Becky Feinberg ’01 apologizes as she’s about to sit down for an interview.
“I’m sorry, I have to use the bathroom.” She scurries to the bathroom in the basement of Yorkside Pizza, and five minutes later she’s back. At her desk in Book Haven, that is.
“We don’t have our own bathroom,” said Feinberg, the current manager of Book Haven, the 24-year-old independent bookseller on York Street.
Owned and started by Henry Schwab ’63 and his wife, Susan DRA ’76, Book Haven has enjoyed a flourishing business that has catered to Yale students and faculty over the course of many often difficult years in business.
With a strong reputation among Yale professors and students for its personal attention and expertise, it seems that all Book Haven is missing is its own bathroom.
“In the ’70s, there wasn’t a solidly academic bookstore in New Haven,” Susan Schwab said. “We opened Book Haven in 1978 as an academic bookstore. Over the years, we’re stuck with that vision.”
Professor John Hollander first met Henry Schwab in the classroom. “He was a student in what is now numbered English 125,” Hollander said. “He astonished me in the first week of class by identifying a line of English verse as being from the Greek of Pindar.”
“I thought I would teach Greek and Latin [after graduation],” Henry Schwab said. “I had no idea [I’d be running an independent bookstore].”
After only three years away from New Haven and Yale, Schwab changed his mind about teaching and began searching for alternatives.
“We put together a team of people and opened Book Haven,” he said.
But the business was not an instant success.
“We stayed open much too late — until midnight on Fridays and Saturdays,” Schwab said. “We didn’t know how little business there was in the area after 5:30 p.m.”
Only a year after opening, Book Haven experienced a financial crisis.
“We had much too much inventory,” Schwab said. “Then my wife, who had only been helping [out at Book Haven], came in and showed her expertise.”
The Schwabs, who met because they lived in the same building, are a Yalie business match made in heaven.
“I’m good at selecting the books,” Henry Schwab said, “but she’s very detail-oriented. [During the crisis] she looked at the bills and put Book Haven on [the road to] long-term profitability.”
Susan Schwab stayed on working full-time at Book Haven until last week, when she began work as a paralegal.
“After 24 years, I was ready for a change,” she said.
Henry Schwab, though previously having announced his intent to retire, admits that such an event will not occur for some time.
“It’s too much fun,” he said. “The store keeps you busy, which is important as you get older.”
Henry Schwab has also been keeping busy recently with new endeavors — namely last semester’s attempt to learn Arabic from professor Bassam Frangieh.
“He was so supportive,” Henry Schwab said. “[Bassam] is unbelievable.”
As Susan Schwab moves on, a younger generation of book aficionados has come to take her place. This newer staff includes Feinberg and Devlin Grunloh, a Whittier graduate who “once changed Susan [Schwab’s] daughter’s diapers.”
Even with the Schwab’s partnership and attention to their clientele, Book Haven has endured hardships over the past 24 years.
“Many years ago, the [Yale] Co-op decided they should have all the business, and began ordering the same books [professors had given us to order],” Henry Schwab said. “We sent a letter to a lot of professors, and the Co-op lost about a third of its course books.”
Over the years, the Schwabs have seen Yale, New Haven and book-selling itself change and grow.
“It’s a shame the Co-op had to disappear after 113 years,” Susan Schwab said. “But I guess that’s the way of the world. We’re in friendly competition with Barnes and Noble the same way we were with the Co-op.”
Book Haven sticks to its own model.
“We won’t fit the corporate model,” Susan Schwab said. “People say you have to do this or that — you really don’t. We’re in touch with our customers.”
Indeed, Yale professors seem to provide the greatest financial support for Book Haven, 30 percent of whose sales occur during the first two weeks of each semester.
Hollander has remained a loyal customer at his former student’s store.
“I have rejoiced in the presence of Book Haven ever since [it opened],” Hollander said. “Henry and Susan Schwab are true booksellers, who read and know and think.”
Professor Murray Biggs used Book Haven since his arrival at Yale in 1986.
“I like the idea of supporting the small, family-run bookstore, where the owners keep a personal eye on things, including their customers,” he said.
Molly Epstein ’04 agrees.
“I always appreciate when my professors order their course books from Book Haven. I strongly believe in supporting small, independent bookstores,” she said.
“Plus, there’s that great wall of pleasure reading right in front of the cash register,” Epstein said. “You can always balance out an armful of course books with a quick read or a book from their amazing section on art history.”
For professor Kevin Repp, a first-time Book Haven customer, the choice was “purely practical.”
“Service [at the Yale Bookstore] has become considerably worse in the last year or so (no notification of problems getting texts for classes, etc.),” Repp wrote in an e-mail. “So I decided to give Book Haven a try.”
Grunloh and Feinberg, too, were patrons of Book Haven before becoming part of the staff.
“They had a book I hadn’t seen anywhere else, and I haven’t seen anywhere since,” Grunloh said. “I’m still kicking myself for not buying it.”