“Womrath Bookshops and Libraries, Inc.
Announce The Opening
73 Pondfield Road
Under the management of
Mrs. Harold Van Buskirk
Mrs. Weston B. Hillard
Womrath Bookshop & Libraries, Inc.
Shops in White Plains and Larchmont – 37 Shops in Greater New York
By Susan Miele
Apr. 3, 2019: So read the ad in the Bronxville Review-Press on January 6, 1938, at which time Willis Parkview Hairdressers, at 141 Parkway Road, advertised the “smartest permanent of the year” at a special rate of $5; Bellis Pharmacy, at 116 Pondfield Road, promoted itself as “the store of personality”; and Kensington Plaza Garages—with locations at 3 Kensington Road, 47 Palmer Road, and 7 Pondfield Road—offered “for modern convenience, let us install an automatic windshield wiper and defroster” for your vehicle. Local theaters showed photoplays, and articles recounted who hosted whom for a luncheon at the Hotel Gramatan.
Womrath has changed hands (and locations) only a few times in the past 81 years, with Gene and Wanda Sgarlata at the helm since 1984 and their predecessor, Dan Gross, in charge for 36 years. Now it’s time to pass the Womrath torch to fresh bibliophilic blood, as the Sgarlatas are seeking a buyer to lead the next era in Bronxville bookselling. In retirement, they plan to spend time with the grandchild who will soon be born in London.
Even at its inception, Womrath offered more than just book sales; it also promoted “used books, novelties, bridge prizes, and gifts.” The Womrath chain offered books not only for sale but also for rent at a daily rate calculated by pagination. Book rentals stopped only about 20 years ago, Gene estimates, particularly owing to the proliferation of lengthier books, whose heftier page counts made completion of a book take longer than a per-diem price would justify.
Eight decades after the opening of Womrath, retailing books still requires finesse, but the Sgarlatas’ nimbleness has kept Womrath current, including adoption of the sale of downloadable books for e-readers.
It was on December 1, 1984, that the Sgarlatas took ownership, during peak holiday-shopping season. They were dismayed to find how bare the shelves were and set to work ordering. Dan Gross was dubious about their extravagance.
“We had a great Christmas,” Wanda remembered.
“And we learned a lot about what our customers wanted,” Gene added.
Previously, they worked at a bookstore at the Cross County Shopping Center, where Gene was manager. There, customers typically made their purchases and left, not stopping for chit-chat with the staff or establishing a relationship. Not so in Bronxville.
Bronxville proved to be, then as now, the perfect place for a bookstore, Gene remarked. “People here are smart, well-educated, well-read.” Wanda added, “and very polite, good customers. The kids, too. Everyone. We’ve loved our time here.”
Customers and staff enjoy a symbiotic relationship, both benefiting from the other’s input about books. Those who frequent the shop have probably heard Gene and Wanda discussing books at length with their customers. Strangers exchange opinions and recommendations, even making purchases based on a conversation that was merely overheard. People linger and connect.
About 20 years ago, the Sgarlatas took over the vacant space next to the original store to create what is now the children’s room. This department is particularly strong, they report, as local parents invest in their children’s enrichment and education. “Parents often don’t buy just one thing but four or five things.”
“Kids are reading more these days,” Wanda observed, referring particularly to “middle readers.” “There’s a lot more available to them--so many choices of subject, style, genre. They’re interested in a lot more now, including nonfiction and newer literature. We love when they go into that kids’ room. You can hear the chatter. And in the summer or the spring, when the door is open, we hear, ‘Let’s go to the bookstore,’ and we’re so happy.”
Especially on weekends, the kids’ room is hopping, she added. “We need to straighten up the area at least twice a day.”
“I love picking out books for kids and finding the right book,” Wanda said.
“Our job is to get the right book into the person’s hand,” Gene added.
The Sgarlatas agree that Womrath fulfills the needs of the village and plays an important role in the community. In addition to general sales, Womrath now sells to local schools in Bronxville and Mount Vernon, offering an institutional discount. This is a relatively recent development in recognition of the importance of supporting a local bookstore.
According to Ray Geselbracht, Bronxville Village historian, there were as many as three bookshops in Bronxville in 1942 and five in 1965.
“Where we live in Armonk, there are no toy stores, there are no bookstores. It’s all restaurants and banks. I need to drive 15 minutes to White Plains to buy anything,” Wanda lamented. Gene scoffed at that time estimate. “By the time you park, it’s more like half an hour,” he added.
The Sgarlatas characterize their business as successful, noting that they’ve never been in the red. “We can return what we don’t sell,” Gene explained. “We’ve had publishers say, ‘You must know what you’re doing because your returns aren’t ridiculous.’” Indeed, the Sgarlatas make selections based on their knowledge of their customers’ interests and will order books at a customer’s request.
Plans are already under way for Womrath’s annual “Where’s Waldo?” event in July, when a cardboard image of the Where’s Waldo book character is hidden in some twenty participating stores for children to find on a scavenger hunt. The month-long event culminates in an in-store party, with games, refreshments, and plenty of prizes. Beyond the fun time for children, participating stores stand to benefit from increased foot traffic.
“More events and social media are needed,” Wanda advised. Both she and Gene acknowledged that those are hats better worn by someone other than themselves. “And you need to have a love of books and reading,” Gene added. “It’s an avocation.”
Almost every week, someone calls Womrath Bookshop to ask, “Where are you located?” People who aren’t familiar with Bronxville make the shop a destination to get the book they want.
Photo by A. Warner