All in the Family: Henry Zook, Zack Zook and Mary Gannett expand BookCourt's literary empire.
Photo by Joshua Kristal
I get to my interview with Zack Zook, second-generation owner of BookCourt, a bit early. Zack’s in the back of the shop, putting away books. He’s a busy guy — BookCourt has expanded twice recently and it nearly constantly holds readings with well-known Brooklyn authors, sometimes featuring wine and cheese, and sometimes attended by 250 people. This spring, Zack launched a literary magazine to spotlight local talent, for which he shoots photos. Oh, and, he’s working on a BookCourt TV program that’ll feature author-readings at the book shop, among other things. The shop’s website provides a wealth of info on new books, new authors, zines, and even a kids literary blog.
Zack and I greet each other. We smile. It’s nice to see a 20-something working in South Brooklyn. I feel a sense of camaraderie. He asks for 10 minutes. I say sure and make my way around the store. I love bookstores, especially homey ones. With BookCourt’s new expansion, it now lies somewhere between comfy and stylized-intellectual. It’s clean, fresh and modern. If you like books at all, you’ll like this place. It’s not dusty. Everything is new. And the selection is divine, from fiction to non-fiction, classics to new writing, collectors’ items to children’s books. The presentation is well edited.
BookCourt is a pioneer on Court Street. Henry Zook and Mary Gannett opened in 1981 when little was happening on Court Street except a little blight and good food shopping.
My editor is hot under the collar to know how BookCourt has done so well while so many independent bookstores have closed in NYC, and across the country, as more readers turn to Amazon and digital books. I’m here to find out.
Henry Zook and Mary Gannett are Cobble Hill trailblazers. The two met in Boston at an independent bookstore, WordsWorth, and moved to Brooklyn in the 1970s with two dreams: to work in publishing and to open a bookstore.
By the time they expanded BookCourt, taking over the space adjacent to the shop, in 2007, they had owned the property for 12 years.
Zack, the eldest son of Henry and Mary, attributes BookCourt’s success to the community, and BookCourt’s friendly, literary intellectualism. An enticing display of children’s books, art books and new lit always grace the front windows.
“The old-world bookstore culture can be a little intimidating and gross,” Zack tells me. “It’s common to go into a bookstore and feel lonesome by the presentation or wish the staff had acknowledged you.”
Finding what’s new, and relevant, is the drive of BookCourt.
“We like to think one of the faces of BookCourt is buying books that we believe in. So, if you see a big stack of stuff that you think is amazing but haven’t heard of, then we’re doing our job,” Zack says.
We sit down on the benches in front of the shop. Teenagers sit on the opposing bench. It’s about noon and the street bustles with strollers and workmen.
Various people say Hi to Zack in passing. One woman shares her love of her latest read.
Zack says it’s his birthday. Only 27, it strikes me how well he’s juggling our interview, some workmen coming by to fix a door, and the customers who approach him on the street.
He’s had an interesting journey, thus far. He tells me some of his story:
Zack’s parents opened the store in 1981. He was born in 1984. By 2000, Zack’s parents were separated. He left the apartment above BookCourt, where his folks lived, in 2001, when he was 17. Zack and his girlfriend headed to the Caribbean and enrolled in the University of The Virgin Islands.
“I wanted to escape the city, to go somewhere not so claustrophobic,” he says.
Zack didn’t intend on it but ended up studying fish for three years. Two years in, he put his girlfriend on a plane back to the United States. When he tells me she went crazy, I shrug. Every man says his ex is crazy. But Zack elaborates: His girlfriend had a psychotic break, early-onset schizophrenia.
“I don’t talk about this lightly. It was difficult to deal with. And before that I had to deal with the fact that she was unhappy for several years, and I loved her,” he says.
She texts him every year on his birthday. Zack is wondering if she’ll text today.
In 2005, Zack’s parents almost closed shop. They were separating, and didn’t want to work together anymore. They were burnt out.
Around this time, Zack was suffering through his breakup, and longing for intellectualism, something lacking in the culture of the Virgin Islands, he says.
“There was one bookstore on the entire island. People didn’t read there. Books would grow mold from lack of use.”
Zack came home and joined the family business. He says it was unexpected, unplanned. But the promise of challenge appealed to him.
“I needed to give something my all. And that’s something they needed,” Zack says.
The family made a five-year plan. Zack became General Manager and event planner.
Now, he, and his parents, each work 60 to 70 hours a week on their growing Court Street literary empire. Readings and literary events will soon be live on their website. BookCourt TV will launch in the fall, with a soft intro this summer.
Zack attributes the store’s success to the neighborhood.
“There’s a lot of local genius,” Zack said. “That allows us to take risks.”
Zack speaks plainly about the gentrification of Carroll Gardens.
“The gentrification is really good for BookCourt. I think BookCourt is good for it. But, the area feels more foreign now,” he says. Court Street was always a family area, Zack says, but back then, on either side of his block were vacant lots with junk cars and rats crawling through them.
“I take long walks now. I go to Prospect Park, Red Hook, and Clinton Hill, where it’s not so commercial,” he says.
Six years past his emotional turmoil, BookCourt is booming and stroller dodging is about all Zack has to worry about. He’s now jumping into a new five-year plan. The first component is the literary journal Cousin Corrine’s REMINDER. Cousin Corrine’s REMINDER is a bi-annual journal focusing on photography, fiction, poetry, and comix. Zack is the executive editor. He’s putting together the third issue now, with an expected release in June 2011. This year, he’ll file the journal for non-profit status.
“Lapham’s Quarterly is stellar, Aperture, the Paris Review. I’ve loved all of these periodicals. As someone who loves books and photography, I wanted to join the two. The comix thing just sort of fell into place,” Zack said. “I’ve dumped about $30,000 of my own money into it. It’s a disaster. It makes no money. But it’s really rewarding.”
He speaks about the journal as one would an adorable, bratty young child.
In the next five years, Zack intends to make three other non-profit investments: a small book publishing company, an art gallery, and a community center.
“I want to see a new generation of independent bookstores. The independent bookstore that is community-oriented.
“I kind of hope that BookCourt inspires other booksellers to do similar things and help this culture that is so deprived. Of course that all depends on whether you can pay your rent and so on, but I think all the long-standing booksellers in this country are inspiring to us. And I hope we can inspire them and see new stores open up because they really are needed.”
We end the interview by talking about Zack’s own artistry. On top of managing his literary empire, Zack’s a photographer and a writer.
“It might be inconvenient to do all these things, but that’s why we’re here: to walk around and have purpose. And, to avoid religion and over-eating,” Zack says.
163 Court Street
Mon., to Sat., 9 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Sun., 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Open every day except Dec. 25th.