The books may sit quietly on their shelves, but the rest of The Ivy Bookshop buzzes with the activity of book selling.
In the back of the Baltimore shop on this particular early evening, employees race to load Bill Clinton biographies onto a cart in time to sell at a symposium downtown later that night. And near the reading nook, UMBC professor Robert Provine prepares for a reading and Q&A in the bookshop about his new book on the psychology of hiccups.
At the center of the commotion in his favorite leather reading chair sits Eduard Berlin ’70, political science – cool as a cucumber despite the frenetic activity spinning around him.
Berlin and his wife, Ann, took over The Ivy Bookshop a little more than a year ago from its previous owner, Baltimore arts philanthropist Darielle Linehan. They’ve thought long and hard about what the future of independent bookstores could – and must – become to survive a changing reading landscape, and have already taken big steps to do so: upgrading the bookstore’s web presence, forming selling partnerships with a bevy of big-time area organizations and schools, and organizing events at the shop.
“It’s not just about selling a book anymore,” says Berlin, a member of UMBC’s first graduating class who now has a 30-year career in corporate and financial tech behind him. “People can buy a book anywhere. What we’re doing is making an experience that’s unique for this community.”
Knowing a bit about Berlin’s former career – one in which he repeatedly surfed ahead of the curve, taking chances on web solutions that didn’t exist until he conceived and built them – makes his choice to start a second career at an independent bookstore seem a little less, well, crazy. After graduating from UMBC, Berlin got his law degree and practiced corporate law for the FCC before moving on in the 1980s to help companies including Citibank, Deutsche Bank and Reuters implement global reporting systems when the Internet was still a novelty. Talk about pioneering.
Berlin also credits his alma mater with helping to develop his business sense. “The real pioneers of UMBC were experimenting on so many different levels that I think maybe subliminally I took this concept of being out-of-the-box, being willing to try different things, not needing as much structure,” he said. “My entire career, I was always the first person to do a particular job, or open up new territory, or build new product, or explore things that maybe on the surface at least seemed to be cutting edge. And the fact that I went to a new school like UMBC maybe had a lot to do with that.”
That drive to innovate (and succeed at it) – along with a genuine love of reading – made The Ivy the perfect match for Berlin. It helps, too, that his wife spent a career in publishing.
“We’ve always been a book family,” said Berlin, whose son Sam – the spitting image of his parents – helps direct traffic from behind the front counter.
“I thought it was less crazy than his original plan, which was to have an art gallery,” Sam quips. “This seems slightly less volatile by comparison.”
Keeping the place busy is a key to the plan. On any given night, visitors might stumble upon a reading by an interesting author, or a book club talking animatedly in a corner nook. Berlin’s staff is quick to help browsers, and the owner prides himself on choosing every book that lines these shelves.
“There are things that simply cannot be replaced on a tablet or online,” he says. “People like being with other people. They like to discuss things together. There will always be people who value that.”
Mid-interview, a customer taps Berlin on the shoulder. Has he seen the book she’s looking for? Why yes, he says, pinpointing the spot on the shelf behind him. She smiles and wanders to the counter, book in hand.
He returns to his seat and apologizes for the interruption.
“The customer comes first, of course.”
— Jenny O’Grady