Woodland Valley Books opens up shop in Phoenicia

“This is not a business. This is a bookstore.”

That quote from Dan Sofaer, owner of Woodland Valley Books on Main Street in Phoenicia, tells you as much about Dan as it does about the used bookstore he opened in Phoenicia. Those of you who haven’t been there yet (which includes practically everyone since the store is fairly new and perched well above eye level, on the second floor of a small complex where foot traffic seldom ventures) are in for a treat. You will enter a small, friendly corner of the universe where books are highly honored guests. Used bookstores tend to be idiosyncratic, taking on the persona of the proprietor, and Woodland Valley Books is no exception. 

Like most bookstore owners, Dan loves books. In his case, though, that’s a serious understatement. Dan Sofaer is utterly passionate about books. Or, to be more precise, he is passionate about reading in the way that missionaries are passionate about religion.  

“I’m a book junkie,” Dan said, “and I’m totally unapologetic about that. Books are other worlds and it takes time to enter another world. I read intently. If I’m reading say, Jane Austen, I’ll be trying to figure out what the clothes those people were wearing looked like."

“Books are for pleasure but they’re also for knowledge,” he said. “Reading is wrapping your head around things. The more you read the more you understand, the more connections you make. I know books can be a distraction from a lot of real life things, but I’ve bitten the bullet. I’ve taken that loss.” 

Opening a small business meant breaking some new ground for Sofaer. Though he’s surrounded himself with books for most of his life, the idea of operating his own used bookstore never occurred to Dan until he was walking down Main Street in Phoenicia last spring and spotted a for rent sign.  It pointed to some available store space on the second floor, with windows overlooking local scenery from multiple sides. “That’s a sweet space for a bookstore,” Dan remembers thinking. Three weeks later he was proprietor of Woodland Valley Books, 74 Main Street Phoenicia, sitting on top of an ice cream parlor.   

You could say Sofaer skipped right past the step of developing a business plan. He took possession of his store in early July, and by the time Dan was partially prepared for public traffic much of the local tourist season had passed. And then Tropical Storm Irene dropped by for a visit and pretty much cancelled out the rest of it. 

Starting his business in Phoenicia has helped Dan roll with the punches in both practical and psychological ways. The slower pace of life Dan found here compared to more urban environs where he previously lived helps nourish patience while things unfold. The reduced overhead cost of operating in Phoenicia, compared to more urban environs, has literally bought him time.

“Our society is too commercial,” Dan said. “When you open a bookstore it’s easy to get sucked into the commercial mentality of business owners, needing to stay current on what people seem to want now. I don’t care how others manage it. The whole point of opening this store was to provide a place for people to come in and find alternate ideas on how to live our lives.”  

Sofaer is a part-time proprietor while he completes a Masters of Classics at Columbia University. That takes him into the city on most weekdays between now and when summer comes around again. For the time being, your best chance of finding Woodland Valley Books open to visit is on Friday and Sunday afternoons between noon and five. Those are the hours when Dan and/or a part time staffer who helps him organize the inventory are usually present. Woodland Valley Books also operates as an online business. 

Over the coming year, Dan hopes more people will find their way into Woodland Valley Books to look over, appreciate, and read the books there. Whether they walk out as paying customers is secondary. He already has several chairs available for visitor use and he’s pondering adding a couch. Hosting special events there is something else Sofaer hopes to do more of in the future.

Dan remarked that there is a conceptual “guild” of bookstore owners out there that he enjoys now feeling more connected to. Woodland Valley joins Pine Hill Books on the independent bookseller scene, bringing the grand total of bookstores in Shandaken to two.

“Having a bookstore connects you to this world of people who are all different in a similar way – sharing a lifestyle of sorts. It takes up a lot of time, and it’s not going to make you rich. Bookstores are like a shelter against the storm,” Sofaer said. 

Should you visit Woodland Valley Books, don’t expect to find an inventory deep in coffee-table books and trendy reads about learning all you need to know about life from your rose bush. Those aren’t the books that interest him most. Dan is a writer himself, a published poet and contributor to journals, who sits on the board of Fulcrum, a highly regarded literary journal based near Boston. Unsurprisingly, his inventory is strong on poetry, literary classics, literary criticism, biographies and the like. But Dan is a strong advocate for all books, fiction or nonfiction, that cause people to think in new ways, and those can be in any genre.

“I want to have books that will blow your mind,” he said. “What is the point of reading a book if it doesn’t rock your world?”

Tom Rinaldo writes the Dispatches from Shandaken column for the Watershed Post's Shandaken page. Email Tom at [email protected].