Independent Bookstore Helps Revitalize Main Street

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The river's end bookstore,
Oswego, New York

After a successful career in the competitive world of advertising sales, Bill Reilly wanted a second career that focused on community. He found it in independent bookselling. Reilly and his wife, Mindy Ostrow, opened the river's end bookstore (all lowercase, Reilly stressed, in a recent interview) in 1998 in downtown Oswego, New York, a town situated on Lake Ontario and bisected by the Oswego River. Neither Reilly nor his wife had bookselling experience, but, after much hard work and planning, the river's end is now a success. Moreover, Reilly and his store are playing a significant role in the revitalization of Oswego's downtown area.

Reilly's foray into bookselling came after "much investigation" into second career choices, he explained. From 1971 to 1996, he worked in advertising sales for Newsweek magazine. It was a job he loved, and one at which he was successful, but, at the age of 46, he decided he wanted to retire on "his own terms, not someone else's," he said. "First my wife and I thought of doing a bed and breakfast, but a B&B is 24/7 and we didn't want to live where we worked!" he said.

In 1996, Reilly and his wife finally decided to open a general interest bookstore in Oswego, a working-class town of 20,000, located 35 miles north of Syracuse. They chose Oswego because it was his wife's home (she works at the State University of New York at Oswego), and because "they had no bookstore here," Reilly explained.

However, neither Reilly nor his wife had any background in bookselling, so Reilly sought the experience of other booksellers. His first step -- even before opening the river's end bookstore -- was to join ABA. Then, he attended an ABA booksellers school in Tarrytown, New York. "I got a tremendous amount out of the Tarrytown school," he said.

Furthermore, Reilly hired bookselling consultant Donna Paz, owner of Donna Paz & Associates, to help him open his store on the right foot. "It's not an overstatement to say that she had a profound impact on our being here, our opening store inventory, and how we treat our customers," he said. In 1998, the 2,400-square-foot river's end bookstore opened on the western side of the Oswego River. Since Oswego is "not a wealthy community," he said, the bookstore sells mostly paperback books, though it maintains a popular Book Sense 76 display table.

Reilly also received help from Mary Ellen Kavanaugh, owner of independent bookstore My Sisters' Words, in Syracuse, New York. When the river's end bookstore first opened, Kavanaugh "invited me to her store, and she came up to our store and chatted with us, and gave us her observations," he explained.

Sitting: Local author Joan Loveridge-Sanbonmatsu. Standing, left to right: Author's husband, Ike, with bookstore owners Mindy Ostrow and Bill Reilly.

Since that time, the river's end bookstore and My Sisters' Words have worked together on projects that benefit both stores. For instance, Reilly said, "We talk about authors we feel we can double book [for author events]." Additionally, the stores advertise together in the Rosamond Gifford Lecture Series program, a popular fundraising program for the Onondaga County Public Library, held in the Syracuse area. "They bring six authors to the series in the fall and spring," he said. "We want people to know that we're supporters of the program and that we exist alongside the big chains. Each lecture will regularly draw in excess of 1,000 people."

Today, Reilly said he draws off the experience of other booksellers through the Book Sense bestseller lists, which he considers indispensable bookselling tools. "We get the benefit of cumulative years of bookselling experience that booksellers contribute when they recommend a book," he said. "The most bookselling experience here at the store is four years." He added that his customers "love" the Book Sense Bestseller and 76 lists.

In addition to running the bookstore, Reilly has played an active role in the Oswego community. He is a member of Oswego's Chamber of Commerce, which is spearheading a revitalization of Oswego's downtown area, and is a member of Project Bloom, an organization that has helped to beautify the streets of Oswego with planters and flower baskets.

As a result, once bleak and vacant waterfront buildings in downtown Oswego are now filled with businesses and the hustle and bustle of customers. In the past four years, three new restaurants, a gift shop for children, a print and framing shop, and a yarn and weaving store have opened in the downtown area. Furthermore, the chamber of commerce and the town government are sponsoring an historical renovation and façade renewal program. "We have a long way to go, but the waterfront never looked better," Reilly told BTW.

Today, the river's end bookstore stands as a beacon to Oswego's rebirth. "Our community just loves having their own bookstore," he said. "On paper the idea for a bookstore here looked good -- finished, it looks even better." --David Grogan