By Susan Elise Campbell
Lyrical Ballad Bookstore, in the heart of Saratoga’s historic downtown, turns 50 this year with new ownership and the promise of keeping this used and rare book destination much the same as it was when John and Janice DeMarco founded it.
The transaction for the 7 Phila St. business was completed in June between Janice DeMarco and new co-owners Charlie Israel and Jason Zerrillo.
“Jan DeMarco was eager to keep the spirit of the shop alive,” said Israel. “She had worked in the store at 7 Phila Street for decades with her husband.”
Zerrillo had worked at Lyrical Ballad for 15 years when the opportunity came to join Israel as an equal partner in the business.
“Having Jay step in would help maintain the shop’s spirit,” said Israel. “He knows the place inside-out.”
Neither partner has owned a book store before. Israel is involved in historical preservation and his family has spent 40 years helping preserve the Franklin Square area, he said.
“I worked in bookstores and also collected books since my late teens,” Zerrillo said. “When I moved to Saratoga to work for Borders, I of course discovered Lyrical Ballad and became friends with the DeMarcos. I used to spend my allowance there when I was a kid.”
The two became friends when they met eight years ago and discovered their mutual love of books and the legacy the DeMarcos built together.
“John was a book dealer’s book dealer,” Israel said. “He would find books and know where around the country there would be interest. He once found a chest in a barn in the Berkshires filled with letters between Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne.”
“My favorite memory, one that is emblematic of what the store is about, is being able to provide Solomon Northup’s descendants a first edition of ‘Twelve Years a Slave’ back when the film first came out,” said Zerrillo. “Finding a book someone is looking for, or didn’t know they were looking for, is the best part of my job.”
The market for books has changed, Israel said.
“The market for the real rare stuff is not the same as 20 years ago,” he said. “But people still read and love books.”
Israel doesn’t know exactly how many volumes are available, but suspects the number exceeds 100,000 on the shelves, “out back and in storage,” he said. “These run the gamut of collectible, old and current titles. We have a little of everything and a lot of some things.”
“One thing that makes the store intriguing and historically significant is that there used to be a bank in the building and there’s a large vault with big steel bars and locks,” said Israel.
“One of the things I never get tired of is the surprised delight newcomers to the store have when they see that the store is much more than just the front two rooms,” said Zerrillo. “The layout and sheer size of the store is such a huge part of its appeal and ambience, and certainly something to be preserved as much as possible.”
Customers visiting the shop find volumes of old prints, globes, bookends and knick-knacks the DeMarcos had collected over the years. These may be available for sale if there is interest, Israel said, but Lyrical Ballad is “not a gift shop.”
“Some bookstores diversify to compete with online sellers, but our normal business is selling books,” he said.
One addition is a paperback section and modern authors “to get books into the hands of people,” said Israel. “We are also starting to carry a small selection of carefully curated vinyl records while we figure out how selling vinyl works.”
Israel said the partners “hit the ground running” in June and soon it will be “a good time to invite a book club to use our space or to ask authors to come speak … Our main goal is to keep the shop alive and we don’t plan on changing much.”
“In three or five years from now, I’m hopeful not much about the store will have changed,” said Zerrillo. “Except maybe a few less piles of books on the floor.”