Turning the Page
By Steven Hoffman
Simply told, the story of how an old bookshop came to find its new life in Kennett Square this past year is the tale of what happens when the power of history, tradition and legacy meet with ambition and a desire to nudge that legacy even more forward into the future.
Throughout his 85 years, Thomas Peter Macaluso planted his life's work in two different arenas, each of whom are connected by the study and appreciation of literature. For 37 years, he taught English at Monmouth College in New Jersey, the Ohio State University and at Delaware County Community College. Overlapped with his years in the classroom, he served as the proprietor of Macaluso Rare & Fine Books for 40 years, located at the corner of South Union and Cypress Streets in Kennett Square. It was a six-room treasure trove of data, stories, authors and information, where thousands of rare books, maps and prints were displayed.
When Macaluso died on March 15, 2018, the volumes of his inventory remained in place, as did the oval sign on the book shop's front porch. For the next year, the store continued to be run by Laurie Watkins, a friend of Macaluso and his wife, Brenda. Several months after Macaluso's passing, Kennett resident John Lynn stopped into the store, in the hopes that he would be able to stumble into a rare find.
“I asked Laurie if she was the new owner,” John said. “She told me, 'No, I'm not, but we're looking for one. Are you interested? I said, 'Maybe.'”
Immediately, John went home to discuss the idea with his wife, Stefanie. It could be a perfect next chapter for them, he suggested. Stefanie would be able to retire from her finance role for a global manufacturing company, and John could begin to transition to retirement from his corporate work and join his wife full time.
“I had been considering the idea of doing something different, so when John told me about the business, I didn't even need him to finish what he was telling me,” Stefanie said. “I knew exactly where his idea was going, and that we would move forward with this.
“We had talked about concepts of running a small business, so the idea of owning a bookstore wasn't that far removed from what I was picturing for us in the future.”
Together, the Lynns purchased Macaluso Rare & Fine Books in April 2019. Among their first decisions as new business owners was that the book shop – and the oval sign that bears its name – would initially remain the same.
At first, the Lynns operated the book shop in the original configuration that Macaluso had created but shut the business down in June. For the next five months – with the help of contractors – the Lynns transformed the store, with renovations that included taking down ceiling in the front room, changing light fixtures, replacing flooring, repairing staircases, upgrading wiring in all of the rooms and adding some personal touches such as vintage furniture and area rugs.
By late fall, the sweat equity had paid off, and Macaluso’s re-opened to the public during the first week of November. In exchange for being exposed to books that range from new bestsellers to gently used to an entire catalog of rare books from Macaluso’s inventory, visitors have heaped much praise – and thanks -- on the shop’s new owners.
“When we first opened, we had people tell us that they are so glad that we're continuing this space as a bookshop,” John said. “They have also been very complimentary about the changes we've made, but most importantly, they're happy that we're continuing Tom's legacy to people in the community.”
After several months of a happy and successful operation, the Lynns realized that there was one more unplanned change they would be making.
Earlier this year, they changed the name to The Kennett Bookhouse.
“When we first opened under the name of Macaluso Books, we were finding that some customers were still expecting a rare book experience that we weren’t providing, which was of course Tom’s specialty,” John said. “We had broadened our offering to include new and gently used books, with much less of a focus on the rare book trade. Customers were telling us that they felt the space was like a home with cozy, comfortable rooms, and they wanted to relax with a cup of coffee and read or discuss books with friends. We thought that by incorporating the word ‘Bookhouse,’ we were capturing and communicating the ambience felt within the store.
“We even found ourselves referring to locations in the store as the ‘living room’ and ‘the study.’ It’s really as if the store named itself,” Stefanie said.
During a time when the bookselling industry has become monopolized by the phenomenon of online sales, The Kennett Bookhouse joins the Kennett Resale Book Shoppe across the street, the Kennett Library and the popular Pop-Up lending libraries throughout the borough as stalwart saviors of getting books into the hands of readers the old-fashioned way.
“While it is true that people can go online and get a variety of books, they can't establish a relationship with their bookseller,” John said. “Stefanie and I thought long and hard about our business model against the dynamic of online book selling, but one piece of data that we saw had to do with a resurgence of independent bookstores. We thought, 'Let's see if we can catch that wave,' believing that if we can provide the right bookstore experience for people, we will be able to differentiate ourselves from an online-only sales model.”
Prior to the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic, The Kennett Bookhouse not only quickly earned a reputation for providing readers with the book they needed, they opened up their doors to a bok club and a writing group, with author readings and special events to follow. As Pennsylvania’s businesses began to conform to the “red” and “yellow” colors of the shutdown, however, The Kennett Bookhouse – which was closed to the public throughout the spring -- began partnering with Bookshop.org, an online book-selling organization that was created to financially support local brick-and-mortar bookstores and help them compete against the giant online-only retailers.
“Bookshop.org has been a huge help to all independent booksellers, particularly during this challenging time,” Stefanie said. “It allows our customer to keep up with their browsing and buying without having to worry about personal contact during the pandemic.”
Following its reopening in the middle of June, The Kennett Bookhouse began an initiative that further integrates the Lynns and their bookshop into the fabric of Kennett Square: For each new book sold, 10 percent of its sale will be directed to Kennett-area non-profit organizations. The first recipient of that generosity was Kennett Area Community Service.
Call it a chapter marker of their own.
“Tom Macaluso was one of a kind, and we know we'll never be able to fill his shoes, but he's left a legacy in the form of books that are still a part of the store,” John said. “He did so many other things to promote the love of books and reading, and his legacy has left us with all of the goodwill that he shared with the community he loved.
“That's a great starting point for any business,” he added. “Stefanie and I continue to meet and get to know so many great people, and it’s been great to see many of their friendly faces not only in the store but throughout town. We continue to receive a warm reception, and we have been honored to return that reception when people visit The Kennett Bookhouse.”
The Kennett Bookhouse is located at 130 S. Union Street in Kennett Square.
Order your next book by visiting https://bookshop.org/shop/kennettbookhouse
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email firstname.lastname@example.org.