OSWEGO, NY – Submitted for your approval, an unpretentious door at 19 W. Bridge St., Oswego, NY, USA. At first glance, it is no different than any of the other entrances into the nearby shops.
However, once you cross its threshold you leave behind the trials and tribulation of every day life. You may now join Harry Potter on a magical adventure, drift back in time to the birth of Rock and Roll, help the likes of Alex Cross or Richard Castle solve a murder, discover the hidden stories of the birth of Oswego County, the daring may visit great battles or monumental discoveries through out history and much, much more.
You have just entered … the river’s end bookstore.
The tale of the river’s end bookstore is a classic love story. Big city boy comes to small town, meets girl, falls in love, gets married and opens a bookstore.
“It was a drug store before Shapiro’s and then it was Gallo’s for 10 years in this spot. They never had a sign, just a piece of craft paper stuck to the window,” said Bill Reilly, co-owner of the bookstore. “I remember taking it off the glass. We’ve been here since 1998.”
He said his story is kind of two-pronged; first it’s why Oswego and second why a bookstore?
“I had been in New York City for 25 years. I worked one place my entire career at Newsweek magazine. Had a great career there and retired at 46,” he told Oswego County Today. “Decided I was going to leave the city and move to Oswego.”
For 23 of the 25 years that he was living in Manhattan, Reilly spent time in Oswego each one of those years.
“My best friend in New York City grew up in Oswego. His family had a big house on Montcalm. He was a local dentist, Jack Scullin. Our fathers grew up together in Auburn,” he recalled. “My family was in Florida. So, it was closer to drive to Oswego from Manhattan than it was to drive to Florida.”
Each summer he’d come up and spend one weekend or more in Oswego. These were pre-Harborfest days. And then when Harborfest came along, he’d typically time his visit to correspond with Harborfest.
“I grew up moving around a lot. So I didn’t have what you’d call a hometown. So, jokingly, each one of these visits, my expanding group of Oswego friends would say, ‘Oh, there’s the hometown boy.’ It started as a joke and then by the time I got closer to retirement, I said, ‘I am going to move to Oswego and it’s going to become my adopted hometown!’”
Two years before he moved to the Port City, “on one of those visits, I met Mindy (Ostrow), now my wife. I was staying with the Schneiders, who had the jewelry shop, and after dinner we went out for a walk. We were on Water Street, just walking. They introduced me to a good friend and neighbor of theirs, Mindy,” he said.
That was ’94. She was working at the (Tyler Hall) art gallery at SUNY Oswego and running Artswego at the time. She was the inaugural director of that program and worked on it for seven years.
They had a long-distance courtship for about two years.
“Right after I retired in ’96, I moved here and we got married within a few days of the move. We had been planning for a while,” he said. “At that point, I turned to Mindy and said so now what am I going to do with the rest of my life?”
He was 46. Kind of young to be retired; had a lot of life left. So, he was looking around for a business idea that would be a community focused business.
“The whole idea being that this is my adopted hometown. Oswego has welcomed me with open arms; I need to give something back to Oswego,” he explained.
“We were going to buy an older home and open up a B and B, thought that would be a nice way to connect with the community, preserve a piece of our history and invite people into the home,” he continued. “We looked and looked and looked and spent more time visiting B and Bs in the Northeast than you would imagine. Each time we’d go to communities and stay at a B and B, we found ourselves visiting the local bookstore.”
After a while, they ruled out the B and B idea.
“Don’t want to live where you work 24/7/365. That’s a lot of commitment. I’m willing to commit a lot, but probably not that much,” he quipped.
They started thinking about creating a business that didn’t exist in Oswego.
The couple wasn’t interested in opening any existing business – “didn’t want to do another tattoo parlor or a pizza shop or a bar or even a restaurant because they were already here, in plentiful supply. It doesn’t make sense to open a business when there are so many others already here.”
There was no book store.
There had been a used book store for about 14 years. So Reilly spoke with the owner about the viability of a book store.
“She told me she never made a penny. I said, ‘OK, thank you.’ She basically said don’t do it,” he said.
At that time, Paper Cutter was a franchise in Oswego that was where people were going for things like copying, party supplies and some books.
“It was far from my vision of what a book store was,” he said. “It was a paper store, party supplies store. Wayne Drugs probably had more books than they did. Every business sells books. But just because you sell books doesn’t make you a book store. We felt there was a need. So I went about doing some research,” he said.
While he was doing the long-distance courtship with Mindy, he signed up for a program offered through Community Development for those considering opening a small business. Now it’s offered through the college.
“I took that course for 10 weeks. I’d arrive here about midnight after I left work. Then at 8 a.m., go to class and spend all day in class. Then I’d half a day Sundays with Mindy before I had to drive back to the city,” he said.
