Caravan Book Store
Steps from the storied Millennium Biltmore Hotel exists an ode to the literary word. From the outside, a tony exterior conceals a world curated with old and rare books, merchandised among stately wooden walls and separated by subjects ranging in antiques, history, the California Experience, wine and cookery, collecting, and art. There are paintings and sculpture, a bust of beardless Abraham Lincoln, and an assemblage of pristine model tug-boats displayed in vitrines. This is a not a museum and this is not a portal to the past. This is the Caravan Book Store.
The original Caravan Book Store opened 62 years ago at a location across the street, when a half a dozen shops comprised Booksellers Row. There it stood 25 years until the redevelopment of the Financial District prompted its final move to the current location in the late 1980s. Not to be confused with mass-market bookstores, Caravan is a different kind of book business.
“They’re just product, they are like cans of tuna and I don’t sell cans of tuna,” explains owner Leonard Bernstein, referring to the business of new books which are packaged to sell and disposable. For Bernstein — who inherited the shop from his parents — books are “works of art” and the ones he sells have been thoughtfully sourced for their unique aesthetic qualities and rich legacies. The oldest book in the shop dates back to 1545. Originally focused exclusively on the rare and old, Bernstein expanded the collections to include his personal interests and those of his customers who inspire him to research new topics.
“I have a customer from the East Coast, he lives by the Revolutionary War battlefields and goes through them with his children on the weekends. He flies here on business and asks me about a general or a battle and I have to keep up. It’s intriguing and fun. You learn from one another and develop relationships,” says Bernstein. It is a shared curiosity that attracts old and new customers alike. In spite of cyclical population booms, Caravan has remained because of curious minds and urban wanderers who ventured Downtown and walked through the door.
Today it is not uncommon to see a young couple with a baby stroller, or a theatre goer stopping by before a performance. Even celebrities like Kevin Spacey have found their way to Caravan, but ask Bernstein which visit was the most memorable and he recalls one from less than a year ago.
“She asked, ‘how long has this store been here?’ I looked up and fell out of my chair. It was Caroline Kennedy. The only thing I could think of was, ‘since your father was nominated at the Biltmore Hotel up the street, thats how long I’ve been here. I remember you as a baby in the White House.’ She was buying a gift for her daughter and I helped her pick out a nice book.”
Written by Ivan Navarro
Photographed by Jack Strutz