; it was a military installation. And everybody was holding their breath and waiting for a follow-up attack, so it took a long time to recover from that. We went through a number of crashes. And for me, if Wall Street disappears, I lose a lot of my customers. So yes, we've been through some really bad stuff before. But the fear factor here is what adds to it. You don't want to get infected or infect someone else while you're out and about. I wonder how soon it will be even after we get vaccinated before I'll feel safe enough to let people come back into the store, for their sake and my sake. You desperately want customers back, but you're afraid to have them back. I really need a good all-clear sign before I'll let people back in. That's a big difference. Before it was really all financial, but this is existential.
How to help:
- Shop online or give Barry a call at 212-308-0643
- Subscribe to the newsletter
- Follow on social (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube)
Until next time,