As Oswego bookstore approaches 25th anniversary, a new generation takes the reins
By Ken Sturtz
When Bill Reilly and his wife, Mindy Ostrow, opened the River’s End Bookstore on May 18, 1998, it was to almost no fanfare.
“We had no ribbon-cutting or anything because we were very skittish about when the opening would actually be,” Reilly said. “We put a five-year business plan together and little did we know that it would go beyond that.”
Not only did the independent bookstore survive, but it thrived, becoming a fixture in the community from its perch at the corner of West Bridge and West First streets.
On Jan. 1, the store officially changed hands. Reilly’s and Ostrow’s son, Emil Christmann, and his wife, Megan Irland, became the new owners. The store will celebrate its 25th anniversary this spring.
From New York City to Oswego
In 1994, Reilly retired from a 25-year career at Newsweek magazine in New York City. He was visiting Oswego and met Ostrow, his future wife, which helped convince him to relocate to Central New York. But still in his 40s, he was interested in starting a business.
“We were looking around for types of businesses that would help us connect to the community, something that would have a benefit for the community,” Reilly said.
Reilly and Ostrow considered a number of options before settling on a bookstore, partially because it would fill a gap in the area; there was a used bookstore and a party store that sold books, but no true bookstore.
They began researching how to start the business. Reilly took a small business course and went to work part time at Barnes & Noble. He also participated in a program offered through the American Booksellers Association.
“And if you finished the course and you still wanted to do it, you passed,” he said. “You were either crazy enough or smart enough to venture ahead.”
After about a year and a half they moved forward with a business plan, but the process was delayed another year and a half as they searched for the right location. At the time, the bookstore’s current location was occupied by Gallo’s clothing store, which had another store in Wolcott. Reilly said one of the classes he’d taken on opening a bookstore advised that the right location might be occupied, but not to let that stand in your way.
So, he approached the owner who spoke with the owners of the clothing store business and they worked out an agreement that allowed the bookstore to occupy the space.
When they opened in 1998, the landscape for independent bookstores wasn’t necessarily an easy one. Amazon already existed and was focusing mostly on selling books online and Barnes & Noble, Borders and Waldenbooks were thriving.
“So, we entered eyes wide open,” Reilly said.
About a decade after opening, E-books became popular, which was unnerving at first, but their attitude eventually changed.
“We took the approach that we had to embrace the technology rather than fighting it because our customers were embracing the technology,” Reilly said.
Whatever format customers want to consume books in, the store can accommodate. He said that includes physical books as well as E-books and audio downloads on their website. But the traditional physical format has remained surprisingly resilient.
Christmann said customers of all ages will say on a nearly daily basis that they still prefer the ability to put their hands on a physical book when they read.
He said customers like knowing they are supporting a small business in the community and have come to appreciate the personalized response they receive from staff with recommendations as well as excellent customer service. He’s had years to hone his relationship with customers.
All in the family
Christmann was just shy of his 13th birthday when the bookstore opened. He helped during the build-out and opening and working at the store was his second job as a kid — his first was delivering copies of The Palladium-Times around his neighborhood on a skateboard.
He started out breaking down boxes, cleaning and alphabetizing and sorting. He got to know some of the store’s early customers, many of whom became longtime customers. His parents let him pick a section of the store to be responsible for — he chose magazines — and he began taking care of curating inventory, receiving orders and returning unsold merchandise.
“That was kind of a microcosm of how all of this works,” he said. “That was kind of the primer.”
Christmann said his parents didn’t pressure him to join the family business but gave him the option, which he said was a natural fit. While Christmann was used to being well-known in the Oswego community from working at the bookstore, it was a bit of an adjustment for Irland.
“When we started dating it would be hilarious because every single time I would tell someone I was dating Emil, every single person would be like ‘I know Emil,’” she said.
The couple eventually moved to New Orleans. Irland had recently finished her physician assistant program and was working in an ICU there. Christmann operated a petty cab, worked in construction in the French Quarter and then installed solar panels and LED lighting. A couple years turned into four or five and they began thinking about settling down.
“These two are globetrotters and have been their entire lives and the last thing we thought is they would be returning to Central New York as soon as they did,” Reilly said. “It was always a possibility that it would happen, but those are in parents’ dreams.”
They eventually moved back to the area, got married, bought a house and started a family. They now have two boys: Kieran is 1 and Rowan is 4 ½.
“If I hadn’t been so enthusiastic about it, I don’t know if Emil would have gone into taking over the bookstore without a partner,” Irland said, noting that she’s an enthusiastic reader. “I was very excited.”
Christmann works full-time at the business. Irland works full-time for Oswego County OB-GYN, but also helps at the bookstore, which has four part-time employees.
While things have returned to normal, for a while the COVID-19 pandemic forced the bookstore —the quintessential brick-and-mortar business — to adapt to stay in business.
“All of a sudden we were faced with that dilemma of having all this stock, still having all these great customers who now were stuck at home, but still wanted to keep up with their reading and wanted the books,” Christmann said.
The store fine-tuned its website to streamline online ordering and shipping.
Irland said the fact that the store already had a website in place made riding out the pandemic much easier. They hand delivered book orders to customers stuck at home across Oswego County and were able to hold some of their events that normally would have been in-person.
Although Christmann and Irland took ownership of the business in January, they’ve been collaborating all along with Reilly and Ostrow and the changes they’ve made have been small things such as streamlining bill-paying.
“We want to maintain what Billy and Mindy have created,” Christmann said.
Reilly said he and his wife still plan to help out at the bookstore, but are looking forward to doing some traveling and spending more time with their grandchildren.
As Christmann and his wife held their youngest son recently, Christmann said that however difficult it might be to fill Reilly and Ostrow’s shoes, it would be twofold for their kids someday.
“If they ever want to take it over,” he said with a smile.