Independent bookstore set to open downtown

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The Wilkinson Building, located at 115 W. Green St. across from Press Bay Alley in Ithaca, is currently home to The Crossmore Law Office, but an independent bookstore will soon find its home in the basement.
Odyssey Bookstore, set to open in the beginning of next year, is the passion project of book-lover Laura Larson.

“My happy place has always been bookstores and libraries since I was a little kid,” Larson said.

Larson grew up in Ithaca and went to Cornell University, where her father, a venture capitalist, was a professor. When she graduated, she moved to Seattle, Washington, but spent all her summers back home. No matter where she went, she was always drawn to bookstores, even later attending bookstore school.

Three years ago, Larson moved back to Ithaca, longing for purpose.

“My youngest child graduated from high school,” she said. “I got divorced and was like, ‘What should I do next?’”

The answer combined her love of books and her knack for business – she wanted to start her own bookstore. Seattle has a thriving bookstore community, she said, but she didn’t see that in Ithaca.

Ed Crossmore, attorney and current owner of the Wilkinson building, was renovating the upstairs part of his law offices when he heard about Larson’s idea and suggested building the bookstore in his daylight basement.

The Wilkinson building has a long history in Ithaca. The stone building was built in 1837 in a transitional Federal-Greek Revival style, with the original owner being New York State Assemblyman Horace Mack. It has been home to the Crossmore family for nearly a century.

The history of the building meant that turning the basement into a bookstore would be quite the adventure, but Larson was up for the task.

“The two biggest challenges are also the two greatest opportunities, which is the building itself is a really special, amazing place, and how do you take a 200-year-old building and bring it into this time period still respecting the building but giving it new life?” Larson said.

Building Odyssey has gotten to be such a big project that it attracted the attention of Secretary for the Board of Directors of Buffalo Street Books Sharon Yntema, who is writing a historical book on bookstores in Ithaca –

“Ithaca Area Bookstores: 201 years of bookstores in Tompkins County.”
“I had heard a rumor about a new bookstore that might open across from Press Bay Alley, the first new one in over 15 years,” Yntema said. “About a month ago, I heard something that made it sound more likely to happen, so I decided to investigate.”

After learning about Larson, the two connected through email. Yntema said that she could tell immediately that Larson would be a good addition to her book.

“Laura is full of energy, enthusiasm and knowledge,” she said. “I am excited to include Odyssey Books as an example of how bookstores aren’t a dying breed.”

In her research, Yntema has learned a lot about what makes independent bookstores last, and she said it’s all about building a loyal customer base. This means finding a place in the community and having a business strategy that will keep the store alive and well.

“A good selection of books is crucial: knowing your customers, being able to anticipate their needs,” she said. “Also, giving people a reason to come into the store: what do you carry that another store might not, etc. An independent store can’t stock everything, so it needs to develop some niches.”

Larson has done her fair share of research, too, and she has embraced those and other sorts of strategies.

“I have to give people a reason to pay more for a book than they can buy it on Amazon, and they have to value what I’m offering, and that’s on me to create that,” she said.

Fortunately, Larson has been eager to learn whatever she can, reading articles and talking to everybody in town she can think of on how to make Odyssey work.

“I want to talk to everybody. … I want everyone’s voice in that store,” she said. “This is me having a conversation with the community about what do you want to see, and I have to listen.”

With the feedback Larson has received, she’s realized that what people want from an independent bookstore in Ithaca is a community space, not just a place to buy books. So, she plans to actively engage with the community, hosting events like book clubs and author talks and presenting unique opportunities for community engagements.

“People really crave that opportunity to come together and that proverbial third space, and bookstores can serve that,” Larson said.

To make her vision a reality, Larson assembled a team of specialists, and as those involved can attest, it’s been an interesting journey.

Emily Petrina, architect at Firehouse Architecture LAB, has been good friends with Larson for a while and liked the idea of Odyssey Bookstore since the beginning.

“I immediately thought it was a good idea,” Petrina said. “I love books, I love bookstores, and I think this town, in theory, should be able to support thriving bookstores with the colleges, with a continuously evolving population of students and with a really intellectual population.”

The location especially, Petrina said, is well suited to the culture independent bookstores inspire.

“Press Bay Alley has a really, young, hip energy, and so, for her to position a business and especially a bookstore adjacent and across from that, I think, gives it a great chance to also have that kind of energy,” Petrina said.

Interior designer Jennifer Wright of KZ Design, who has worked with Larson on home projects before, said she has very much enjoyed being part of the team bringing Odyssey to life. Wright said it also helps having such a dedicated leader in Larson.

“She’s a really good decision-maker, and she’s always a joy to be around, which is wonderful,” Wright said. “She’s passionate about it. It’s something that she really loves.”

Wright said the entire atmosphere of the bookstore is planned to be as warm, welcoming and cozy as possible. The history of the building will help add to the appeal, she said.

“I think that the building itself is really beautiful and unique and that people will enjoy coming in just to see what it’s like in there,” she said. “And then, the hope is that they’ll feel very comfortable and want to come back.”

Builder Jeff Rocco Marianni, owner of Rocco Design Build, has been involved in projects on the Wilkinson building before and was drawn to the prospect of doing something new with the basement.

“I thought it was a phenomenal idea to develop that space into retail, and the bookstore, it seemed like the perfect fit,” he said.

But it hasn’t been an easy feat; transforming what was a living and storage area into a retail space meant a lot of changes, like turning a bunch of rooms into an open floor plan and even digging the basement floor lower. Marianni said he shares Larson’s vision for the place and welcomes the necessary changes in design for what it’ll bring to the downtown culture.

“It’s going to add a nice, contemporary feel to the development of downtown Ithaca and the culture that we’re trying to bring,” he said. “I love standing back and seeing the end product and then allowing the public to enjoy that as well.”

Larson said she is thankful for her team and the opportunity to turn Odyssey into a reality. She has always loved seeing the way bookstores can bring a community together, and she hopes Odyssey will do that for Ithaca.

“What I want is for people to realize what they have in common with each other,” she said. “Maybe I’m a professor and maybe you work as an auto mechanic, but we both love mysteries. And so, there’s an opportunity to bring people together around shared interests. … That’s how you celebrate what’s so amazing about this community.”

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