Just in time for beach reading season, we’ve discovered a gem of a used bookstore tucked away in Ridgewood: Topos Bookstore Café. Like Bushwick favorite Molasses Books, Topos is not only a place to discover interesting books, but a cozy café as well. This inviting little shop on the corner of Woodward and Putnam Avenues, however, certainly has a charm and character all its own.
Topos opened in January 2015 under the leadership of Benjamin Friedman and two other primary co-owner/managers, Cosmo Bjorkenheim and Anny Oberlink. Friedman had worked for over a decade as a manager at stalwart independent booksellers St. Mark’s Bookshop in the East Village when he started thinking about opening his own shop. Some friends of his at Book Thug Nation, a used bookstore in Williamsburg where Bjorkenheim also works, introduced Friedman to Bjorkenheim and Oberlink and together they hatched a plan to open their own shop.
“When Cosmo and Anny came along, and they were vouched for by my friends at Book Thug–with their great track record of success at their business–I thought, ‘yeah, this is the chance I’ve been waiting for,’ “ Friedman recounted to Bushwick Daily.
Topos Co-Owner Benjamin Friedman
The collective experience the trio brings to Topos is evident in both the quality of the books on the shelves as well as their thoughtful presentation. The shop, which could be described as on the larger end of small, is open and airy, but bookshelves bracket off different sections to create nooks for intimate book-browsing.
Displays highlight popular contemporary literature as well as unusual finds and relatively uncommon vintage editions. There’s an ample selection of literary fiction and non-fiction, as well as a good-sized philosophy section–an area of interest for some of the owners. Really, you might find just about anything at Topos, which has the range of genre sections you’ll find at most bookstores, and then some (think “Paranormal + Aliens!”).
Working at St. Mark’s Bookshop taught Friedman how tough the bookselling business can be. St. Mark’s sells only new books, and that business model is particularly challenging, he explains, with publishers setting book prices that only allow for “razor-thin” profit margins.
“It’s really, really hard to make a living selling new books–it is more feasible to do it with used books, and also, I’ve always loved used books,” he says.
The extra revenue generated by a café makes the bookstore financially more secure. But, for Friedman, “[cafe bookstores] have always been my favorite kind of places to hang out,” and Topos was certainly designed in that spirit. The cafe features an espresso bar with coffee from gimme!, pastries from Amy’s Bread, and intriguing drinks like the “Age of Empires” (rooibos tea mixed with hot chocolate). A half-dozen small tables provide seating inside, and several sidewalk tables wrap around the outside of the corner storefront. You can bring your laptop, but, nota bene: there is no wifi. A sign on the counter urges patrons to “talk to a mortal instead.”
Browsing the stacks at Topos, one might wonder where all these wonderful used books come from. Friedman is new to the used books trade, but still has some secrets to share. In fact, he’s written a couple of pieces about his initiation into the ranks of used booksellers for the Times Literary Supplement, a weekly London literary review.
One major source is large public estate sales and library sales, Friedman told us, though admitting he has yet to personally attend one. “From what my colleagues tell me, it’s like a contact sport: you are fighting off the other book dealers, you are literally like, elbowing people aside, you’ve got your big bag and you’re rushing as quick as you can,” Friedman said of these sales. Despite apparently borrowing maneuvers from ice hockey, he assured us the sales are a “friendly competition” among fellow booksellers.
You don’t have to talk to Friedman for long to notice he’s a passionate bibliophile with a mind that holds vast stores of philological knowledge. You’re bound to come away learning a new word of Greek or Latin origin or other bits of linguistic trivia (did you know that the term nom de plume, though French, was actually first used by English speakers to mean “pseudonym”?). You could perhaps call his erudite mind an aerarium, a Latin word meaning “treasure-house” which we learned was a runner-up favored by Friedman as a name for the bookstore.
“There was an enormous amount of discussion about what to name the store,” he says. In addition to Friedman, Bjorkenheim, and Oberlink, there are four other partners in the business who all had veto power when it came to choosing a name. “We all liked names that had some sort of ancient Greek or Roman source.” Topos simply means “place” in Greek, but is also a word for a traditional theme or topic that appears in literature or rhetoric, per Merriam-Webster’s.
The unassuming simplicity behind the store’s name fits its welcoming vibe and hints at its potential as a locus for cultural community in Ridgewood. Already, Topos hosts a monthly reading series–which has featured works by Ridgewood residents, including a screening of a film by Efren Hernandez–and has served as a venue for other literary gatherings.
For books, refreshment, and stimulating conversation near the Brooklyn-Queens border, Topos is indeed the place.
Topos Bookstore Cafe is open 7-days-a-week at 788 Woodward Avenue, near the Forest Avenue stop on the M train.