Novelist Emma Straub, co-owner of Books Are Magic, understands how some may perceive her dual pursuit.“There are so many of us author/booksellers nowadays that it’s quite easy to roll one’s eyes, or to assume a glossy distance from the actual stress and strain of the very hard work of bookselling,” she says. “But owning the bookstore has fundamentally changed the way that I understand myself and the world. It’s been the most challenging five years of my life—painful, joyous, and expansive.”
Moments after Henry Zook and Mary Gannett, co-owners of BookCourt in Brooklyn’s Cobble Hill neighborhood, announced during the 2016 holiday season that they were closing the store after 35 years in business, Straub revealed on her website that she and her husband, Michael Fusco-Straub, intended to open Books Are Magic just a few blocks away. About five months later, on Independent Bookstore Day in April, the couple launched their shop; they sold 1,100 books that first day, mostly adult bestsellers and middle grade favorites.
“We started the bookstore with a simple mission: we wanted to live in a neighborhood with a bookstore,” Fusco-Straub says. “When Emma and I have the same idea, we dive in.”
In those heady early days, “we ran on fumes—no experience, just excitement,” Straub says. “We focused on the things we knew best: design, local authors, our neighbors’ need for changing tables in the bathroom.” The 1,800-square-foot space contains 12,000 books, almost evenly divided between children’s and adult titles, as well as store-branded merchandise (apparel, enamel pins, mugs, and more) created by Fusco-Straub, whose background is in graphic design.
Like his wife, Fusco-Straub says that being a bookseller has changed him. He’s learned not only what it means to be a good bookseller, but also “to be a good member of the community.” Books Are Magic regularly partners with local organizations, leveraging its physical space to collect and redistribute resources—books, of course, and also clothing and food.
“We installed a free library outside,” Straub adds, “and partnered with a local arts group to find a young artist to paint it. It’s our responsibility to have Books Are Magic be a place of information, safety, and support.” The couple’s business philosophy, she adds, shifted after March 2020: “We think about our booksellers first, because we know that the most important talent is in-house, and that we can only be our best if we’re supporting our staff in meaningful ways.”
During the pandemic, Fusco-Straub says, all employees were paid their wages, regardless of whether they were able to come into the store and work. With the resumption of on-site shopping, the store is open 10 a.m.–6 p.m. every day and 12 of 13 employees work full-time. Last year, every employee received a $2 per hour raise, and the co-owners hope to give them another raise this year. There’s also talk of selling shares in the store to key employees.
Fusco-Straub notes that when he and Straub opened the store, they thought that if they were able “to do half of what BookCourt was doing, we’d be okay.” In fact, he says, Books Are Magic has surpassed BookCourt’s sales every month since it opened five years ago. While Fusco-Straub ascribes much of the shop’s success to the “luck of a New York City bookstore with a bestselling author as an owner,” what truly sustains the entire enterprise, he says, is its workers. “We have an incredible staff who understands that we wanted to be a bright spot during a dark time.”