After 35 Years in a Literary Vault, Witherspoon Books Owner Turns a Page
For 35 years, Pat McConahay has been working underground.
Mr. McConahay, the proprietor of Witherspoon Books at 12 Nassau Street, is coming back to street level,
The shop, formally known as Witherspoon Art & Book Store, is closing, and it's perfect timing for Mr. McConahay, 68, because he is choosing to retire, rather than be run out of business by the internet or larger book retailers.
"Little guys find it really hard to compete with Wal-Mart. You have to adapt, you have to be flexible, or you have to be old enough to retire," he said with a wry smile.
And while Mr. McConahay maintains that his business was only temporary ("A long temp," he said), the town is losing a major resource for antiquarians; for three-and-a-half decades, Witherspoon Books has been catering to Princeton literati and bibliophiles searching for rare, out-of-print, scholarly volumes.
And for the last 50 years, the bookstore has been operating out of the vault of the old Princeton Bank & Trust building on the corner of Nassau and Bank streets.
The history is somewhat hazy, Mr. McConahay said, but Witherspoon Books actually first opened sometime in the 1920s on Witherspoon Street, near where Abel Bagel currently resides. When Witherspoon was bought in 1956 by Mary Hicks, Mr. McConahay established his ties with the shop as a customer. At the time, he worked as an editor for a publishing company in New York City. As one can imagine, the commute weighed heavily on him.
"I had been doing that for years, but I was a customer here, and it became obvious that the shop was not going to go on; Mary was getting quite old, and so I talked to my wife to see what we could do.
"We bought the place."
Mr. McConahay made an immediate impact by changing the selection, and, as a result, raising the prices. The store, which used to carry an ample assortment of fiction, eventually stocked mostly non-fiction, with an emphasis on scholarly or academic non-fiction published by university presses.
"That, of course, is a reflection of the great institution of higher learning living across the street," he said.
As such, the store's clientele tend to be, what Mr. McConahay calls, "university-centered.
"People come to this town for University-related stuff: seminars; programs; visiting scholars; and they bring with them an interest in books and become our clients."
The merchant-client relationship does not end when the academics leave town, however. In the age of world-wide shipping, the store has been able to retain customers longer than ever.
"When they go back to France, Germany, England, wherever it is, we keep correspondence and they continue to buy our books."
Mr. McConahay added that over the years, the store has had "a lot" of noteworthy customers.
"We've had a lot of scholars, some celebrities, and people who have become notorious," but Mr. McConahay preferred not to elaborate,
Though the original 1970 stock has been almost completely sapped ("unless we're using some for doorstops"), Witherspoon Books has handled some significant volumes over the years: books printed in the 1500s; some important Audubon bird folios; 19th century color-plate books; and volumes worthy of being locked in a vault overnight, what with prices ranging from $5,000 to $50,000.
"They haven't all been $5 books," Mr. McConahay said.
And though it was not a factor when Ms. Hicks decided to rent the vault space, the store climate is near-perfect for old books that need a special temperature to survive, according to Mr. McConahay. "It never gets too hot or cold, no dampness: it's fine for the storage of books probably not great for human beings, but it's great for books."
Now a resident of Ewing, Mr. McConahay said that his business "could" continue in some capacity through Witherspoon's online service, but that he expects to close shop within the next few weeks.
While the store owner said he is looking forward to no longer having to lug book shipments up and down the steep, narrow steps of the old bank building, he said he will miss the customers, who have always been motivated enough to preclude any serious advertising.
"We relied pretty heavily on customers' incentive to find books if they have an interest in books, they will usually find us even if we're under a rock. And we were."