Edith Reynolds and her husband, Dan Gaeto, opened up The John Bale Book Company eleven years ago. This summer, they purchased their own building in Waterbury, Connecticut. In Part 1, Edith described the journey leading up to the purchase. In today's issue, she tackles the job of renovating the building in preparation of moving in (photos included!).
September 1992 marked the tenth anniversary of the John Bale Book Company. Last March, a building we had always loved came up for sale. Dan and I had been hemming, hawing and dragging our feet about buying a house with a barn in order to work from home. When we heard about this building being up for sale, it took about 2 seconds to decide to make an offer.
It's a 1905 French brick Victorian that was rebuilt after a 1902 fire leveled Waterbury's downtown. It began as McCoy's Music Store, became a high-end gift shop in the 1960's and then was sold to the stationer who sold it to us. McCoy's name is embedded in the floor tile outside the shop, and the café we intend to insert will be named in honor of the original owner.
In June we closed on the deal, and I spent the summer redoing the first floor. There are four stories plus a basement giving us over 10,000 s/f of usable space. The first two floors are designated as retail space and are graciously appointed with high ceilings and executive offices of oak and leaded glass, one perfect for a rare-book room. A third floor was once rented out as a law office, and the fourth is 2000 s/f of open space. Two employee bathrooms are in the basement, two half baths are on the upper floors. It has a loading dock but no parking, though 2 parking lots lie directly out back and a ramp garage is across the street. The post office is directly across from us, and we are back near our original location. This time, however, the new courthouse and state office building provide a steady flow of professionals past our door each day.
How easy was it to do?
It wasn't easy closing on the building. Even though the owners were in agreement with us that June would be ideal to settle the deal, our bank wanted a late April closing in order to boost their in-house numbers. We cancelled a trip we wanted to take, we hammered out a deal where the liquidating business could continue for a month without rent, and scrambled to collect all the money we'd need for the down payment. In the end, the bank was the one to push the closing off until June.
We never owned a commercial building before, and finding contractors and inspectors wasn't easy and it was expensive. The building was in good shape but we'd have to do a lot before all our plans could be fulfilled. We wanted to convert the fourth floor storage into a loft apartment, but having the fire codes met will be costly.
The main plan was to install a small coffee bar on the first floor and use the second floor for our rare books and offices. The third floor would be designated for eBay and Internet listing services. American Booksellers would have offices there and we would eventually install a server for our database.
We tried to put our priorities in order. We needed to open the shop for retail even if the cafe had to come later. The first floor was canary yellow - every inch of wall space, ceiling, and woodwork. The carpeting was orange. In an energy-saving frenzy common in the mid-seventies, the number of lights was decreased, the bulb wattage cut in half, and pegboard was installed over all.
Once the purchase hit the newspaper, ad agencies and interior decorators crawled out of the woodwork, but the estimates were astounding, so much so that we decided to simply let a contractor handle the interior. Easier said than done. Estimates were never given, people never returned calls, promises went unkept.
Finally Dan and I decided to do the work. We scoured the Internet looking for wooden retail shelving at a reasonable cost. We soon learned that what we could afford wasn't that sturdy. What we liked was way too costly. On a lark we stopped into a furniture store and asked a salesman if they ever carried affordable freestanding shelving. No, he replied. But after hearing what we were looking for and why, he brightened right up. Costco, he advised. He saw 7 ft. shelving in oak veneer that was 4 ft. wide and solidly constructed for less than $200.
Dan and I drove to Costco immediately but, without a membership. They had the shelving, so we signed up for a corporate membership and ordered 31 units. Now we had to create the shop that would put the shelving to its best advantage. Our original thought was to restore the Old World interior. We had liked Cherry wood, dark with reddish hues. Navy was my first choice of wall color.
We selected shelves in a lighter oak. We'd also decided not to remove the pegboard but to darken it enough that the "polka dots" didn't show. I was dissuaded from the navy blue by the fear of dust showing. We settled on deep forest green with a cream ceiling.
Now the floor had to be considered. I gingerly pulled up a portion of the rug. I was sure it was linoleum beneath and what seemed to be a hardwood floor at the bottom. I had no end of advice from everyone who came through the place. Recarpet, they advised, in case something like "asb--tos" lay beneath. I quickly learned from contractors that no one utters that word aloud.
The nefarious pegboard covered everything, including the grand staircase, so we had to decide what areas would be painted and what would be restored.
We upgraded the light fixtures and doubled the amount of light given off. Instead of the standard tubes that cast a greenish-blue hue, we ordered those with warmer tones that accentuated the nice color of the wooden shelves. A white ceiling allowed for more reflected light, and the newly stripped and polished floor reflected some of that light upward.
