By John Gummere
When my wife and I moved to the Trenton area in 2016, we were delighted to find out what nerds do on Friday nights in Trenton: we play Scrabble at the bookshop, of course! Since then, Sue and I have become regulars at Eric and Donna Maywar’s Classics Used and Rare Books — a uniquely Trenton “institution” whose owners go beyond their own walls to help build and maintain a thriving community downtown.
Classics began in 2000 in New Hope, Pennsylvania where Eric started selling used books with a focus on general-interest readers. “It wasn’t about selling books for collectors. Then someone bought a first-edition of War of the Worlds!” He also recounts the story of receiving a box of children’s books that later made its way to the Trenton location after a flood in New Hope. In that box they eventually found first editions of Dr. Seuss, Maurice Sendak, and Tasha Tudor. That was the end of his unwritten “no collectors” rule. Eric and Donna moved their shop to Trenton in 2005, first renting a store on Warren Street. In 2011, they bought a property and moved around the corner, to 4 West Lafayette Street, down the block and across the street from the War Memorial.
Eric grew up in Michigan and earned his MFA in creative writing at Western Michigan University, where he studied with award-winning writers Jaimy Gordon, Stu Dybek, and others. He has published poetry and short stories, and in 2019 The Bookshop on Lafayette Street, an anthology of his and other authors’ works centered around Classics Books.
Eric’s involvement as a downtown business owner eventually caught the eye of Trenton’s City Hall. Since then, he has worked full-time for the city as an Economic Development Specialist, and is passionate about breathing life into Trenton’s economy; he keeps Classics open on a part-time schedule. Donna divides her time between Classics and her work at Princeton University’s Office of Equity and Diversity. Eric routinely brings interested business executives from out of town to see what is happening in Trenton. “A lot of them don’t have the staff to do location studies, but when they see that Starbucks is here now, they get the confidence that this is a viable location with a future.” Economic activity raises questions about gentrification: how do we bring development into Trenton while keeping the city affordable for those who currently live here? At the same time, those on lower incomes need the jobs that would come with new business. While Trenton does have a large supply of affordable housing, it remains a dilemma without easy answers.
On the future of improvement for downtown businesses, Eric says,
“A couple things make me hopeful. Some businesses are recovering well from COVID. The restaurants that catered just to the state workers haven’t fared so well, because when those workers were all telecommuting it was their whole clientele. The ones that were open evenings and weekends for locals lost a chunk of their business temporarily, but they’re coming back now. The state has approved the sale of the hotel on Lafayette Street, and the prospective owner has a mixed-use plan for the property that seems viable.”
There are several new restaurants that have opened and are doing well, and others that are planning to open. The Smoke House BBQ, the Big Easy, Hummingbird, and Joe Festa’s State Barber Shop are among the downtown businesses that have come through the pandemic. Delia’s Empanada Café and Arlee’s Raw Blends started just before COVID hit, and both are up and running again. Royal Cake Creations and Lucky’s Lunchbox are off to a good start, and getting great reviews.
Classics sells used books of almost every genre and subject imaginable. Its online sales got the store through the pandemic; since then the online business has remained strong, and Classics is returning to its usual “bricks-and-mortar” business as health concerns permit in the wake of COVID. The store also sells non-book items such as notecards, puzzles, games, artwork, and crafts. What sets Classics apart most from typical bookstores is its community involvement. In addition to the Friday night scrabble group, on most Saturdays the shop hosts events such as book signings with local authors, open mic sessions, a knitting group, and occasional meetings on political and social issues; the Delaware Riverkeeper Network and other groups have given presentations there. Donna notes that the community aspect of Classics is “not just about having a chat. It’s about social capital, and sharing all kinds of resources. People have gotten jobs through their connections at Classics, and have been able to raise funds for organizations thanks to the social network here.” Classics frequently receives generous donations of books, and actively promotes literacy through its Books at Home program for Trenton children: it funnels thousands of dollars’ worth of the books it receives to kids, parents, teachers, and New Jersey’s Division of Child Protection and Permanency (formerly DYFS).
Classics is open on a limited schedule: Tuesday through Friday noon to 1:30 pm, Friday evenings 6 to 8 (or later, sometimes until midnight), and Saturdays 11 to 4. It’s a local treasure that gives back to the community!