For 37 years, Pete Stevens was all about books.
Art books, photography books, rare books, fiction, non-fiction, first editions, an American Atlas from 1838 — all manner of used books. He found them at estate sales and yard sales and he bought them from other dealers. He sold them at his store, The Book Scout, which first opened at 455 Main St. and later relocated to his iconic, piled high to the ceiling space down by the waterfront at 128 Main St.
Last week, he sat forlornly in a chair by the store’s front door and watched work underway in the shuttered bookstore. Soon, the space will become home to Goldsmith’s Toys and Electronics, which is currently three doors away, at 138 Main St.
The building at 138 Main, which dates to 1850, has been a toy store for 33 years and was recently sold. The sale forced owner Kathy Halliwell to seek out a new space. While the toy store will live on, Mr. Stevens will no longer be in the book business.
“The store is closed,” he said. “Some of the books have gone to other dealers and someone who will sell them online. Others went to the dump.”
Mr. Stevens points to his age – he is 82 – but also to rising rents and the popularity of sites like Amazon as reasons for getting out of the book business. “I’ve enjoyed every minute of it, but I suppose it’s time to move on,” he said.
“I feel shocked,” he added. “I can’t do what I used to do. It was time to end it, and the bottom fell out of books. Plus, the rent was going up from $1,400 a month to $2,000. When I started it was $800. I’d like to get back to photography. Take pictures I want to take. I like film photography. I’ve never had a digital camera.”
Almost 40 years ago, Mr. Stevens was working for Orient sculptor Robert Berks, who was thenin the process of creating a statue of Albert Einstein to be displayed in Washington, D.C. Mr. Berks hired Mr. Stevens to chronicle the process. He stayed there for six and a half years.
“A friend of mine was a mail-order book dealer,” he said. ”She was in East Marion. I gave her some photography books I had collected over the years and she sold them for me. So I went out and found some more. I ended up with 35 cartons of books I had purchased at various places.
“I thought I was ready to leave Berks, so I rented a space at 455 Main,” he continued. “Today it is a spa where you get your nails done. It was an old house. I had two rooms. I was there five years. My wife said, ‘You are doing OK here, but consider going downtown.’ So I found the space at 128 Main. It had been vacant for several years. It was once a takeout seafood place. I moved there in the late 1980s.”
Mr. Stevens estimates that two to three thousand books came with him. “I remember that because I had to buy more bookcases,” he said. “They came from estate sales, yard sales, some from other dealers. I would see a good book for five dollars, and I knew I could sell it for a few more. That’s how it worked.”
He especially loved art books, and for years they were his bread and butter. But he also learned over the years that certain books about the Civil War would attract keen-eyed buyers. He sought out photography books, rare books like an 1838 American atlas, which he bought at an estate sale for $1,600, and handsome, leather-bound books, which always found buyers.
He was also successful at book fairs, like one held each year in Greenwich Village. “I would take 30 cartons of books in to sell them at the fair,” he said.
Mr. Stevens grew up in Roslyn. The parents of a high school friend had a home in Greenport, where he was a frequent visitor. “I thought it was God’s country,” he said.
He moved to the North Fork in the 1960s and, before going to work for Mr. Berks, had an art gallery in Southold. He also worked on a farm and at a sawmill in Peconic. Now, facing his new life away from books, Mr. Stevens said he will return to taking pictures. One real treasure is his Leica M6 camera, which he can’t wait to put back in use.
Gail Horton, a former deputy mayor of Greenport, paid tribute to Mr. Stevens in an email. “I have always enjoyed a walk through downtown Greenport and looked forward to dropping by the The Book Scout,” she wrote. “In the days that I was still buying books, I could always find the often obscure titles I was looking for, or Pete would scout around his resources and get it for me … It was great to have such an eclectic book shop where the guy who scouted the books was such a witty Town Crier. His unique shop will be hard to match.”