The back portion of the main floor was damaged, and our floor refinisher gave up the task. I looked into having Home Depot recarpet that space along with the stairs but blanched at the $2,000 price tag for even the most basic carpeting. My friend Ellyn, who is going to take over the café, and I went to work, first pulling up the carpet, heating up the tiles beneath (yes, someone actually thought tiling the staircase was a good idea) and then stripping the glue to the bare wood. I also stripped the railings and repainted the uprights. And the final touch was marbleizing a support column alongside.
One night we worked for hours, and in the end Ellyn and I looked like the original Song of the South Tar Babie. Black glue was smeared over our exposed skin (this was the height of summer and we were working with heat guns - there was a lot of exposed skin). Wood chips, carpet fibers, dirt, nails, you name it, were glued to us. Cleaning ourselves off with lacquer thinner was no picnic. Our open pores stung, and no amount of cold water wash alleviated the pain.
In the end I spent 12 hours on my hands and knees painting the back floor in a folk art pattern, but the effect is remarkable. The changeover from the polished front portion to the more intimate back end makes the store look larger and invites more interest from customers. The cafe comes next after the architect finishes the mechanical drawings. I present them to the building inspector, get the health department to okay the layout of the cafe, prove I paid our taxes, and then get the fire department to inspect the whole shebang. Only then does the added electricity and plumbing lead into the construction of counters, the laying of flooring, and the installment of equipment. But the upside is that Ellyn and I work pretty quickly, and she already has a following from her earlier downtown cafe that recently closed.
It took three months, but the downstairs was completed in September. Right now a freestanding row of bookshelves blocks what will become the cafe by Christmas, and we've had a welcoming response from everyone, including the town. This week we're being presented with a beautification award for the changes we made.
Next week, while Dan is at the ABAA show in Boston, we start redoing the upstairs. The leaded glass and oak office in back will be decked out as his office and display for the better leather books. One section connected to this space is already my office but awaiting a wall to be built that will offer me some privacy. The main space ends with a 25 ft. wide window with seat where we'll establish a section for meetings and studying.
Book clubs, meetings, discussions, and friendly get-togethers will have a special section that I hope will convey the elegance our better books deserve. We'll have over 50 feet of space for prints and enough room to house 10,000 rare and collectible books, leaving the downstairs inventory segregated to more run-of-the-mill titles. The third floor, in the front, will still become offices and a break room, and once we know what the fire marshal will require, we start work on the apartment upstairs.
That's the part I'm anticipating. Since we work long hours, 7:30 am to 11 p.m., climbing the stairs is much more appealing than driving home. I'm already acclimating the two Scotties we own to the place, and soon we'll introduce Stinkbag the cat to the upper reaches of the building. Most of all, I'm looking forward to losing the 10 small rooms we currently occupy to a larger open floor space because, you see, my idea of housework is utilizing a leaf blower and a hose to get the job done.
After all, the kids are out of the house and it's time to downsize. Living downtown has its perks. There is a mall with supermarket, office supply stores, a Barnes & Noble, movies three blocks away. The hospital is two blocks away. The Y, churches, and museum flank a pretty green. Aside from political corruption, Waterbury can also boast of a slew of great restaurants, most within walking distance of our shop. The library, a park, and train station are one block away, and we're one block north of the highway entrance and exit. Our neighbors are quiet and few.
Next year we'll turn our eye outside where we plan to flatten the front of our building in order to replace the large showcase windows that dwarf books and we'll create a three-season outdoor cafe.
Affording all this means working long hours and extracting a lot of work from employees. Liz expects to list 100 items or more each week on eBay; Vicky and Heather will manage several hundred book listings per week for the online services. Furlan helps with shipping, moving books, and retail sales. Dan and our friend Dan Bowen sort and price the tons of books we buy and have boxed in storage. This is in addition to Dan's book shows almost every other weekend along with private sales.
I get to clean, restore, keep books, advertise, plan and implement events (of which we had one this week, a fundraiser for a mayoral candidate).
A lot of work? Yes. But as a pair of city kids living in Dan's hometown, it's not a bad life. When you come into our shop, you're welcomed into our home. We want our customers to be comfortable; we want to be good neighbors.
You're all invited. Anytime any of you are in our area, stop in. I'd love to meet you and make you a part of our book family. Many years ago we set up at a show. A couple of booksellers were there with a cake. It was their anniversary and someone asked why they decided to do a show on so special an occasion. The wife answered that it gave them a chance to celebrate with their closest friends. I understand the sentiment entirely.