If anyone should feel right at home surrounded by tens of thousands of books, it’s Holly Nadler of Oak Bluffs. Her latest venture, running the Book Den East, follows on a successful literary career, as well as a lifetime devoted to reading.
“Over the years, ever since we [she and ex-husband Marty Nadler] started coming here in the late ’70s, I’ve always loved this place,” says Nadler of the used and rare book store. “Every bookhead loves this place.”
The leap from dedicated customer to business partner came about rather fortuitously. “Last September, a friend and I were driving up New York Avenue and we saw a sign at the Book Den: ‘Closing — 50% Off Everything.’ My friend did a U-turn that could have caused multiple accidents. We tromped into the store, and Ivo [Book Den owner, Ivo Meisner] said, ‘Holly, why don’t you buy this store?’ I said, “I don’t know if I can even afford these books I just put on the counter.’”
Meisner offered a profit-sharing arrangement, and after many emails back and forth between California, where Nadler was visiting with her mother, and Estonia, where Meisner now resides, the two came to an agreement. Nadler now runs the operation, with Meisner as a silent partner of sorts.
On a recent visit to the Book Den, the bookseller looked right at home propped up on a stool behind the counter, leafing through one of the store’s 30,000 volumes. Despite the large size of the two-story repurposed barn, there’s something very cozy and intimate about the space. There’s also a palpable sense of history and the comforting aura of days gone by, before the digital age made physical books a threatened, if not endangered, species.
But Nadler’s not worried about being out of a job anytime soon. “There will always be a percentage of hardcore book lovers who will need a real book in their hands,” she says.
History has certainly been preserved in many of the collectible books found among the shelves. One table at the front of the store is reserved for Vineyard-centric writing. Strolling around, Nadler picks up two of her favorites with an Island connection.
One, a 1950 reprint of a book written by Capt. Joshua Slocum in 1900, relates the author’s life on the high seas. “It’s so good,” says Nadler, hugging the book to her chest. “It’s just a great adventure.” Her other selection is a signed copy of William Styron’s “Darkness Visible,” which she calls “the best book ever written about mental illness.” The former book is priced at $30, the Styron book at $45.
For the customer willing to spend a bit more, the Book Den features a section for book collectors, designated by a sign that reads “Rare, Medium Well, and Well Done.” Treasures from this selection include a first American edition of Virginia Woolf’s “To the Lighthouse” ($250), “The History of the Campmeeting and Grounds,” published in 1870 ($175), and a tiny book of essays by Robert Louis Stevenson published in 1903 ($30).
Although Nadler notes that a lot of customers stop in with something very specific in mind, an hour or so of browsing might very well unearth an unusual gem like a hardbound copy of a 1960s magazine called Eros, featuring dozens of photos of Marilyn Monroe in various stages of undress ($200), or a quaint little 1930s tome called “The Dear Old Dogs,” a collection of stories about the author’s many pets with charming early 20th century photos of dogs that alone justify the modest $10 price tag.
The store is neatly categorized, and Nadler has found that the customer base has proven as eclectic as the curation. She mentions two young assistant chefs from the the Boathouse who stopped in one day to scan the stacks for cookbooks. “They were really passionate about cooking,” says Nadler of the two, who walked out with a book by former Edgartown restaurant owner Louise Tate King, among other finds. A naturalist popped in briefly and located a couple of books on Vineyard flora and fauna. Families often visit and split up, leaving the kids to sort through the children’s book collection, while the parents seek out their own favorite genres.
The bookseller lists some of the sections, saying, “There’s a shipload [pun intended] of maritime books, mysteries, serious fiction, natural history, poetry, plays, the sciences, crafts, true crime, healing. There’s a great section on the two World Wars and Vietnam.” A dedicated music section features books on legends like Johnny Cash and Frank Sinatra, as well as a shelf holding hundreds of CDs.
The second story houses a comprehensive selection of art books, many of which are laid out on a long table to be perused at leisure. Also upstairs is a little nook with comfy furniture and some hanging art that is for sale, as are tide charts, a few historic newspaper pages, and many framed maps. Among the latter is an 18th century map of Lithuania and Poland with the disputed borders represented. The oldest item in the shop is a framed leaf from a medieval manuscript from 1450.
Other collectibles include a large selection of books by Henry Beetle Hough, prolific author and essayist and longtime editor of the Vineyard Gazette, and a stack of signed copies of famed photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt’s beautiful Martha’s Vineyard coffee table book.
Nadler, a former TV and magazine writer who has published six books ranging from true ghost stories to a novel starring a resurrected Emily Dickinson, has very wide-ranging interests. A visit to the Book Den might find her engrossed in a biography of Lizzie Borden, a history of the 14th century, or a hardboiled detective novel. She’s finding her new job to be an education in letters as well as an opportunity to meet all sorts of people — visitors and locals alike.
“Book chat is the best chat,” she says. “If you’re a book person there’s no small talk. When you’re discussing books with someone, it can get very deep, or sometimes it’s just very fun.”
This is Nadler’s second go-round as a bookseller. From 2002 to 2008 she owned and operated a shop on Circuit Avenue called Sunporch Books, which carried new books. She’s excited to be back in the business of selling what she knows and loves best. It’s a dream job for the writer and avid reader, as well as a new adventure.
“F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said, ‘There are no second acts in American lives,’ but he was wrong,” says Nadler. “I’m having a perfect second act, being back in a bookstore talking books and selling books.”
The Book Den East is located at 71 New York Ave., Oak Bluffs. The store is open from 10 am to 5 pm, Monday through Saturday, and noon to 5 pm on Sunday.