Zack Zook took over as general manager of BookCourt three years ago, and while it was always expected he would one day run the family business, it was a bit of a surprise that Zook assumed the reins at the age of 20. During his tenure, Zook has expanded the events schedule; founded a literary journal, The Cousin Corinne, which will launch this summer; and assisted in the planning for an expansion that will double the store's space when it is completed in the spring.
Zook claims an “innate” knowledge of the book business. For most of his life he has lived only a few floors away from BookCourt, which his mother and father, Mary Gannett and Henry Zook, opened in the Cobble Hill section of Brooklyn in 1981. When Zook was two, they bought the building, and the family took over one of the apartments upstairs.
“The second we moved into the building, I was immersed in this world of business and literature,” says Zook. “I was exposed to a lot of different elements. I was eight or nine when it really drew me in. I remember hanging out with employees for an entire shift, listening to them talk with customers, listening to the questions customers asked. I heard my parents talk shop at home. With that came an appreciation of this community and the effect of literature on a community. I'm kind of biased because BookCourt feels like a center point for me.”
It wasn't always that way. After Zook graduated from high school, he distanced himself from the insular world of Brooklyn and BookCourt, where he had worked after school and on weekends, and moved to the Virgin Islands. “I decided I didn't want to go into the business,” he says. “I wanted to concentrate on writing, painting and photography.” He enrolled in the University of the Virgin Islands, where he studied marine biology for two years. After calls from his mother, who manages the children's section, and his father, who buys adult frontlist and backlist, asking him to return, he agreed.
“I was at a turning point,” says Zook. “I had been in a breakup, and my parents were in a rut. Business was steady, but it wasn't as good as it could be.” The hardest part about becoming general manager, he says, is that initially it felt strange to have such a large role. Once more he lives above BookCourt, only this time in a two-bedroom apartment of his own, down the hall from where he grew up.
Zook's presence has enabled the family to move forward with a long debated renovation that will almost double the store's size, from 1,800 to 3,500 sq. ft. It involves removing a condemned greenhouse behind one of the two storefronts and knocking down an adjacent wall to connect the new space to the store. As a result, says Zook, “we're pretty much expanding every section,” with the children's section quadrupling in size. BookCourt is also getting into the cafe business, although BookCourt's cafe will be more of a coffee bar, where espresso and cappuccino drinkers can down a quick drink. For now at least, a plan to get a liquor license for beer and wine has been put on hold.
Despite BookCourt's growth, Zook rails against the rise of chain retailers in general, which he blames for the demise of hundreds of independents over the past decade. BookCourt has avoided that fate because of a loyal following and the advantage it enjoys in owning its building, which has enabled it to thrive despite escalating Brooklyn rents and a nearby Barnes & Noble that opened in Cobble Hill in 2000.
As frustrated as Zook gets over the lack of a level playing field, which he regards as the most troubling aspect of the book business today, his faith in the printed word remains unshaken. “It's not my belief that print's in trouble. It's a nonissue here. We're selling more books than ever.“ And soon, coffee, too.