Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXV, No. 28
Wednesday, July 13, 2011
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New Bookstore in Hopewell Borough To Specialize in Works From the Sixties

Anne Levin

The phrase “stuck in the sixties” doesn’t usually apply to members of the Bar. But Tom Gombar, a longtime corporate lawyer who now focuses on criminal and matrimonial law, is a wistful veteran of the Woodstock era. While Mr. Gombar, a Princeton native, is hardly mired in the past, he revels in such memories as attending Woodstock in 1969 and meeting poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti at San Francisco’s City Lights bookstore a few years later.

Starting in September, Mr. Gombar will be presiding over a bookstore of his own. Dharma Bum Books, named after the novel The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac, is currently taking shape at a storefront at 45 West Broad Street in Hopewell. The store will carry works by Kerouac, Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg, and other literary giants of the Beat Generation. Gombar sees the shop not as a money-maker, but rather as an antidote to big-box stores and a refuge for people who share his nostalgia for an era gone by and his love for the printed word.

“I was a literature major in college. But what do you do when it’s the sixties, the Vietnam war is going on and you’re a literature major? You have to become a lawyer,” Mr. Gombar said with a chuckle. “But books are my abiding love.”

The lanky and ebullient 60-year-old was sprawled on a sofa near the entry to the shop. Wooden shelves along the walls were awaiting their contents, which Mr. Gombar hopes will start arriving once he opens the store on weekends in August to buy books from members of the community. The store will open officially for business in September, operating Wednesdays through Sundays. On the shelves will be not only books by Mr. Gombar’s literary idols, but publications by various university presses.

“I want to make sure people have access to these books, which you can’t find at places like Barnes & Noble,” he said. “There are hundreds of university presses here and in England, and they publish wonderful books. I can get these books. I won’t have everything, but I want to focus on social commentary and current political issues. I also want to have small imprints that don’t get into the big box stores.”

A member of the Trenton-based law firm Kamensky Cohen and Associates, Mr. Gombar plans to continue his practice once the store opens. “In order to keep this place alive, I’ve got to keep working as a lawyer,” he said. “I’m not in this to make money. If I break even but create a forum for people to talk about literature and politics and world events, I will have done what I set out to do.”

Running a bookstore has long been Mr. Gombar’s dream. On a recent trip to Ecuador, he happened to meet an American professor who was operating a small book shop. “We got to talking, and he said to me, ‘If you want coffee money and a great lifestyle, open a bookstore.’ It really made me think.”

Not long after, Mr. Gombar was renting a small office on West Broad Street in Hopewell when he noticed a “For Rent” sign at a shop across the street. “I happened to be driving through and I saw the sign,” he recalled. “I had just turned 60. I said to myself, ‘If not now, when?’ I struck a deal with the realtor almost that same day.”

A graduate of Princeton High School and American University, Mr. Gombar fell in love with writing at an early age. “I know that when I read Kerouac, it changed my life,” he said. “I think he made it okay for a lot of us to be us. I’d like to have this store as a nod to Kerouac, Ginsburg, and Ferlinghetti. Some of the best times of my life were during those days.”

In the process of planning the store, Mr. Gombar and his wife Roxanne visited about 200 small bookstores to observe their operations. They have decided to use the back room for paperbacks. Children’s books are still under consideration. Books of special interest to women will be included. “Everybody who has stopped in here to see what we’re doing and express enthusiasm has been female,” Mr. Gombar said. “Not one guy! So I know we have to appeal to women.”

Instead of the usual coffee, Mr. Gombar is mulling over the idea of selling Bronx Pop, a sweet, carbonated beverage he recalls fondly. “It’s an old formula for soda. So instead of getting fried on coffee, we’ll be fried on sugar,” he said with a laugh.

Two years ago, Mr. Gombar attended the 40th reunion at Woodstock. It was disappointing. “They couldn’t recreate that sense of community,” he said. “I miss that. I don’t see that replicated in the experiences of my daughters, who are 28 and 30. They have interesting lives, but there isn’t that sense of inquiry that I remember. And the discourse in the sixties and beyond was about literature, politics, and world affairs. That isn’t the focus now.”

Opening Dharma Bum Books will allow Mr. Gombar to make use of his memories. “I’ve been running my mouth off since the sixties about the anti-intellectualism in this country,” he said. “I have to put my money where my mouth is.”

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