Bookseller endures despite the odds

At Second Time Books are (from left) owner Jim Morel and workers Keith Carmelia and James Bevan.
At Second Time Books are (from left) owner Jim Morel and workers Keith Carmelia and James Bevan. (AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer)
Posted: February 21, 2014

Jim Morel has been in the business of selling used (or, as he puts it, "gently read") books for 17 years.

Long enough, in other words, to separate fact from fiction.

"Customers always say, 'I'd love to work here and read all day,' " says Morel, proprietor of Second Time Books in Rancocas Woods. "But I never read while I'm working. There's too much to do."

While visiting Morel's handsome shop at 114 Creek Rd., I can easily imagine that selling books is akin to hosting a literary salon.

Precisely arranged volumes of biographies, histories, science-fiction novels, and various Jersey-centric books beckon from the shelves.

Further page-turning opportunities are on display in an engaging maze of rooms, and in the new space of a smaller building across a courtyard. Morel says he carries about 60,000 items.

Maintaining a paradise for browsers and buyers can be a tough business for a proprietor, particularly of a brick-and-mortar store like Second Time. And particularly given the ever-evolving competition for dollars and eyeballs.

"E-readers have had a major impact," says Morel, 58, a Mount Laurel father of two. "I used to carry a lot more fiction, more thrillers and mysteries, but that's what people with e-readers are [downloading]. So I added DVDs, mostly documentaries, and greeting cards and gift items."

Despite fretful stories about the potential demise of independent bookstores and, indeed, bookstores of all sorts in a world of online retail and Twitter novels, a more optimistic narrative may be emerging.

Membership in the American Booksellers Association has risen from 1,401 in 2009 to 1,632 last year, spokesman Dan Cullen says. Thirty-four of the members are in New Jersey.

"What's going on is the 'shop local' movement. It's very important to locally owned independent businesses of all stripes," he says from the White Plains, N.Y., headquarters of the association, which mainly represents sellers of new books.

While Douglas Palmieri, owner of the Old Bookshop of Bordentown, 200 Farnsworth Ave., is rather less sanguine than Cullen ("used booksellers are quickly becoming dinosaurs"), he sees some encouraging signs.

"We've seen a youthening of the clientele," he says. "You might call them hipsters, the under-30s. They come in and buy poetry and literature. They like antique books and fine bindings."

Morel's love affair with the printed word began during his boyhood in Hawthorne, Passaic County. He became an avid reader, particularly of history and science fiction.

After earning degrees in history and law from Rutgers University, he practiced law briefly and then spent 18 years with J.C. Penney Co., managing its South Jersey mall stores.

The next career move with Penneys would have required uprooting his family, so he "decided to marry my retailing background with my passion for books."

Morel invested $15,000 and assembled an inventory of 7,000 books - some from his personal collection, others culled from estate sales - and opened on South Church Street in Mount Laurel in 1997. Second Time moved to its current location two years ago.

Morel also has added a couple of employees, including James Bevan, who at 18 may represent that "youthening" Palmieri spoke of. Until he was hired last October, Bevan had been a customer.

The Civil War reenactor and student of military history says the shop carries "a wider range of books than a big-box store."

As for the millions of titles available online at the click of a mouse, Morel says the sheer abundance can easily "overwhelm" readers - particularly those who prefer getting a recommended read from a human being, rather than an algorithm.

"This business is definitely hard work, and I'm never going to get wealthy," he adds. "It's a labor of love. Absolutely."

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