Saturday June 15, 2019

'How I Got Started': Bill Reilly

By Lou Sorendo

    Q.: Your first career was in sales with Newsweek magazine. What was that experience like?

    A.: I had the most incredible career from 1971-1996 at Newsweek magazine. It was the best job that a college graduate could ever have hoped for. Six days after graduating from school, I was working for Newsweek and helping numerous jobs in sales, sales support and sales management. I got to travel the country on behalf of the magazine, and in fact, Central New York was part of my territory in the 1970s. It was just a real sweet gig. After 25 years, I said, “I’ve done everything that I want to do in advertising sales. I am ready for life’s next challenge.” Happily, two years before I retired, I had met my wife Mindy Ostrow and it pretty much put into place a plan to move here, and that’s how we went from New York City to Oswego.

    Q.: What skill sets did you develop early in your career that served you well over the years?

    A.: Life in the corporate world gave me plenty of skills. I think the No. 1 thing that my time at Newsweek gave me as I set about opening a brand new business was confidence. So many people I talked to during the two years of preparation for opening the store were negative about the prospects, including my parents. But at age 46 and having 25 years under my belt at Newsweek, I was fearless. I knew that whether it was this or something else, whatever I did would be successful. I admit that was sort of a naïve, blind fearlessness looking back, but it was there and it served me very well.

    Q.: What steps did you take to prepare for your second career as an independent bookstore owner?

    A.: I went to booksellers’ school, contacted the American Booksellers Association, met countless times with the community development office in Oswego, and worked on a business plan. I also went to work as a part-time bookseller at Barnes & Noble in DeWitt for 18 months because one piece of advice given to me was if you have the opportunity, you should test drive it before you fly it.

    Q.: What did you learn in the booksellers’ school you attended?

    A.: The school was a weeklong boot camp for prospective booksellers, and the faculty was current bookstore owners whose mission was to try to discourage you from opening a bookstore. They wanted to make sure that you really wanted to do this with the understanding that it’s a lot of work, not for the faint of heart, and you really have to love this if you’re going to get into this industry. They couldn’t dissuade me from jumping in, so I did some market research. If you had taken a look at the results of the survey that I got back as to whether or not it was a good idea to open a bookstore in the city of Oswego, you would have packed your bags and turned tail and gone the other direction. There were no positive signs.

    Q.: Why did you decide to go forward with your plans?

    A.: What I saw was untapped opportunity with this beautiful waterfront community surrounded by water and a tremendous amount of history. In my gut, I just knew that people were buying books — they just weren’t buying them in Oswego! They were buying them at Borders, Barnes & Noble and online from Amazon. There really wasn’t a local option to purchase books. So I asked Mindy, “What do you think?” We dove in headfirst and just haven’t looked back since. It’s been a wonderful ride — not without its challenges — but it’s been the most gratifying thing that I’ve ever done.

    Q.: Can you give us a sense of the costs associated with opening the store?

    A.: My 25 years at Newsweek allowed me to undertake this enterprise. It gave me not only confidence, but also the financial wherewithal to start a new business. Financing for the rivers end bookstore came from multiple sources. Our friends at Pathfinder Bank were one source and small business loans through the city’s community development office were another source. In addition to my own personal funds, there was other numerous sources. I hired a consultant who specialized in opening bookstores, an architect and interior designer, and just went methodically through all the steps to make sure I did it correctly. I had never done anything like this before so I tried to get the best advice that I could get.

    Q.: The rivers end bookstore transcends being just a retail outlet and has evolved into a community-gathering place. How key has this role been to the success of the business?

    A.: If you want to do something, we raise our hands and say, “Come do it here.” We have had all kinds of gatherings in this store, and I saw it as a place where town and gown could come together and realize all that we have in common as opposed to our differences. Happily, that’s proven to be the case. It’s wonderful as I introduce people to one another and they share their love of books, whether they are employees or students at the college, work at Novelis, the hospital or the school district, or are wives of fishermen that are accompanying their husbands. When we host author events we’ve have had people travel three hours to come to the store. It’s been very gratifying when we learned that.

    Q. We understand that you also sell books outside the domain of the store here in Oswego. How does that benefit the business?

    A.: Over the past several years, we’ve gotten ourselves in a position where we are selling books outside of the store. We go to Syracuse for the Rosamond Gifford Lecture Series, and we are the official book seller for several huge author events that they host. Whenever David Sedaris appears at the Landmark Theatre in Syracuse, his people call us and we’ll sell his books at the Landmark. We have a reputation for being a dependable source for book sales off site as well as in the store. We address a huge librarian conference in Syracuse each fall where we not only sell books, but are actually part of the program and talking about books to them.

    Q. How do you compete against the digital age of book buying and reading?

    A.: When we opened the rivers end bookstore, we had our eyes wide open in terms of knowing people were buying books online and at big box retailers. About 12 years ago, the digital version of books happened to us, and that was the big development to us as booksellers. It was like, “Oh my gosh, what are we going to do?” Booksellers chose to do one of two things: They chose to say, “I’m done,” either literally or figuratively, because they chose not to embrace the digital world. Or, booksellers like us said, “Yes, we’re going to do that and we are going to make it possible for you as a customer at rivers end bookstore to buy digital content from us.” We more recently embraced audio downloads. Lots of books are being consumed in audio versions. It used to be a cassette, then it was a disc, and now it’s a digital download to your phone.

    Q.: Where do you see digital technology going in terms of books?

    A.: Happily, while digital is firmly entrenched and isn’t going anywhere, it’s kind of plateaued for the moment. People who were reading digitally have said, “You know, I like that for when I travel or for this occasion or that, but I want a real book. I don’t want to read all of my books digitally.” Some people have totally abandoned digital and have come back to traditional books because they are not finding it the experience they want to have. They are not able to touch, feel and smell the book the way you can, and there’s value to that.

    Q. Do you think digital books will eventually go away?

    A.: In spite of Amazon’s efforts to totally diminish the value of the book and use it as a loss leader, people are still buying traditional books and supporting independent bookstores. They want that human interaction. Digital is not going away, but there have been stories on executives of the major companies involved in digital trying to keep devices out of their children’s hands because they are so addictive and potentially harmful. I think that pendulum might actually swing back a little bit until the next big thing happens, whatever that’s going to be.

    Q.: You recently celebrated your 21st anniversary as an independent bookstore owner in Oswego. What is the next chapter going to be like?

    A.: Our son Emil Christmann has rejoined the bookstore. He was off doing other things with his life, and a couple of years ago, he and his now wife Megan Irland moved back to Central New York, bought a home and started a family. They have a 1-year-old baby boy. All three of them are regular fixtures in the bookstore, and Emil is now the manager. It is everyone’s plan that rivers end bookstore will continue as a family enterprise. Family has always been involved in the business. My wife Mindy Ostrow was involved with the store from the start, and Emil — at age 12 — was in the store working as well. It’s always been a friends and family affair. Mostly everyone who has worked on the staff over the years may not have been related, but have been friends and neighbors who we’ve known forever. It’s sort of the way Oswego is.

    Q.: Any other plans for the future?

    A.: We bought a new home in Oswego eight years ago, and that’s our retirement home, so we’re not going anywhere. That doesn’t mean we won’t travel, and we do plenty of that. We want to make sure we are healthy and have the means to read and travel as ways to sustain our lives through the advanced years. Those seem to be the keys. To cite Mindy, keep moving and be active.