Cobble Hill

The end of an era for a Cobble Hill cornerstone

October 3, 2016 By Scott Enman Brooklyn Daily Eagle
A sign advertising retail space is currently in the window of the former Community Bookstore.  Eagle photo by Scott Enman

Residents reflect on the significance of the Community Bookstore

Longtime residents of Cobble Hill will remember the Community Bookstore as a warm and welcoming place where visitors could get lost in a maze of timeless classics, dusty toys and vintage records.

Locals might also recall the former owner and eccentric bookseller John Scioli, who, on most nights, could be found sitting in a folding chair on the corner of Warren and Court streets with only his cigarette illuminating the sidewalk.

The store may have been messy, but it was charming, and among the last of a dying breed. The shop had a humble storefront — there were no extravagant neon signs marking its presence, and it didn’t even maintain set business hours — but that was part of the allure.

Scioli would open up when he pleased, normally after 5 p.m., and stay open until midnight, or sometimes even later on weekends as groups leaving Court Street’s bars and restaurants would stumble in and leave with a pile of books in tow.

In the summer of 2015, word got out that after 30 years, Scioli was selling his three-story building, which housed the bookstore on the first floor. But it wasn’t until May of this year that the doors officially closed.

Still, residents held on to a glimmer of hope that Scioli might return to his corner — but what was once a staple of the community is now just a memory.

The doors have been shuttered for several months now, and at the end of this past August, a sign looking for tenants went up and construction crews began to gut the building.

Now that the move is official, the Brooklyn Eagle reached out to the building’s new owner, Dr. David Sitt, to find out what will become of the shop and to learn about how Scioli handled the move.

“We were able to come to a good working relationship where we had mutual respect for each other,” Sitt told the Eagle. “I’m a clinical psychologist by training, and I think that gave me an ability to relate to John. He’s an eccentric man, and I was able to be patient with him and hear out some of his needs, such as needing to stay in the store for a year after we had bought the building. We were able to accommodate that request.

“I think he just needed some time to come up with a plan of action on how to vacate the building,” Sitt added. “It was a hard thing to do for him… He’s a man that likes to hold onto things. He has a hard time letting go of something. He’s a collector.”

Books and other novelties on display.  Eagle file photo

Scioli was unavailable to speak as he is on vacation in the south of France, but he did talk with Gothamist about his decision to sell his store in August 2015. 

“It is one of the last of its kind,” Scioli told Gothamist. “I’m ambivalent about that, but I just cannot continue to do this. I’m 69 years old and you have to retire at some point. And with the internet, it’s been hard to make a living with a used bookstore.

“A lot of people will miss it. I’ll miss it, too,” Scioli concluded.

Unlike many retail stores along Court Street that get priced out, Scioli, according to Sitt, was ready to sell the building, retire, and take his tens of thousands of books elsewhere. Sitt bought the building for $5.5 million compared to the modest $500,000 that Scioli initially bought the building for in 1985.

One of the many messy aisles that lined Scioli’s store.  Eagle file photo

Residents reflect

Following the store’s official closing, the Eagle spoke with some longtime Cobble Hill residents who reflected on the significance of the Community Bookstore.

“The Community Bookstore has always been a warm cornerstone for the Cobble Hill neighborhood, a real gem, both in terms of the delightfully casual and chaotic way the books are displayed, and, shall we say, the whimsically gruff manner of the store owner,” said Kate, a neighborhood resident. “When I was little, it was near impossible for me to pass by without running in and checking to see what was new. I could never imagine Cobble Hill without it.”

“It may not have looked like it, but that place was a goldmine,” said Gideon Olshansky. “Whenever I would go in, I’d be surprised by what I could find. It was such an eclectic, random collection, but that’s what made it amazing. It was such a unique part of our neighborhood, and will be missed.”

Arif Silverman, another resident, told the Eagle, “The community bookstore was one of the most definitive aspects of my neighborhood. Seeing John standing outside the store every evening was something I could count on. It really seemed like he had a lot of regulars that had a solid relationship with him. Whether they were his friends from outside work, or whether they met him after visiting the bookstore, I can’t say, but regardless, there was something about him [and] his place that added a touch of intimacy and authenticity to the neighborhood, in that everyone knew what it was and who he was. 

“Every so often he and I would get a chance to talk and hear about each other’s lives,” Silverman continued. “He got to travel a lot, it sounded like he had friends all over the world. I told John when I heard he was closing shop that it was the end of an era. I hope to see him around.”

A passerby browses some books on display outside the shop.  Eagle file photo