Once they settled on a book store, Reilly went to work for Barnes and Noble. It gave him the opportunity to test drive working in a book store.
For six months, he had his heart set on a different location, less than a block from his current location. The 19 W. Bridge St. location was occupied.
“The building I was looking at was available. I looked at several buildings, up and down both sides of West First Street. I fell in love with one and after six months we kind of said, ‘you know what, this is too hard. It obviously wasn’t meant to be,’” he said.
He walked away from that particular location. Then he looked over the notes from his class work. Maybe the location for a store is occupied. But that doesn’t mean that can’t be your spot.
“Chris Gagas, at the time, owned this building. His son and daughter own the building today. I spent countless hours in the (Olde World) Bakery (which was next door to the bookstore) with Mindy when we were dating. Gagas also owned that building,” he said.
They chatted with the business owner about who owned the buildings. Somehow, Reilly said he got in touch with Gagas and told him what he’d like to do.
His timing was perfect. The clothing store was ready to close here and consolidate at its Wolcott location.
“This store was claustrophobic. There was a drop ceiling. It was orange and brown and beige with stripes throughout the store. It was hideous. The drop ceiling hid the original tin ceiling for 40 years. No one even knew it was here,” Reilly said. “We looked up above that drop ceiling and discovered the tin ceiling and I just said, ‘Oh, boy! This is going to be great.’ It was in near perfect condition.”
He knew virtually nothing about being a small business owner or the book publishing business. He knew about the magazine publishing business. “But certainly not about retail sales.”
“We jumped in with both feet and hired a consultant. It’s a consultant that we just had dinner with as recently as (the end of January). For 19 years we’ve continued to work together and be friends,” he said. “They helped us design the space and pick out furniture and lighting and shelves for the books, the layout of the store and select the books that we were going to start the store with. They helped with our computer inventory system and so much more. I could not have done it without hiring that consultant. We have a fabulous relationship; it is in force to this day.”
“My fear was being an outsider in a small community that I wouldn’t be accepted. Business is tough enough. But if no one knows you and they find out you’re from New York City why are they even going to bother to come in the store? We talked with a lot of local business people about that. And they all said, ‘you know what? Not that that doesn’t exist, but if you have a good business they will come. That’s what will bring them in Just concentrate on that, and don’t worry about the rest,’” he recalled.
The draw to the river’s end bookstore now is international because of the internet.
“We send books all over the world. The core of our business is right here – Oswego, Oswego County. Everyone from the newborn who is getting books purchased for them to the retiree who is trying to plan their leisure hours to the college professor or the plant worker, the teacher or the students,” he said. “Our business is divided into two parts. There is retail and then there is that commercial aspect of the business – the school district buys books from us, Novelis, the hospital, the college, the nuke plant, the city, the county, BOCES (CiTi) buys books from us.”
Area businesses will order 50 copies of a certain book for a middle management training seminar or X number of a book because there is a new CEO at the hospital and they want everyone to be on the same page, he explained.
“We need both sides to survive. You have to have both,” he added.
The owners have a great relation with the college and the school district and others.
“But you can’t take it for granted,” Reilly cautions. “You have to keep proving yourself every day. That’s what we’ve been trying to do for the past 19 years for each customer that comes in as well as all the big businesses that we deal with.”
“All books have fans. One of our biggest sellers is local history. Our residents cannot get enough local history. There is an insatiable appetite for local history. We have a huge selection of authors on local history,” he said.
Also, there a many customers interested in children’s books, he noted.
They are vital to the store.
“You have people buying for newborns, teachers buying books for kids; you’ve got parents and siblings, aunts, uncles and grandparents buying for children. You got people buying books for graduation gifts, whether it’s kindergarten or college graduation. There are so many opportunities to sell children’s books and all those buyers for children’s books,” Reilly said. “We sell all manner of traditional books, paperback and hardcover. We also sell audio books and digital books. You can go to our website and buy any or all of that.”
When they started, their eyes were wide open. They knew that the internet was part of the playing field.
“Booksellers were going to embrace it, or die. We said, ‘we have got to offer digital books to our customers, if they want to read in that format, they can,” he said. “Most of our sales are traditional book sales. We are about to launch into audio download on our website.”
In nearly two decades, they have myriad memories.
“I’ll never forget the day that a father came into the store and was purchasing a book when he turned to me and he said, ‘I can’t drive by your store with my children in the car. They say stop – we want to go to the book store!’ There are so many memories. But that’s one that sticks out special in my mind,” Reilly said.
The store also hosts meetings, book talks and meet the author events – such as the recent visit by Sean Kirst, author of The Soul of Central New York: Syracuse Stories.
The store hours are Monday – Saturday 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. and Sunday 11 a.m. – 4 p.m.
Email: [email protected]