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Ridgewood bookstore brings literary life to east Queens

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After Barnes & Nobles announced their departure from Queens, Johanne Civil, executive director of the Queens Book Festival called on communities across the borough to help support local entrepreneurs to open new shops.

Benjamin Friedman, co-owner of the Topos Bookstore Cafe, a small gem of a used book-store nestled on a quiet corner in rowhouse Ridgewood, might be just what she had in mind.

Friedman is an unabashed bibliophile and possesses a genuine love of words. A graduate-school dropout, he has written on arcane linguistic history for the highbrow British literary magazine, The Times Literary Supplement. “All day long I’m involved in the process of self-education and that is very enjoyable for me,” Friedman said. “I dont know how to work an espresso machine. I’m just a book-guy.”

And while Topos does have a cafe, and a delicious one at that, the stacks which overflow with dog-eared, tea-stained books, are the shop’s main attraction.

Topos only traffics in used books, but their selection features out-of-print books and rare editions of the classics. “These books have character. Some have lasted 50 years and maybe they’ll last another 100. It’s a very cool feeling to have that in your hands.”

Friedman spent years working as a manager at the St. Mark’s Bookshop in the East Village, but he harbored dreams for owning his own used-book store.

Through various connections with the Brooklyn literary community, he partnered with Cosmo Bjorkenheim who previously worked at Human Relations in Bushwick, and opened up Topos, which had its soft opening in December and its full opening in January.

The intraborough collaboration paid off, and Topos now boasts both a loyal clientele and a respectable bottom line.

“We’re selling more books than we thought,” Friedman said. “We thought we’d be riding on the coffee sales, but the book sales are holding their own. In this neighborhood there are plenty of people who want to buy books.”

Friedman points out that the used-book store model may be more financially feasible than a store that only sells new books. “The distinction between used and new bookstores, as a biz model, is very significant. It’s really hard to make money selling new books because publishers set the prices and the discounts. The profit margins are razor thin.”

Even as the chain stores depart, writers seem to be increasingly moving to Queens to escape the high cost of living in neighboring boroughs that often may have more established literary communities.

“I would think that in most residential neighborhoods a shop like ours could succeed,” Friedman said. “I’ve got friends who want to open up shops in Jackson Heights. I think it could flourish there.”

Friedman sees a real opportunity for an indigenous literary culture and community to grow in Ridgewood and throughout Queens.

“We have one quite successful author who comes to Topos all the time who works on a book,” he said. “He spent 15 years in the Village and then moved here about a year ago. I think we’ll see more of that.”

Reach reporter Gabriel Rom by e-mail at grom@cnglocal.com or by phone at (718) 260–4564.

Updated 12:32 am, July 10, 2018
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