Burton’s Bookstore owner selling shop, hopes to pass the torch

Burton's Bookstore, on Front Street in Greenport, is up for sale. (Credit: Joseph Pinciaro)
Burton’s Bookstore, on Front Street in Greenport, is up for sale. (Credit: Joseph Pinciaro)

It might take a village to save one of Greenport’s bookstores.

George Maaiki of Orient, who has owned Burton’s Bookstore since 1988, wants to sell the business. And while he hopes the independent Front Street shop is sold to someone who will preserve its character as a quaint bookstore in a small village by the water, finding the right fit could be another story.

Born in Lebanon, Mr. Maaiki managed the book department at a Target Store in Los Angeles before moving to Long Island in his mid-20s. He asked his parents-in-law, who then lived in Brookhaven, to keep their eyes peeled for any opportunities in the book industry.

Just three months later, Joyce Burton — a friend of his in-laws — listed her eponymous shop for sale. And now, nearly three decades later, Mr. Maaiki is the seller.

“The reason I want to sell is it’s time for some young person to come in and, with all the new technology going on in the industry, give it some new blood,” he said Monday.

Mr. Maaiki made changes and updates to the store when he took over in the late 1980s, he said, adding a Long Island section to the store, expanding children’s books offerings, and establishing a local author’s section. But now — at 52 — would rather travel than reinvent his business.

George Maaiki has owned Burton's Bookstore on Front Street in Greenport for the last 26 years. (Credit: Joseph Pinciaro)
George Maaiki has owned Burton’s Bookstore on Front Street in Greenport for the last 26 years. (Credit: Joseph Pinciaro)

Burton’s Bookstore isn’t the only shop of its kind in Greenport: Main Street’s The Book Scout, run by Peter Stevens, is another option.

But The Book Scout exclusively sells used books while Burton’s sells new material — an agreement Mr. Maaiki and Mr. Stevens came to more than 25 years ago. And while Mr. Stevens openly admits to using his savings each winter to help keep The Book Scout shop open, he has no intention of selling it anytime soon.

“I love doing it,” Mr. Stevens said. “And you always do much better in the summer.”

Mr. Maaiki’s decision to sell is common in the book industry nowadays, said Margot Sage-El, president of the New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association, a regional trade organization under the American Booksellers Association.

“This happens frequently as people near retirement,” said Ms. Sage-El, who owns Watchung Booksellers in Montclair, N.J. “The store needs new blood.”

Just whose blood will revive 43 Front Street — and whether the shop can survive as a bookstore — remains to be seen.

Mr. Maaiki, who owns the building, said he’s been “hammered” by offers from people who have proposed turning the shop into a hybrid record and bookstore and a “bookstore boutique.”

“I have no idea what that means,” he said with a laugh.

But he’s determined to keep the shop in the hands of a bookseller — and he’s not the only person who wants that.

“A bookstore is the lifeblood of a community like this,” said Peter Clarke, owner of Clarke Gardens on Main Street and president of the Greenport Business Improvement District. Any year-round businesses help support residents who live in the area 12 months a year, he said.

“I’d like to see a bookstore remain there,” said Rena Casey-Wilhelm, owner of the White Weathered Barn, located next door. “The industry has changed but I could still see a place that offers WIFI, lectures, readings — that kind of place.”

Ms. Casey-Wilhelm, who launched a cooperative store called Bliss in Sugarloaf, N.Y in 2010 where female artists rent space in the same building and profit from their individual work, said she could envision something similar develop at Burton’s, but with books.

“I can’t stop thinking about” something like that, she said. However just having opened up her own business about three years ago, she added that she needs to focus first and foremost on the prosperity of the White Weathered Barn.

A cooperatively-owned bookstore wouldn’t the first of its kind.

Seminary Co-Op Bookstores in Chicago, for instance, launched more than 50 years ago after 17 different people pitched in at $10 a piece. The total investment to get off the ground would be substantially more today, naturally, but the business model is the same. Shares of $10 are still sold to customers, with three shares minimum in order to become part-owner of the store.

“The primary benefit is that hopefully shareholders feel they have a stake in the business,” said Heather Ahrenholz, interim general manager of Seminary Co-Op. “And hopefully they use that as a deciding factor when they go buy a book.”

Previously, Seminary Co-Op offered 10 percent discounts to all part-owners, she said — and back when profits were actually made, a profit-sharing model existed. But just last year, and facing tighter and tighter financial outlooks, the company switched to a points accrual model, where owners have to spend at least $100 a year to earn the 10 percent discount, Ms. Ahrenholz said.

Back in Greenport, Mr. Maaiki said he’s more than willing to stay on and shadow anyone who steps up to take Burton’s Bookstore over. He hopes to have the business sold prior to the beginning of summer so a new proprietor can benefit from the busy season — a season that now extends beyond summer, he said.

“When I came to Greenport early, there was nothing,” Mr. Maaiki recalled. “Now, it’s amazing how they are trying to extend the season, with Tall Ships, the Maritime Festival and other events. It really is getting better and better.”

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