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A bookstore is more than a bookstore

Mindy Kay Bricker at Kinderhook Books
Ralph Gardner Jr.
Mindy Kay Bricker at Kinderhook Books

The village of Kinderhook, NY has undergone a remarkable renaissance over the last few years. The revival has been anchored by a complex of shops and restaurants, an art gallery and a yoga studio, together known as the Knitting Mill. The Old Dutch Inn, overlooking the storybook village square, has been transformed into a boutique hotel. And lest anybody think I’m exaggerating, Taylor Swift was spotted at one of the yoga classes and rumored to be house hunting.

Nonetheless, the village and town were missing a crucial, arguably indispensable, element. Without it Kinderhook, or anyplace else for that matter, can’t lay claim to being a community. That missing piece was a bookstore. But it fell into place in December when Mindy Kay Bricker, a journalist and editor, opened Kinderhook Books.

When I visited a couple of Sundays ago the shop triggered a sensation that I’ve experienced whenever I’ve entered a bookstore, dating back to childhood. My grammar school book fair even did the trick for me. It’s a variety of euphoria peculiar to bookstores. And I suspect I’m not alone in feeling that way. Compared to other forms of print media – such as newspapers and magazines, which sadly find themselves in seemingly inexorable decline in our digital age – bookstores and book sales are showing impressive resilience.

I want to return for a moment to parsing that euphoria. It comes in several dimensions and starts with the inescapable belief that these spaces are life-affirming -- dare I say it? -- sacred spaces. Bookstores, whether modest or majestic, serve as sonnets to optimism. The authors behind their colorful dust jackets and catchy titles have slaved for your approval and perhaps even a small measure of immortality.

Greed, of the most elevated sort, is also involved. It’s a store, after all. Pretty much everything is for sale. You can walk in empty-handed and leave owning a beautiful object that may well improve your life. It’s an immersive experience, as well. Bookstores require little décor beside books.

“Who doesn’t want to open a bookstore?” Mindy asked when we sat down for a few minutes between customers and batted back and forth some of the titles that, in junior high, got us hooked on books. “Fahrenheit 451 and Animal Farm,” she offered. “That’s when I understood the magic of storytelling.”

Animal Farm was one of my favorites, too. A dystopian fairy tale involving anthropomorphic pigs and horses it served as a bridge from childhood books to the shores of adult literature.

“East of Eden,” I proposed, referring to the Steinbeck epic. “I was obsessed with James Dean,” Mindy confessed. Dean played the troubled heartthrob in the 1955 movie based on the novel. “I had,” the bookstore owner revealed sheepishly, “ceiling to floor gigantic posters. It was a weird, sick obsession.”

Mindy moved to Kinderhook full-time in February 2020, a month before the pandemic shut down the country. She knew she’d found her new home earlier – she grew up in Illinois, attended journalism school at the University of Missouri and previously lived in Prague, Washington, D.C. and Brooklyn – when she was driving around town with her broker and spotted the village’s Saturday morning farmer’s market.

Amid the bustle, an artist had set up and easel and was painting the scene and a guitarist was serenading the crowd. “I felt as if my real estate agent had commanded the scene,” she recalled. “I said, ‘This is where I want to open a bookstore.”

She still has a day job, as the New Republic magazine’s digital director, that allows her to work fully remote. The store is open Wednesdays through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Mindy’s expertise in designing print publications shows in the space’s understated elegance. Furnishings, besides the carefully curated selection of titles, include both of her grandmother’s and great grandmother’s library tables as well as Mindy’s own childhood reading chair.

The upstairs remains a work in progress and at the pleasure of her contractor. But when it’s completed it will include a children’s reading corner, a kindernook.

While clearly a labor of love, she’s under no illusion that opening a bookstore in a small town is a slam-dunk. Or that everybody shares her enthusiasm for literary fiction. “If you’re steadfast in only what you read you’re not building this lovely town square,” she explained. “You’re asking to go out of business.”

When customers return and Mindy asks them what they thought of the books they previously bought she’s not being patronizing. She’s doing market research. She can’t read everything she stocks.

Literary fiction, in fact, does seem to be doing well. Mindy was surprised that holiday sales of political books by Rachel Maddow and Liz Cheney didn’t sell better. She acknowledges there may be some burnout with hot button topics. “People like the escape of fiction, even if it’s political fiction,” she observed.

A journal designed by Ms. Bricker
Ralph Gardner Jr.
A journal designed by Ms. Bricker

As a survival tactic, bookstores have become literal town squares with espresso bars, author readings and books clubs. Not to mention impulse items. Mindy hopes the sway of literature will extend to socializing in a backyard garden as the weather improves. She’s also employed her eye for design in creating a handsome hardcover notebook decorated with the front page of the Rough Notes, Kinderhook’s town newspaper in the 1800’s.

It’s no coincidence that she chose a date that included a tribute to books and local libraries, above the fold. “The mind must find something to feed on, and if it is not occupied in some pursuit in life it will feed upon it,” the story’s anonymous author instructed. “If you have never discovered the charms that lurk in a good book, cultivate a taste for reading.”

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found be found on Substack.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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