Unlike the familiar layout of chain bookstores like Barnes and Nobel and Borders, Buffalo Street Books in Ithaca’s Dewit Mall is like entering a maze.
“When you come to a store like this you need to do a little investigating,” said owner Gary Weissbrot. “You find the things hopefully you were looking for, but you also find local choices, staff picks, staff favorites, things like that.”
As one of Ithaca’s independent bookstores, it is home to more than mainstream titles and fancy bookmarks. It’s two rooms are stocked with local artwork, music and literature, all pointing to the greater scene of Ithaca life.
Originally named The Bookery II in the ’80s, the store was the expansion of its parent store The Bookery, a used bookstore owned by Jack Goldman. Goldman operated the Bookery II as a venue for travel and foreign language literature until 2006, when he decided to close it. Weissbrot, an employee at The Bookery II, then purchased The Bookery II to keep the store going. He said he renamed it Buffalo Street Books in June to avoid confusion about the previous store owners and names.
“After three years there was continuing and ongoing confusion about the two stores, Bookery I and Bookery II,” he said. “It made a little more sense when the same person owned both stores. Now there are different owners, different sets of employees and different vendors.”
Since becoming owner, Weissbrot has expanded Buffalo Street Books to include works of all genres, and exclusively those that reflect things that are important in Ithaca culture — like eating vegan and living sustainably. He and his staff personally select the titles that line the ceiling-high shelves.
Weissbrot said understanding the community is what sets the store apart from other chain bookstores operating mostly on national demand rather than local taste.
“Early on, because it was on the New York Times Best-Seller List, I bought an Ann Coulter book, and I never sold it,” he said. “I tried to give it away.”
Though Buffalo Street Books is serving the community, it isn’t bringing in the funds its mainstream competitors are, Weissbrot said.
“[Chain bookstores] put almost every unique, independent bookstore out of business not only here in Ithaca but nationally,” he said. “But we’re doing well because we know how to serve our community in ways that no national, corporate entirely can.”
To complete the local book section, Buffalo Books keeps in constant stock visual art and music by local artists. Four or five times a month the bookstore hosts a series of community events that support literature as an art and readings by Ithaca authors. Weissbrot said these readings and related literary events are core aspects of its identity as an independent local store.
“We do it for a number of reasons, one being that I think that it’s part of the role of bookstores to support the literary arts,” he said.
Sue Perlgut, event coordinator at Buffalo Street Books, said these events are opportunities for new writers to gain exposure.
“The events are to introduce the Ithaca community to people who have just published a book of some kind,” Perlgut said. “A novel, a memoir, some kind of nonfiction, poetry, whatever it is.”
Newer to the reading room is a series of Works-in-Progress readings. Ithaca authors will read and present their unfinished work intended to be published at the store. Perlgut thought of this type of workshop when she attended an Ithaca College writing workshop, where unpublished authors were offered the same opportunity. She said she wanted to create the same type of community venue at the bookstore.
From 4 to 5:30 p.m. on Feb. 21, Buffalo Street Books will host its third Works-in-Progress reading, giving 12 authors the chance to read their work. The readers are selected on a first-come basis and will spend a portion of the evening showing individual works and the remainder hearing advice and criticism during a reception immediately following.
Perlgut said being in a college town makes the readings more enjoyable.
“We are very lucky in Ithaca because there are lots of professors and grad students that are doing amazing work,” she said.
Previous authors have included four writing professors from the college — Elaine Farrugia, Andrei Guruianu, Katharyn Howd Machan and Nicholas Kowalczyk — and junior Courtney Miller.
Miller said she recommends the events to students interested in writing.
“It’s a great idea, especially if you’re kind of stuck in a rut like I was at the moment where you just can’t figure out where to go,” she said. “Just hearing what other people write about or thinking about different ways you could approach things, weaning it from other authors is really great.”