For B Street Books owner Lew Cohen, work is hardly ever contained to a Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. schedule.
Whether he’s searching for books at a garage sale on the weekends or learning about ways to identify a first-edition book, Cohen has dedicated countless hours to making a bookstore available in downtown San Mateo. Having recently celebrated 10 years in business, Cohen credited a shoestring budget and a commitment to keeping the cost of books low for customers with keeping his doors open through both a recession and a strong economy.
But having previously worked as a private investigator for 35 years, Cohen doesn’t see his many responsibilities at the used bookstore at 301 S. B St. as onerous. From helping students of all ages to those looking for a book to take with them on vacation, Cohen finds joy in sharing his passion for books with others.
“There’s rarely a day when I really think, ‘oh man, I have to go to work,’” he said. “I work a lot here, I put in a lot of hours … but I just like to come to work.”
Cohen said he had office space in downtown San Mateo for years when he was a private investigator, a profession he found to weigh on him after more than three decades. In search of something different, Cohen decided in 2009 to indulge a lifelong passion for book scouting and partnered with his college roommate Steve Feldman, who came from a family of booksellers, to open a store in the former home of the Thrifty Payless drugstore on South B Street.
Less than a year later, they were able to move the store to its current location at the corner of South B Street and East Third Avenue, said Cohen, who has ensured the store has a healthy stock of children’s books, fictional works and nonfiction volumes ranging in topic from cooking to political analyses, among others.
Cohen said books from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series and any book assigned for high school classes are among the most popular ones on the store’s shelves, adding bestsellers are also a draw for many. He said he is able to stock relatively new books through the store’s used-book buying hours, which allow customers to sell gently used books to the store for cash or store credit.
Cohen also noted he and his wife, who is a fourth-grade teacher and often focuses on finding sought-after children’s books, also go to estate and garage sales as well as private libraries to maintain the store’s stock. Though Cohen acknowledged the challenges of cataloging hundreds of books at a time, he explained there’s a joy in working with the wide range in the store.
“Sometimes, it’s like a firehose you can’t turn off and you don’t want to,” he said.
Cohen also manages an online store and has been expanding his collection of first- and limited-edition books, which includes volumes by Charles Dickens, Agatha Christie and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. He said he and his wife are planning to go to an antiquarian book college this summer to learn more about how to identify, catalogue and showcase first-edition books, something he’s long wanted to do.
Though Cohen acknowledged the challenges bookstores face today in the face of online book sellers like Amazon, he said by keeping overhead low and an eye on stocking the store with books customers are looking for, he was able to achieve his most successful year in 2018. Though he prioritizes stocking the store with used books, Cohen said he’s made an exception every now and then to do a special order of a recently-released book, such as “Becoming” by Michelle Obama.
“We have curated the collection of books very carefully,” he said. “It’s very thoughtfully purchased.”
Cohen credited his five employees with helping create the atmosphere in the store that draws customers in, as well as their knowledge on the wide array of topics reflected in the books the store sells. Acknowledging he’s not ready to retire, Cohen said he hopes to keep the store open for at least another 10 years.
San Mateo resident Elizabeth Tocci said she started bringing her 12-year-old granddaughter Sylvia Tocci to B Street Books when she was a toddler, and found the store became a must-stop on trips the two took downtown as Sylvia Tocci got older.
Elizabeth Tocci said they are always able to find something interesting at the store and expressed an appreciation for employees’ ability to answer questions they might have.
Sylvia Tocci said she doesn’t just like B Street Books, but she loves it.
“It’s just such a cozy place,” she said. “It feels like almost an extra home.”
(650) 344-5200 ext. 106