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Interview: Former US Representative Steve Israel opens a bookstore in Oyster Bay

Theodore Books

In 2017, Congressman Steve Israel stepped away from politics. He represented Long Island in Washington, D.C., for 16 years. It was time for a new role in life. Congressman Israel is now a bookstore owner.

Last November, he launched his new venture in Oyster Bay. It’s called Theodore’s Books. It’s named after the 26th U.S. president, Theodore Roosevelt who lived in Oyster Bay and is also one of Congressman Israel’s “heroes.”

WSHU’s Book Critic Joan Baum spoke with former Congressman Israel about his love of books and why reading books is vital.

JOAN BAUM: Congressman, congratulations. It's not been a great year, but you sure look happy in photos taken of you in front of the store. In one, you're smiling and holding up a huge poster with words on it from the English writer Neil Gaiman that say, “a town isn't a town without a bookstore. It may well call itself a town. But unless it's got a bookstore, it knows it's not foolin’ a soul." How does that sentiment reflect your reason, or one of your reasons for opening a brick and mortar bookstore in an age of Amazon and ebooks, and I should add, pandemic?

STEVE ISRAEL: Well, first, thanks for having me on. It's great to be with you. You know, I spent 16 years in Congress and the life of a member of Congress is frenetic. You speak in what are called one-minute speeches. And when you go on television, do interviews, you speak in sound bites. You're scheduled to do 12, 15, 20 separate events on any given day. A bookstore is the opposite of all of those things. When you walk into a bookstore, you are fulfilling your curiosity. When you're walking into a bookstore you're talking about and looking at and feeling information extending to 300, 400, 500 pages, as opposed to a soundbite in Washington, D.C.

And when I was in Congress, bookshops were always my — they were my sanctuary. My schedulers were very kind to me. Wherever I went anywhere in the country or the world, for that matter, they would put on my schedule, the nearest independent bookshop, knowing that that's where I would go to relieve myself of the burdens of the day, the intensity of the schedule. When I left Congress, I decided that I would do my part in helping to revitalize my downtown by adding a bookstore.

BAUM: Well, you certainly did a beautiful job from what I can see online. But since you mentioned looking at other independent bookstores, how did what you saw affect what you wanted to do? Did you decide to offer as many other indies do extra perks — merch, as they say, mugs, toys, gifts, special readings, community connections go?

ISRAEL: It's, you know, it's a great question. When I went to Congress, there was something called freshman orientation, where we learned how to be a member of Congress. When I opened up a bookstore, no freshman orientation. I was suddenly thrust into a business where I had no experience other than as a customer. Thankfully, there are resources like the American Booksellers Association, and other resources that I was able to rely on. So I learned, for example, that when you open up a small bookstore, you need to make sure that about 20% of your sales are non book items, in order to try and derive some profit. And so I learned all about sidelines. Once upon a time, I was learning all about tribal animosities in Afghanistan and Iraq. And now I learned everything there was to learn about merch and swag and sidelines at a bookstore.

BAUM: Well, that's incredible. By the way, the ABA, the American Book Association, the trade association for indies, has published over the years some incredible figures that I think will surprise people who believe that between Amazon and ebooks, indies don't have a chance. And what the ABA found was that over the last couple of years, indies have risen 5% to 7%. And it suggests that the big stores are no longer the threats, that people perhaps still may think they are that indies can survive slim margins, but survive.

ISRAEL: You know, there is in fact this myth, the sense that people have that independent bookstores are are really hurting. And I must say that when I turned to my wife and said, “You know, I think I want to open up a small bookstore,” she said, “this may be the second craziest idea I've ever heard from, you.” I want to go to Congress and I want to leave Congress.

BAUM: Right, right.

ISRAEL: But in researching this, I learned that there has been a recent phenomenon. It is true that years ago, the convergence of Amazon in the big box stores and digital books, had a severe effect on small, independent bookstores. But over the past several years that has slightly reversed and it's reversed for there's been kind of a perfect storm. Number one: COVID has forced people back into their homes. And they didn't want to go back to the big malls or the big box bookstores. They wanted to go to their downtown's and shop local. And so downtown's small downtowns began experiencing a bit of a resurgence. And secondly, also related to COVID in the quarantine and the pandemic, there's only so much binge watching and tablet reading that a human being can do before your senses are completely dulled. And while people were returning to their downtowns, they also rediscovered the book, the physical book, the feel of it, the scent of the ink, the feel of the pages, the feel of running your fingertips across the lines. And so the end result of that was that independent bookstores, they didn't experience a boom necessarily, but they were getting healthier.

