Freeville, N.Y. — After 30 years, a used bookstore in a Tompkins County barn will close sometime in the next couple months.
“It’s just not the way people get their information anymore,” says George Schillinger, owner of the Phoenix Old Used and Rare Books, which is located off of Route 13 in Freeville, a few minutes outside of Ithaca. “It’s another casualty of the Internet.”
The Phoenix bookstore, which has operated out of the barn since 1985, has an extensive and diverse selection spanning all sorts of disciplines — history, philosophy, theology, literature, architecture, fantasy and more.
Inside, rows of books snake out across seemingly-endless corridors, loosely organized with hand-written categories marked on wood-frame shelves.
Schillinger says his estimate is that there are 80,000 books in the store. “It could be down to 75,000 — I don’t know,” he says.
Schillinger doesn’t have a precise end-date in mind. He is in the middle of a sale — the books on the front porch are marked as free — and says that whatever doesn’t get sold will be donated to the Friends of the Tompkins County Public Library.
“If someone actually wanted to buy it I’d be happy to entertain offers,” Schillinger says. “But I’m not optimistic.”
Once, Schillinger says, the bookstore filled up two parking lots on weekends in the summer. That could accommodate about 14 cars, with 6-7 in each lot.
“Before the Internet, people would drive for three hours just to get here,” Schillinger says. “Just to spend the day here.”
That started slowly declining around 2004, Schillinger says. The high weekend traffic dipped and declined — and then fell off dramatically. Now, Schillinger says, he doesn’t bother maintaining the second lot anymore.
Of course, Phoenix is not the only bookstore — either locally or nationally — to face difficult headwinds.
Schillinger ticked through a general decline in used bookstore in the area. “Part of the problem is that it was so good here” in Ithaca, with bookstores in Trumansburg, Dryden, Freeville, Ithaca and more, according to Schillinger.
“They’ve been dropping like flies,” he says.
The biggest problem, Schillinger says, is the decline of regular customers.
Readers who once came in regularly stopped coming — and then they weren’t replaced.
“I couldn’t count the number of people who were regular customers and then disappeared for one reason or another,” Schillinger says.
“They weren’t replaced by regular other customers.”
The history of the barn
The barn began as the site of one of the most important agricultural magazines in the country, according to Schillinger, who has been running the bookstore since 1995.
“I’m fascinated by the history of the building itself,” Schillinger says. “This barn has had a whole slew of things going on here over the years.”
After the professor who ran the magazine died in the 1930s, the barn became an ice cream store. It later was a horse barn, and then a furniture-making location, and then — eventually — a bookstore.
“It’s just a great old barn,” he says.
Schillinger says he’s heard the barn even makes an appearance in the novel by Cornell writer Richard Farina, “Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me” — which is fitting, for a bookstore.
The decline of browsing
Schillinger says he would probably bring a third of the books from the closing store home for himself, but that his wife wouldn’t exactly let him — and that his house couldn’t accommodate them.
“I love everything about books. I love the feel of them,” he says.
Schillinger says the problem isn’t that people have stopped loving books — readers will still seek out specific books on specific topics, he says.
Once, however, readers would come in and even if Schillinger didn’t have that book, they would look for others and might pick up something on a different topic. That’s no longer the case.
“Ten years ago, I might or might not have that book — but browsing would take place,” he says. “Now it’s, ‘Do you have this book? Yes, no, goodbye.’”