Selling books the ‘old-fashioned’ way

Selling books the ‘old-fashioned’ way

‘I read them,’ says Northvale bookseller Ken Sarfin

Ken Sarfin among the selections at his bookstore in Northvale.
Ken Sarfin among the selections at his bookstore in Northvale.

Ken Sarfin, owner of Northvale’s Books and Greetings, says retailing is in his blood.

“My grandparents sold egg creams in Queens, and my parents ran a bookstore in Manhattan’s garment center for 49 years. I love people and I love retailing. My parents convinced me to help them for a while after college, and it’s lasted for 32 years.”

Sarfin’s store, which moved from Manhattan to Northvale in 2007, celebrated its eighth anniversary on July 7. Running the store is a labor of love for the bookseller. “I go to play, not to work,” he said.

The Old Tappan resident said that while his shop cannot be described as a Jewish bookstore, “when Jewish holidays come, I try to put out a display pertinent to the holiday.” In addition to relevant books, the store offers gifts appropriate for the holiday .

“We’re not a Judaica store, but we try to feature as much for Jewish holidays as for non-Jewish holidays,” he said. Pesach and Chanukah receive the most attention.

“We also have kosher cookbooks and fiction revolving around Jewish subjects,” he said, noting that he always takes into account Jewish Book Council suggestions.

Sarfin, who grew up in Englewood Cliffs — where his 87-year-old mother still lives —also tries to attract Jewish speakers.

“I’ve tried Abe Foxman,” he said, adding that he has yet to welcome the ADL head. But he will soon welcome River Vale resident Michael Seth Starr, who has written a book about former Beatle Ringo Starr.

The bookseller said his mother still works at the store occasionally, “when she’s not busy with her National Council of Jewish Women activities.” All three of his children (ages 19, 25, and 27) have worked there as well. He did not say if his wife, a national sales manager for a pharmaceutical company, has ever joined the sales team.

Not only does the store pull in customers from North Jersey and Rockland County, “but some people I knew from New York also come in to visit,” he said.

Sarfin said he didn’t anticipate that Rockland customers would form such a big part of his customer base. But with the store so close to that county, “I tie in to all the schools in both New York and New Jersey” with summer reading lists. That close relationship didn’t happen on its own. Sarfin reached out to each of the schools.

The bookstore owner is also proud of his speakers’ program. When he built the store, he already knew that this would be an important element of his business, and he says he built his business to be “event-driven.”

Not surprising, his first speaker events drew small crowds. “But now, we have major celebrities,” he said, “drawing 1,000 or more.” Recently, for example, Books and Greetings welcomed New York Yankee Jorge Posada and noted singer/actress Julie Andrews.

“We’ve built a great reputation for doing great events ,” he said, pointing out that guest celebrity authors are delighted by their book sales, the store’s proximity to Manhattan, and the fact that the events are well-organized.

The store has also featured boxer Mike Tyson, TV preacher Joel Osteen, performers Neil Patrick Harris and Lea Michele, as well as Kiss singer Gene Simmons. In addition, he has welcomed Raquel Welch, Dr. Ruth Westheimer, and Larry King.

Usually, TV personalities are the most popular, he said, citing guests such as Hillary Duff. But baseball players are a big draw as well, and the store has welcomed sports figures such as Mariano Rivera, C.C. Sabathia. and basketball great Shaquille O’Neill.

“The customers love it,” he said, adding that attendees must buy a book in order to attend an event. “I tell them to take advantage of this opportunity to meet the authors in person.”

Book sales help defray the cost of the event and pay for ads. “The ads I run cost a lot of money,” he said. “There are very few bookstores that run ads.”

While books are the focus of the store, “we’re like an emporium,” said Sarfin.

“We’re about as good of a local independent bookstore as you can find. We have a great kids department, best–sellers, and about 85,000 different backlist titles. We can get almost any special order overnight, and we carry the entire list of school books for summer reading.”

Even more significant, “We do hand-selling,” he said. “We sell books the old-fashioned way — we read them. I read, my co-workers read, and the customers read.” Sarfin listens to everyone’s opinion before deciding what to order.

“Some best-sellers are a big joke — they may not even be out yet,” he said. His offerings are based on real products.

The store also features a large greeting card department, offering the upscale Papyrus greeting cards. “We want them to be different,” he said, “not what you find in every supermarket.” In addition, it includes a big toy department and gift section, with a full line of soaps and lotions.

Sarfin said he appreciates his base of loyal customers. “They come all the time,” he said. He is particularly pleased that some children have called Books and Greetings their favorite store. “That is really a compliment. I want them to be comfortable and to look at books.”

Sarfin, who is now trying to book events for the fall and winter, said that despite his best efforts, “We don’t do book clubs. We tried it six months ago and it didn’t work too well.”

To arrange his schedule, he goes through the many publishers catalogues he receives and decides who he wants to invite. Or, publicists may give him a call, looking to arrange an event for their clients.

When he works with publicists, “I try to build a chemistry,” he said. “We work with those who know us and like us. It’s rare a publicist who will leave unhappy,” he said.

Ensuring that everyone leaves the store happy is one of Sarfin’s major goals.

“I want them to have a good experience,” he said. “I want everyone to leave happy. I tell my co-workers, make them happy even if it costs us money.” He also loves when people come in “to schmooze,” said Sarfin, whose store was recently featured on Entertainment Tonight.

Not all speakers draw large crowds. Sarfin recalled that he invited an author before Christmas “who had a great Christmas gift book. No one showed up, but I had sold 90 books ahead of time.” Not only was the author not put off by the small crowd, “but she came back again,” he said.

Sarfin admits that “there were a few authors we didn’t fall in love with. Some are real divas,” he said. “

“I tell them, people are here for you. They’re here to meet you. Give them a few minutes.” Fortunately, he said, “most of the authors who come are fabulous — friendly, engaging, and warm. It’s sometimes surprising, he added, describing how Kiss singer Simmons hugged and kissed customers, sticking out his tongue for their enjoyment (a performance trademark).

Living in Old Tappan, Sarfin said he has a four-minute commute — which comes in handy when he works seven days and nights.

The key to his success — besides hard work?

“We treat people the way we like to be treated. We’re here to help them, and they can park at the door. I tell them, if you don’t support local business, you won’t have any business locally. There won’t be any retailing left.” While it’s getting harder to compete with the larger stores, “we do it with service and convenience,” he said.

To find out more about the store, and find out who will be speaking during the coming year, contact Sarfin at (201) 784-2665 or visit Books and Greetings is located at 271 Livingston St. in Northvale.