October 3, 2018

Q&A with David Duda, proprietor, Book Trader Cafe, New Haven

Liese Klein
Liese Klein
David Duda.

Celebrating its 20th anniversary this month, Book Trader Cafe has become a New Haven institution with its wide-ranging selection of books and affordable and ambitious menu. Owner David Duda opened the business on a once-desolate block near the Yale campus in 1998 and now presides over a bustling literary and culinary center at 1140 Chapel St.

Q. How did Book Trader Cafe come to be?

A. I had moved to New Haven from Philadelphia with something like this in mind. I worked at Atticus and Book Haven for a number of years and realized this was a good city for something like Book Trader Cafe.

Q. What was this stretch of Chapel Street like at that time?

A. New Haven has come a long way in those 20 years. The space we are in was available for something like four years before we took it. The whole block was kind of deserted but I found out that the Yale Art School was going to move into the former Jewish Community Center (1156 Chapel St.), and I figured once that happened there would be more traffic on the block. We opened up on a Tuesday with no announcement or grand opening and the place was packed by 2 in the afternoon. There was much more demand for a place like this than we imagined.

Q. How has the business changed over the years?

Twenty years ago you could make a living selling books. I imagined a bookstore with coffee and pastries, but our first cook came from New York and he took us on a much more gourmet-food route than we imagined. We have a much bigger menu, more diverse… and now we offer catering and takeout. That's a good thing because when we opened there were six other used bookstores in New Haven and they're all gone now. You can't make a living just selling books.

Q. Has your bookselling moved online?

A. We do sell online, mostly textbooks and art books. About 10 years ago Amazon became a big thing and that caused the other bookstores to decline. There are also more things competing for people's time – social media and streaming. People are reading less, and when they do buy books it's often online. For example, for our 20th anniversary we could take the prices back to what they were 20 years ago but they'd be two or three times what they are now as you can't charge as much now. You're basically competing with online sellers.

Q. What keeps your bookstore thriving?

A. Plenty of people love the store and enjoy browsing. That's an experience you can't get just shopping online. People come from all over to visit the store, and we get many academics who come to browse. There aren't very many places that have the academic selection we do. Used bookstores also survive on the books people bring in to sell – we offer cash or credit and people bring in tons of them. That allows us to keep our inventory fresh and keep prices reasonable. I work 80 to 90 hours a week all summer when students are leaving because we get so many books.

Q. How has being in New Haven affected your business?

Clearly it's a great literary and academic community. We found a nice community of readers and scholars and people who really love bookstores. The first week we opened, a couple of kids emptied their pistols right in front of the store. I wondered what we had gotten into. But Yale has done a tremendous job encouraging employees to live in New Haven, so a lot of the areas went from rentals to homeowners and people are committed to keeping things nice. Now New Haven is booming you can't find a space to develop any more because everything's been taken. We love New Haven -- and New Haven seems to be rather fond of us.

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