Now, when I first left Congress in 2017, I left unindicted and undefeated, which is an accomplishment in this environment. I did want to open up a bookstore. But even in 2017, in my little downtown of Oyster Bay Long Island, there wasn't enough for traffic, there weren't enough other stores, there were still too many stores that were boarded up to justify it. But within two years, it had changed. An artisanal chocolate store opened up across the street from where we are now. A brewery, a bar and grill also themed after Theodore Roosevelt. And so you could measure the increase in traffic and vibrancy and intensity. So that when I finally moved into my bookstore, it was the last retail outlet left at the size that that I needed.

BAUM: And you didn't have to have merch to compete with all the other stores.

ISRAEL: Yeah, you know, there was a very, very prominent and beloved bookstore, located about six miles away from Oyster Bay, and anybody who lives in the New York area new and it's called The Book Review, 15,000 square foot, bookstore that did very well, and that it was my sanctuary. You know, when I would come back to Washington, you know, my first stop was my family. My second step was The Book Review. It went out of business at about the time I began thinking about opening. And I was very fortunate because I hired much of The Book Review staff to open my store. So it was kind of turnkey,

BAUM: When you open your store, and maybe you've changed since then, were there particular themes or interests you wanted to pursue? Obviously, Theodore Roosevelt, and his conservation movement and progressive politics, is one, but what was your thought about emphasizing certain topics or genres?

ISRAEL: Well, as I said, before, I spent my career in politics and public service. And so every day was about trying to speak about or learn about policy in these very brief segments. I wanted to extend that to a different kind of platform. So we focus on history, and current affairs, but not in sound bites in books. And we have events, we invite very prominent authors, I had Congressman Adam Schiff, we're doing something with Speaker Newt Gingrich. So we are relentlessly bipartisan.

We bring those voices to the bookstore. And those voices and their books help us understand the deep complexities and challenges of the world we're in, or the history that we should learn from, in a satisfying way, in a substantive way, rather than those sound bites. So we focus on history, current affairs, but you know, we also offer the latest bestsellers, the hottest new releases, 40% of our inventory is children's books, because children's books sell very well. We're a full service bookstore, at about 15,130 square feet, which is the sweet spot for keeping a bookstore of our nature in business.

BAUM: By the way you're also, I believe, an unusual bookstore owner, because you're also a very good writer, very well known. And I note that one of your preferred genres satire, very much in the tradition of Theodore Roosevelt's prefer books.

I want to end on an educational note that you just brought up about the importance of books, particularly for the younger generation. Not just that you have, as you say, 40% devoted to children. But the way you're going to present those books to kids, you once said that, and you alluded to this before, the digital age is making us shallow, because it makes us expect instant answers. But some problems need 200 pages to explain, instead of 140 characters. And not only that, but to mention the children who may not be able to do 200 pages, but how do you incorporate that sentiment for kids and get them to love books?

ISRAEL: So we have a reading club, we have several reading clubs, or for young readers. When I was in Congress, there were certain policy objectives that I had, some I achieved, others I didn't. My objective in my post-Congress life is reintroducing young people to books — to reading.

I used to go to these graduation ceremonies. I was a commencement speaker and I would say the worst invention in humankind was the television clicker. The second worst was the tablet. We've come down with kind of a collective national attention deficit disorder, which helps explain our intolerance for one another. I want young readers to come to our bookstore, and learn how to explore a book, navigate your curiosities and engage in a civil and respectful way. So that the mistakes that my generation and that I made in Congress and my colleagues will be cured by another generation that has really learned the art and the value of reading, and how to engage one another in a substantive and respectful way. Only an independent bookstore, with books, can provide that kind of experience in my view.

BAUM: And allow people the option which they can't get anywhere else of browsing. Bringing back the thrill of the library. Congressman, that's a wonderful note on which to end. Thank you so much. And we all bless you in the future for the years of the bookstore.

ISRAEL: Happy reading. Thank you.

Joan Baum is a recovering academic from the City University of New York, who spent 25 years teaching literature and writing. She covers all areas of cultural history but particularly enjoys books at the nexus of the humanities and the sciences.