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NYC’s Idlewild Books offers a ‘sense of place’

What kind of dreamer opens a bookstore in a recession, gives it a nostalgic name that means nothing to most people under 40, and stocks it with travel guides and obscure foreign novels?
Image: Idlewild Books Owner David Del Vecchio
David Del Vecchio, owner of Idlewild Books, poses for a picture May 5 in his store in New York. Idlewild offers personalized service to match customers with books that suit their interests.Seth Wenig / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

What kind of dreamer opens a bookstore in a recession, gives it a nostalgic name that means nothing to most people under 40, and stocks it with travel guides and obscure foreign novels?

Meet David Del Vecchio, owner of Idlewild Books, who says business is thriving despite the odds against independent bookstores, the travel downturn and an economy that was already heading south when Idlewild opened in May 2008.

"Since January, we've recorded double-digit growth every month," he said.

But Del Vecchio admits that customers often have no idea what Idlewild refers to. Before New Yorks international airport was named for John F. Kennedy in 1963, the airport was commonly known as "Idlewild." If the name of the store, located on 19th Street near Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, is old-fashioned, so, in some ways, is the concept. Idlewild offers personalized service to match customers with books, and it showcases a carefully curated collection of 7,000 books from 100 countries. More than half the mix is literature; the rest, guidebooks.

"Every book in the store has a strong sense of place," Del Vecchio said.

Books are organized geographically — by state, country and continent — not alphabetically. "The Iliad" is amid books about Greece, along with "Dinner with Persephone," a contemporary travel memoir. "Ghosts," by Buenos Aires writer Cesar Aira, is with Argentina books, along with classics by Jorge Luis Borges. "The Conqueror," by Norwegian Jan Kjaerstad, is with other Scandinavian noir novels.

Personalized selections
You could find these books on Amazon or in a superstore — but you might never hear of them if Idlewild weren't handpicking them.

"They seem to focus on stocking the right book rather than every book," said customer Francesco Vitelli, a "finance and technology guy" from Brooklyn.

"Otherwise, what's the point?" Del Vecchio said. "I don't think an indie store can survive without people who know their books and can advise readers. If three people came in and said, 'Which guide should I take to Rome,' we might recommend three different guides."

Del Vecchio isn't just talking about differences between Fodor's, Frommer's and Lonely Planet. For those interested in art, he recommends Blue Guides; for nature-lovers, Moon Handbooks; for travelers who want chic, insider info on cities like Istanbul or Hong Kong, he sells hard-to-find Luxe City Guides.

One of Idlewild's most popular offerings is the "Destination Kit," a selection of books tailored to individuals.

For example, Del Vecchio said, "A man called because his daughter and son-in-law are moving to Hong Kong. She likes classic period lit, he likes spy novels. Both are very into restaurants and shopping. We picked out six guides and novels related to their interests, plus a Cantonese phrasebook."

With the school year ending, he added, "we've had lots of requests lately from parents looking for graduation presents for kids who are going to travel for a couple of months."

Customers simply call with information about the traveler's interests and destination, along with how much they'd like to spend, and the store will pick out books, gift-wrap and mail them.

For a trip to Berlin, Idlewild fixed up architect Rana Hajjar with TimeOut Berlin, the Knopf Map Guide, "Berlin: The Architecture Guide," Christopher Isherwood's "The Berlin Stories" and Peter Gay's "Weimar Culture."

Hajjar said that in addition to guidebooks, when she travels, she likes "whatever books I can find on the architecture and design scene of the region that interests me," along with "leisure reading ... to get an overall feel of the city or country, whether social, political, biographies, literature. That's where the guys working there are really great."

Focus on fiction, guidebooks
Idlewild's 19th Street location is in a trendy if slightly offbeat neighborhood, on the parlor floor or second level of what was once a private home. A big window overlooks the street, filling the space with light. Blonde wood bookshelves and floors lend an inviting but retro chic feel, as if you've dropped by the personal library of a bohemian intellectual circa 1970.

The decor includes stained glass from Idlewild Airport's original American Airlines terminal, and stylish wooden chairs from the airport's waiting area. (Yes, once upon a time, you could move airport chairs to sit with friends and chat.) But the 20th century look is complemented by a techno-hipster vibe, evident in displays of books like "How Soccer Explains the World" and "How to Be Idle," along with the store logo — a pixillated globe, with continents as one-dimensional colored bars.

Idlewild events include readings sponsored by foreign consulates and book launches. A June party is planned for a new anthology called "Delhi Noir" with Indian writers, food and music. Famous writers who've dropped in to sign books include Paul Theroux, author of "The Great Railway Bazaar."

Still, economic realities for indie stores are harsh. Twenty percent fewer independent bookstores belong to the American Booksellers Association than five years ago, according to ABA spokeswoman Meg Smith, and travel bookstores constitute only a dozen of ABA's 1,850 member stores.

Del Vecchio spent his 20s living in Italy, Spain and the Czech Republic, then worked as a press officer for the United Nations for 10 years, traveling to places like Darfur. He financed the store with savings and a bank loan. To get experience, he volunteered for a few weeks at Get Lost Travel Books in San Francisco.

Get Lost owner Lee Azus said Del Vecchio's formula is different from "most of the travel bookstores in America, which are mostly guidebooks and maps mixed in with fiction, current events and history. David's is really focused on international fiction and writing first, and then there's all those guidebooks mixed in."

But Azus had no doubt Idlewild would succeed. "I thought it made perfect sense," he said.