In the Jersey suburbs, a bookstore whose vibe is pure Narnia
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In the Jersey suburbs, a bookstore whose vibe is pure Narnia
A view of the children's books section from the loft-style second floor of the Montclair Book Center, in Montclair, N.J., Nov. 4, 2019. The store is 9,000 square feet of nooks, alcoves, labyrinths and warrens. “It’s like a time machine,” one customer says. Bryan Anselm/The New York Times.

by Dana Jennings

MONTCLAIR (NYT NEWS SERVICE ).- Montclair Book Center is 35 years old, going on eternity.

A ramshackle throwback to a funkier, more literary time, the store has shelves handmade from raw lumber. And its customers and clerks are often just as eccentric as the shelves.

I’ve been shopping and snooping there since 1995 and still haven’t exhausted all of this biblioscape’s labyrinths and warrens — some of which, I suspect, lead to C.S. Lewis’ Narnia or Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast.

Stuffed with hundreds of thousands of bestsellers, worst sellers and everything in between, the store is a haven where you can ferret out that certain book (or vinyl record) you don’t know you need until you see it. I’ve stumbled across Italo Calvino limited editions, a hardcover of William Burroughs’ “Naked Lunch,” and a stash of musty, black-and-white comics magazines from the 1960s and ’70s that included Eerie, Creepy and Savage Tales.

The store, which sells both new and used books, is three floors and 9,000 square feet of nooks, alcoves and cul de sacs. Wooden floorboards creak and groan, and the owners have preserved the tin ceilings from the building’s decades as a hardware store.

Really, it’s an analog heaven. And, essential to me, the place is suffused with the sweet reek of ink, decaying pulp and vintage book dust — seductive scents that are like pheromones to book lovers.

“Unless you work at a bakery, you don’t get many customers talking about how good your store smells,” said Pete Ryby, who has worked there since it opened in 1984 and is now the store’s primary owner. (Other employees own smaller stakes.)

The pre-World War I building itself is so cockeyed that it looks set to pratfall down the street, as in some silent Buster Keaton two-reeler. It’s not hard to imagine Allen Ginsberg holding court out front, chanting from “Howl.”

Still, the store is orderly if not antiseptic. Signs are hand-lettered; there are plenty of chairs for contemplation and ladders for climbing; and, whether by accident or puckish design, the crime section stops short at a fittingly dead end.

John D. Ynsua, a co-manager and owner, says the store has hundreds of regulars, including many “who come from far away.” But some are more memorable than others. There’s the customer, for example, who anchors himself at the checkout and mutters in what sounds like heavy-metal vomit vocals. On one visit, he’ll ask for the Christian Bible; on others, the satanic Bible.

More often, customers are like Fabrice Nozier, a senior at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey. “I like the feel of this place,” he said as he sat on the floor and pored over filmmaking volumes. “It’s like a time machine, coming here.”

Holding up a copy of “Guide to Filmmaking,” a 1969 Signet paperback by Edward Pincus, Nozier added, “I wouldn’t find a book like this at Barnes & Noble.”

When I tell people about Montclair Book Center, I almost always mention Ynsua, a friendly 56-year-old filigreed with tattoos and earrings who started there in 1999 and who embodies its eclectic vibe. He owns five kilts and hundreds of vintage T-shirts — Count Chocula, the Emma Peel and John Steed “Avengers” — and his passions as a bibliophile include comics, science fiction and pre-Renaissance European history. He’s also the store’s resident carpenter and a talented cartoonist who once studied at Joe Kubert’s cartooning school in Dover, New Jersey.

“I’ve tried not to work for corporations,” Ynsua said. “I like bosses who own their businesses. I like jobs where I can improvise.”

There’s plenty of that at the Book Center. Indeed, improvisation has helped the store stay in business. Since it started selling used vinyl in 2014, for example, the records “have brought in a lot of new customers and increased foot traffic,” said co-owner Maureen Disimile, who manages the music side of the business and was dressed in a black Bruce Springsteen T-shirt.

A quick look at the records revealed a healthy infestation of Beatles; “Together,” by Marvin Gaye and Mary Wells; the musical “Hair,” in the “version originale française”; and even the 1960s British blues rockers Blodwyn Pig. There was also a strong dose of 45s.

Still, the store comes down to what employees call “book people.” “I like being around literature, art and music, and the people who like that stuff,” said Ynsua, who doesn’t own a computer or subscribe to cable TV. “My brain isn’t calcifying here.”

Lucas McGuffie, a clerk since 2014, added: “The attraction is the books, and the book people. They aren’t stupid. They’re more open-minded. They’re smart enough to know that they don’t know all there is to know.”

Disimile said: “Montclair is a cool town to have a bookstore in because of all the different kinds of people who live here.” The city of some 39,000 has an art museum and annual jazz and film festivals, and supports another fine indie bookstore, Watchung Booksellers.

Ryby acknowledges that having the business in Montclair has been significant in weathering the bedlam of the book business: “Not many downtowns around could support our kind of store,” he said. “We’re a throwback, in this day and age. If you’re going to sell something, you’re lucky it’s books.”

© 2019 The New York Times Company

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