By Liana Imparato
Cases of worn and weathered books stonewall customers at the entrance of Brier Rose Books. They overflow from the differently-sized cases, line the tops of shelves and tables, and even surround the owner’s desk like a barricade.
Outside the walls of Brier Rose, Cedar Lane bustles with activity. Cars whiz by, some honking their horns, and pedestrians frequent the streets. But the bookstore offers a sanctuary of tranquility, which owner Howard Rose says is intentional.
“It enables you to come through the door and leave Teaneck behind,” Rose says. He turns his nearly-bald head to survey the store, his hands folded in his lap. “It’s a different environment.”
Rose started the bookstore on Cedar Lane nearly two decades ago, fresh out of a 25-year long career in college administration. Though the store at one time had another location, Brier Rose Books has been a fixture at 450 Cedar Lane for 19 years.
The red-bricked storefront is sandwiched between a Kosher bakery and Kosher restaurant. Brier Rose Books provides a change of scenery, a refreshing deviation from the dozens of restaurants and bakeries that line Cedar Lane.
The interior of Brier Rose Books takes Rose’s characterization of “different” even further. The mismatched shelves, some of which are coated in a thin layer of dust, construct the store’s narrow, snaking aisles. Each case belches out books of all sizes, with subjects ranging from the Civil War to children’s stories.
A selection of cases tucked away in the back of the shop offer dollar books. From the front of the shop to the nook in the back, knickknacks and artwork occupy every inch of free space on the walls and shelves, and the lazy whir of a fan offers faint background noise in the generally quiet store.
The unique design and thousands of stories make it exactly the kind of enchanting environment that Rose wanted when he started Brier Rose Books.
“Literally it’s made the way I envisioned it the day I rented the place,” Rose says as he leans his small frame into the canvas-backed chair. “I had a good feel for how a bookstore should look – or how I felt comfortable with how a bookstore should look.”
The maze-like aisles eventually lead to the heart of the store, where, smack in the middle of the shop lies a rectangular-shaped space, with the owner’s desk on one side and a sitting area opposite it. The front desk, blockaded by books, houses small display cases of trinkets for sale. Parallel to the desk is the sitting area, complete with couches, a pair of wood and canvas folding chairs, and a chess board.
And, of course, stacks upon stacks of books.
But to call the store cluttered would be to miss the inherent charm and pull of the busy space. Its swarm of readily-accessible reading material makes the shop what Rose calls “a browsing store.”
“It makes it much more enjoyable [to have books in print],” Rose explains in his subdued, thoughtful voice. Of the packed shelves, he says, “All the books are exactly where they should be.”
The 19 years of singlehandedly running Brier Rose Books has enabled Rose to establish a logical order to the layout of books. All are organized by subject, then most are alphabetized by author and title. Some books are partnered together solely based upon the size of the book and the size of the shelf. The system ensures that the mass of material is “retrievable.”
The years of honing his craft have also allowed Rose the time to compile an extensive collection of books that he has not yet put out for sale. He keeps a vast assortment of books in storage. The stockpile has grown in several different ways. Rose has bought them from different stores, while some people come to the store to sell him their books.
“If you’ve ever been to a place where there are books, I’ve been there but a whole lot more often,” Rose says with a dry laugh. “I go to people’s homes, people come here, I travel to other places…”
And for the books that do not head to storage or find their way into the limited shelf-space, Rose keeps for himself.
“I get first dibs on whatever comes through [the store],” he says, then remarks in a joking moment of self-deprecation, “I probably have an excess of [my own] books at this point.”
He classifies his reading preferences as “anything that catches my eye,” though he particularly likes to read about history. However, Rose recalls spending birthday money in his childhood to, in part, fuel his interest in a vastly different area of literature.
“I remember at an early age getting birthday money and spending it partially on cowboy boots, and the rest on a couple of books. I remember that it was a Tom and Jerry book – cartoon characters – and Daniel Boone,” he says. His thick, graying mustache twitches as a wistful smile quirks his lips upward. “I’ve been reading ever since.”
Before he surrounded himself – literally – with literature for a living, Rose made a career in college administration. He worked as the director of student financial aid at several institutions, including Fairleigh Dickinson University. He describes that initial career path as a “fluke,” though assures that he liked the work.
But Rose still prefers his current job. He regularly participates in community service in Teaneck, a practice he has maintained for many of the years that he has run the business. Among his titles in community organizations, Rose has served on the Teaneck Planning Board and as a trustee on the Teaneck Board of Education. The flexibility, he explains, is one of the many upsides of his job.
“I determine the hours that I’m open,” Rose says. “I take advantage of not being here when I don’t want to be.”
He claims that “there really is no downside” to his work. Rose likes to be at the shop on the six days of the week that Brier Rose is open, and he enjoys the one-man-show nature of the store.
“I’m here because I like to be here,” Rose says, then pauses a moment before he says in a slow and reflective voice, “It gets betterer and betterer.”
Photo by Liana Imparato