Where the love of secondhand books meets gourmet sandwiches, Book Trader Cafe has spent two decades growing old with the city of New Haven, in what is now a central location on the Yale campus.
Oct. 27th will mark Book Trader’s 20th anniversary on Chapel Street. Hundreds of people frequent the cafe each week — from students holding group study sessions on the outdoor patio to businesspeople sealing important deals over a cup of coffee. It is a place where the average New Haven Joe enjoys “A Tale of Two Turkeys” — the London or the Paris is a personal choice between onion rye or sourdough bread.
When Dave Duda opened Book Trader in 1998, New Haven was a struggling city recovering from the early 90’s recession. The summer of ’91 had given rise to widespread turmoil against newly elected Gov. Lowell Weicker’s ’53 income tax plan. Penny drinks at Toad’s were 25 cent beers, and a good number of legendary artists had toured through the city, including The Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan.
Yet the steadily declining crime rate was still double the current trends, with 15 reported murders in 1998, including the stabbing of then-Yale senior Suzanne Jovin ’99, for which there were no arrests. Chapel Street was an empty row of vacant lots, with the familiar bustle of J&B Deli, Hull’s and Anaya Sushi still to come.
“[The intersection of York and Chapel] was basically the corner of campus. Nobody came down this block. You could literally stand in the far window and see people going across the street, catty corner one to the other but never come to this block,” Duda, the owner of Book Trader Cafe recalls.
“The first week we opened up, two young kids emptied their pistols on each other within 100 feet of this store. … The news crews came by and said, ‘You’re a local businessman who just opened up a week ago. What do you think of this?’ And in the vain of ‘all publicity is good publicity,’ I said, ‘Well, we were going to have a grand opening, but those guys already splashed the fireworks!’ When that happened, I was wondering what the heck I got myself into.”
A native of central Pennsylvania, Duda had managed a few book stores in New England before opening Book Trader Cafe. When New Haven came up as a location for the store (Ann Arbor, Michigan and Princeton, New Jersey were close seconds), he saw the potential for a booming literary presence at 1140 Chapel St.
“Obviously, there are a lot of benefits to this area. You’re close to the water. You’re close to skiing. Very easy to get to New York. And it’s a great academic town. Anywhere else, you’d think there would be book stores all over the place,” Duda said.
With the growing influence of the internet and easy access to online shopping, independent bookstore sales across the country have been on the decline. When George Orwell wrote in his 1936 essay “Bookshop Memories” that “the combines can never squeeze the small independent bookseller out of existence as they have squeezed the grocer and the milkman,” he probably had not expected the birth of Amazon. In 1998, there were several secondhand book shops in the Elm City. Book Trader is perhaps the only remaining establishment of its kind.
Duda attributes this continued success to the store’s book-cafe hybrid model and the patronage of college students.
“Most restaurants have to worry about getting stale. Every four or five years, a lot of places will change up their menus or their emphasis. We get new clientele every four or five years, so we haven’t changed that much at all,” Duda said. “Our food — we certainly have more options now. I originally was envisioning books, maybe coffee and pastries, but [the food] was hugely popular from the day we opened. And that’s a good thing, because if we didn’t have that, we might have gone away with all the rest of the book stores,” he added.
In 2012, Book Trader’s “A Tale of Two Turkeys: London” finished second on Adam Richman’s DRA ’03 Best Sandwich in America, a 2012 Travel Channel food reality television series. Richman frequented Book Trader during his time as a student in New Haven. The turkey sandwich was his favorite on the menu.
With floor-to-ceiling bookshelves lining the walls, Book Trader Cafe is a cozy alcove for Yale students and New Haven residents alike. For Eda Uzunlar ’22, the store is a reminder of home nearly 2000 miles from Rapid City, South Dakota.
“I’ve been to a few of the other coffee shops [in New Haven], and they’re all lovely, but they definitely do give off a different feeling than Book Trader — a feeling of familiarity for me, personally. I always went to secondhand book stores back home because books cost too much in general. … I like that it’s a secondhand book shop. It combines the comforts of home with the energy that I need to do work,” Uzuniar said.
This homey liveliness is one that many famed patrons of the cafe enjoyed, including award-winning American playwright August Wilson, whose final play “Radio Gold” premiered at the Yale Repertory Theatre in 2005. Wilson, widely recognized as a luminary of African-American experiences in American theater, died a few months after the opening of “Radio Golf.”
“[Wilson] wrote his last play sitting right there. He worked with James Bundy DRA ’95, the director of the Yale Repertory Theatre. … You could see him furiously working on it here while they were in production. It was the first play of the season. … I got to know him pretty well,” Duda said. “We used to have a nice collection of collectible poetry and Beatnik literature. He bought tons of it and got it all signed by his friends to pass along to his kids. He was a great kind. Unbelievable playwright.”
Nearly 98 percent of books sold at Book Trader are secondhand volumes from drop-in sellers. After evaluating the titles and conditions of the books, the store pays either cash or credit, with the store providing 50 percent more compensation for store credit. The process is, quite literally, an exchange of your old books for “new” volumes — a trade.
“We have a very eclectic collection. The more eccentric, the better. The more academic better. A lot of used book stores are just popular fiction and children’s books. We have people bring in great philosophy collections, and art and architecture books sell well,” said Duda.
Kelly Pyers, an associate book seller who has been at the store for nearly two decades, says that the evolution of the store is analogous to the growth of the city — it’s constantly changing and diversifying.
“What I love about New Haven is that you have community stalwarts who have been around and active for 50 years and an influx of new people each fall. New Haven has always been ‘the cultural capital of southern CT,’ but I think in the past 20 years, it’s become much more vibrant.” Pyers remarked.
“It’s nice to see [people’s] faces light up when they realize we’re a used bookstore. It’s the most magical thing in the world. I think people have this idea of a used bookstore as quaint, cozy and homey — a throwback to ‘simpler times.’ But we really try to keep our stock fresh and relevant to our clientele. Not only do we have a lot of academic books for the University community, we also have plenty of pleasure reads,” Pyers added.
The newest addition to the Book Trader staff is Leo Zimmer, a chef from Seattle who moved to New Haven last year. He believes that bookstores and cafes serve an important role in the Yale-New Haven community to bridge a divide.
“Everyone who works [at Book Trader] is a local. [Yale students] have a very different perception of New Haven and what it needs. I think that cafes are a great stepping stone to realize that we are all in this space together, and we all need to make this space and this city great together. Cafes are that one rooted spot.” Zimmer said.
To settle down with a steaming cup of coffee on a chilly New England afternoon, to pick up a used book, brown and aging with the affection of its previous owner is what makes this place special. Two decades of community history are fondly tucked into the dog-eared pages of Book Trader’s volumes.
In many ways, small local businesses like Book Trader foster a unique college experience in New Haven, a sense of belonging unparalleled to similar midsized cities. As Yalies are bundled up in the never-ending hustle of a problem set due the next hour or countless student meetings to attend, Book Trader provides a snug respite from the whirlwind of life.
Kyung Mi Lee | firstname.lastname@example.org