by Patrick O’Dowd
When I close my eyes and picture a bookstore, the one that appears is Montclair Book Center. Rows upon rows overflowing with new and used books. Walls floor to ceiling with shelves of the same. A staircase that leads you upstairs from fiction to non-fiction. If you’d rather stay in fiction, you turn right at the stairs, and there’s another sea of books—children’s, sci-fi, fantasy. Deeper still, in the basement, are scores of records and an event space. They have rare books, first editions, comics, movies, anything your heart could desire lurks somewhere in this brilliant maze.
The store itself feels like a character from a novel. Like you wish you could get it to speak and tell you all its stories. It has a history to it. In the same way, a used book is special because you know someone else read and loved it, this store is special because of its past. You think of all the people who have walked in and gaped in awe at the shelves and the labyrinthine structure of the store. All the people who stopped by to kill a few minutes before dinner only to find, to their pleasant surprise, that they had missed their reservation. The moments when someone discovered a book or author they’d never heard of and suddenly fell in love. That’s the magic of Montclair Book Center.
It opened in 1984, but it feels older. It feels timeless like Montclair came to life around it, and if it weren’t there, the town would collapse.
I’m sure this is largely my own mythologizing. When I first started seeing my partner, we went to this bookstore. We had one of those days where you walk in expecting to spend fifteen minutes and emerge hours later with arms full of books and an inescapable joy coursing through your veins. It’s a fond memory we revisit every time we walk back inside and feel that excitement well up in us. I always feel like a kid inside those walls. I think of all the possibilities, the thousands of stories that live in that space. There’s a part of me that never wants to leave.
Chelsea Pullano and Ryan Whitaker bought the store a little over a year ago. They’d spent the last few years working for a start-up, knowing it wasn’t the right fit. They felt, as so many of us have over the past few years, that corporate life wasn’t for them. That years spent staring at a screen and working for somebody else wasn’t what they’d envisioned for themselves. So, they decided to make a change.
They didn’t set out with the intention of buying a bookstore. Instead, they had different visions, a café or a bar, some sort of place where people would gather. I can’t help but wonder if, after the terrifying isolation of Covid, this vision was born out of the need to connect with people and become part of a community, something larger than themselves.
Montclair Book Center happened on a whim. After a fruitless search for retail space, Chelsea decided to go rogue and see if any bookstores were for sale in the area. After all, if you’re looking for a place where people can go and get lost and connect, what’s better than a bookstore? And when she heard that her favorite bookstore, a place she’d spent hours wandering, was available, she was sold.
Chelsea had anticipated a hard sell with Ryan, a long process where she convinced him that this store in this town was the right choice. But in the end, all she needed to do was get him there.
“I took one walk through this place,” Ryan says, relaying the story. “And said, ‘This is the idea now.’”
Because that’s all it takes. You walk inside and feel both awed and comforted. You sense a familiarity as if every bookstore you’ve walked into before this one was preparing you to find Montclair Book Center. A common refrain you hear as you walk through the rows of books is, “This place is just so cool.”
As a longtime patron, I can say that Chelsea and Ryan are the exact people—so full of life and spirit—that you hope will take over your favorite bookstore. They aren’t some soulless corporation or, worse, a developer who plans to knock it down and build condos, but people who see the store’s magic and want only to help it thrive for years to come.
They plan to utilize the store for more events—local authors are a particular area of emphasis. They stress the idea of it being a third space, somewhere that isn’t your home or work, where you can come to hang out and feel safe. In our increasingly difficult age, I can’t think of a place I’d rather spend my time than Montclair Book Center, run by Chelsea and Ryan.
“We’re all about community, sincerely, community and culture,” Ryan says. “We need to create spaces where people can come and learn and be seen and heard.”
There’s a crucial importance to a local, independent bookstore in the same way that a movie theater, restaurant, or school has value to a community. The new owners welcome this and are eagerly working to cement their status in Montclair. They’ve had young, aspiring filmmakers come in and shoot in their store, they’ve begun hosting events, promoting charity drives, and you can see this is only the beginning.
I asked them about books that inspired their love of literature, and Chelsea told me about discovering Wuthering Heights in high school and how it awakened something in her. Not only the novel but the way her teacher encouraged her to view and discuss it. You can see a glint in her eye as she envisions their store as a place where others can discover and discuss works that will awaken that same passion in them.
She also mentions being raised in a home with a “beautiful, leather-bound classics set,” which she devoured. I can’t help but wonder if having those at her fingertips influenced the person she’s become and maybe planted the seed to buy this store.
I wander the store for a bit and come across a delightful “banned books” display where they briefly explain why each was banned. It’s typical of the store, full of small corners where you can discover something new that stays with you. The display is also emblematic of the store’s attitude and its new owners. There’s a defiance to them, a rebellious streak that drove them to make this leap. Leaving your corporate job to purchase an iconic bookstore takes courage, and I can see that Chelsea and Ryan are not lacking in that essential trait.
They have a wall downstairs in their newly renovated events space with a few polaroids hanging up of the authors who have held events. It’s a big wall, mostly empty right now, but I am confident they’ll fill it. I can already picture myself down there on a weeknight listening to some local author read from their new novel, and the vision fills me with hope. This is what a bookstore should be. A pillar of the community run by people full of hope and energy. I wish every community could have its version of Chelsea and Ryan running their independent bookstore.
My novel, A Campus on Fire, doesn’t come out until the Spring of 2025, but when it does, I can’t wait to have a reading at my favorite bookstore, Montclair Book Center.
I hope to see you there. It’s located in wonderful downtown Montclair at 221 Glenridge Ave. You can’t miss it, and I promise that once you’ve walked inside, you’ll never want to leave.
Visit their website, www.montclairbookcenter.com, to browse their excellent collection of new and used books. And to keep up to date on their events and other information about the store, follow them on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
Patrick O’Dowd lives in New Jersey, just up the road from Montclair Book Center, with his partner Cassie and their mischievous cat Toffee. His novel, A Campus on Fire, will be released in the spring of 2025. He’s the fiction editor of Sequoia Speaks Literary Magazine, and you can find his writing at patrickrodowd.com.