Imagine walking into your favorite store, seeing a “for sale” sign, and after the shock, realizing the possibilities. That’s precisely what happened to Joan Silvestro, our NJMOMpreneur of the week, at her beloved local used bookstore—Booktrader of Hamilton. Rather than mourning the possible loss, the first thought that popped into her head was dream job. Buying a business without business experience might seem somewhat reckless, but if you’re as passionate about reading and the importance of books as Joan is, you’ll find it easy to understand why she took the leap. We sat down with Joan to talk about the unique environment of used bookstores, the importance of reading to children, and the strange paranormal phenomenon on a stretch of road in Titusville you must see.
Please tell us a bit about your family and your background.
I live in Hamilton with my husband, Bob, who was also my high school sweetheart. Our home is about a mile away from my shop, Booktrader of Hamilton, and it’s where we raised our sons. Our eldest, Stephen, is now a doctor and lives with his family in Maryland, and Douglas, our youngest, is an attorney who lives in New Jersey with his family. I have four grandchildren, and I’m proud to add reading is a big part of all of their lives. Before I bought Booktrader of Hamiton, I had no real business experience. I have a bachelor’s in Medical Technology, and I worked at Mercer Hospital until my first son was born. Over the years, I’ve sold Tupperware and Avon, stuffed envelopes, and, when my sons were a little older, held a part-time position as a clerk at Mercer County College. While working at the college, I took an accounting course to do the books at my husband’s construction and home repair business. This accounting experience proved helpful when I bought my shop, but that was the only experience I had.
Tell us about your shop, Booktrader of Hamilton—how is it different than other bookstores?
Booktrader of Hamilton is one of the last remaining used bookstores in the state, where you can buy and trade books. We do carry a small selection of new books and order specific books for our customers, but we are devoted to gently used books and passing on reading joy. One thing that our customers love is that we also have a store credit system, where you can sell your books for store credit to be used on future purchases. But what sets us apart the most is how we’re very much a community, and many of my regulars feel like family to me. Because of this and probably because I don’t have a true business background, I’ll go over-and-above at times to help them out. I help our computer illiterate customers order things online, and take book requests and find them for our customers when they’ve given up. We’ve also hosted author visits and have had celebrations for book anniversaries in the shop.
How has your business changed over the years?
In 2003, when I first bought the shop, we had limited books for children. We’ve grown so much in our offerings for kids, and I enjoy catering to them. We’ve done some Harry Potter events and YA (young adult) author talks in the shop. I’m a firm believer that if you can get someone hooked on reading early on, you’ve got a reader for life. I’m very enthusiastic when a child comes in who says they don’t particularly like reading. I ask them about their interests and what they enjoy doing, and then I see if I can find something that fits their interests. Usually, I can, and they end up returning to the store for more. We know reading helps readers discover things, real and imagined, and exposes them to situations outside of their day-to-day experiences. It enhances imagination and proven to help kids do better in school. I firmly believe reading to my children when they were small and finding books that interested them as they grew enabled them to find their places in the world.
How has the pandemic affected your business?
Covid-19 restrictions have proven to be the biggest challenge thus far, but early on in the pandemic, when businesses had to be closed, my savings and the pick-up-book system I implemented helped bridge the gap. Now that walk-ins are allowed for browsing and in-person shopping, my customers have shown their support. While we can’t host events right now, we’ve moved to an online platform. We also recently had our first Zoom author talk, and for now, I hope to make it a part of things moving forward.
Tell us about some of your favorite NJ spots and what you love about them.
One place out-of-town visitors always want to experience is Gravity Hill on Pleasant Valley Way in Titusville. It’s a section of the road that appears to defy the laws of physics and is an interesting phenomenon to experience first-hand. The way it works is when you’re at the bottom of the hill, put your car in neutral. Your car will start to move back up the hill. It’s a rite of passage when those in the area first get their driver’s license, and it also comes with a ghost story attached to it, though the story is slightly different depending on who is telling it.
Mercer County Park is also a must-do. My husband and I take our grandchildren there often. We’ll all explore a bit and hit every play area before leaving. They can’t get enough of it, but then again, neither can we. We like to go there on our own, too. We stop at Classic Sub Shop to pick up some hoagies, and then we’ll ride out and sit at the gazebo just watching people fish and boat. It’s a beautiful spot to relax and take in the scenery.
Killarney’s Publick House is a favorite of ours when we want to kick back, grab a beer and eat some good food. And Jojo’s Tavern is a must for their out-of-this-world sandwiches, plus it’s within easy walking distance from our home.
What advice can you share with another NJMOMpreneur just starting?
When I was first starting, I was told—it’s your store, so run it the way you want to run it, and don’t let your customers bully you. There’s always somebody who will give you a hard time or have a difference of opinion, but you must do what will work for you. Also, running a business can get a little overwhelming at times, especially for someone who doesn’t have experience in all the different responsibilities that come along with it. The accounting class I had under my belt helped me business-wise, but it would have helped me to take another business-related course or two to make the learning curve a little easier.
For more information about Joan Silvestro and Booktrader of Hamilton, follow them on their website and Facebook pages.