When Eric Kelley came to town as the new co-owner of the then-70-year-old Book Den, there were at least nine bookstores in this little tourist town. That was 35 years ago this month. Many of them (now gone), like Earthling, Osborne’s, and Andromeda, and all of the big chains, were within a mile of the store Kelley and Mike Isador had just purchased from Richard and Susan Phelps.
“There were a lot of good used-book stores in town, too,” said Kelley, who always saw the Book Den as a kind of hybrid of used, rare, and new volumes. They survived in that competitive environment, though Isador left in the first few years, and today the Book Den is still doing fine, thank you very much, in a town that has no chain stores, fewer used books but big competition from the Internet.
“I always thought of myself as an entrepreneur,” said Kelley, who spoke about his youth as an army brat in Germany, hustling newspapers and locally made chocolates onto the base. “My brother runs a restaurant. Everybody thinks it would be cool to run a restaurant or a bookstore,” he said. “They’re wrong.”
Kelley has changed himself and the store, adapting many ways, learning to use the Internet to sell his occasional rare-book find almost instantaneously, and he’s always had a good hand at picking up the overlooked treasure. But that’s not really what he loves, he claimed. He’s excited now that the store is a balance of about 40 percent new books and the rest used because he can make deals for people both ways — maybe they want a battered old copy of On the Road, which always sells out fast, but he usually has a nice new printing in the store. And it works in reverse, too.
“It isn’t the big sales, though I like making them,” he said. “Today a mom and dad and three kids came in the store and spent some time browsing and when they left, they all found a book. And I thought, that’s great, there’s a future for this store, and there’s a future for this culture.”