Where to fix your reading itch in Cape May
Reading and sitting on the beach just go together. Along with kids and adults splashing in the surf and playing games are readers with a nose buried in a book on a summer day. A small town by the sea needs options for literary fans to find their next read.
Cape May now has two local stores to discover their next favorite diversion: Cape Atlantic Book Company or Barrier Island Books & Art in West Cape May. It’s not just the smell of the paper, the feel of opening a brand-new book, or browsing the bookshelves that readers enjoy. It’s the ambiance of a small shop that caters to its clientele.
On the second floor of City Center Mall, shoppers will find Cape Atlantic Book Company. The shop opened in 2012, shortly after Atlantic Books on the Washington Street Mall closed. Cape May was briefly without a bookstore until Patrick Young and Tony Herr came to the rescue.
While Amazon and other big-box stores offer discounted prices and expedited shipping, they cannot offer the detailed selection and first-class customer service found in a local bookstore. If Young sees something he thinks is unique for the store, he makes it happen. For instance, Cape Atlantic Book Company offers nearly 800 jigsaw puzzles.
“We carry a full line of best sellers, fiction, nonfiction, and most of the local authors,” says Young. “We’re pretty well known for our children’s section with series and young adult books, and we’re also well known for jigsaw puzzles.”
It’s not uncommon that a specific author dominates book sales every summer. When Cape Atlantic opened, Young said 50 Shades of Grey by E.L. James caused bedlam. He ordered copies by the case and kept them by the front door, to hand out as people walked in looking for it.
Cape Atlantic Book Company is open from March to December. Depending on the weather in January and February, Young will ride his bike to the mall to open the shop during the weekends.
Many Cape May-related book authors come into Cape Atlantic to autograph copies, and some of the shop’s staff are local authors themselves. “Most of our customers and many locals know us by name, and it’s really fun,” he says. “We like to give a specialty service. The store works beautifully for us.”
Reading has always been a popular pastime, but two recent factors have helped books reach wider audiences. The first was the pandemic, when everyone was stuck at home with more time to occupy. Book sales shot up 8.2% in 2020, the largest increase since 2010, according to Publishers Weekly.
The second factor is social media, specifically the rise in book-related content on Instagram (nicknamed Bookstagram) and Tiktok (or BookTok). Users share favorite reads, write reviews, and promote authors’ work. The BookTok subcommunity is dedicated to all things literary, and both authors and publishers have seen a rise in book sales because of it.
One author dominated sales last summer at Cape Atlantic Book Company and Barrier Island Books. Colleen Hoover and her adult romance fiction books have taken a significant grip on The New York Times Best Seller list, with six of her 20-odd books appearing simultaneously in July 2022.
Hoover plays a significant part at Barrier Island Books & Art, where her books are featured near the checkout. The store had started out carrying used books. “It’s just crazy, honestly,” says Barrier Island’s Marnie Lengle. Colleen Hoover all day long. She is part of the reason we started buying new books. There’d be a dozen women a day asking, ‘Do you have Colleen Hoover?’ and we were finally like ‘we have to buy her books.’”
Lengle and her husband Pete opened their West Cape May location during Presidents’ Day Weekend in 2022. They own the store of the same name in Stone Harbor, which they opened in 2002. In 2009 the Lengles sold that store, but repurchased it in 2017.
Barrier Island is a book lovers’ oasis. Shoppers are greeted with multiple shelves of books, artwork interwoven in the crevices of the stacks. Despite the small but neatly kept space, one may not see everything they offer in just one trip.
“It’s primarily a used bookstore with art, and fun gifts for book lovers. During the beginning of the pandemic, it was scary, but things started to turn, and people started reading again during lockdown,” says Lengle. “I wish that wasn’t the reason, but it was a unique time for both book lovers and people discovering books for the first time.”
Before the pandemic, the Lengles wanted to open a second location in the Cape May area since the family spends so much time there. In 2021, she began looking in West Cape May.
“I asked Gail and Craig Fitz, who own the building and where Gail has her Arts & Soul Studio, about renting,” says Lengle. “That’s how it happened and we’re thankful friends owned the space, which has a lot of history. It was Higher Grounds coffee house, then Gecko’s, then Gail’s art studio, and now where we are. We had a super warm welcome from the locals, who were excited to have a bookstore in West Cape May.”
In just 500 square feet, Barrier Island sells second-hand books starting at $2, collectible hardbacks, and birding books, in addition to new publications. Lengle also carries used vinyl LPs, which she said they never found space for in Stone Harbor. The West Cape May location seemed fitting given the local community has so many music lovers and musicians. The store carries creations by local artists, including Gail Fitz’s work, along with book and television-related bookmarks and stickers.
“It’s been great because [some] book lovers don’t like to dig or hunt for something, so they’re excited for a new release and want to buy it hot off the press,” says Lengle. “We carry a lot of young adult books, which both teens and adults read. It’s refreshing to see teenagers and 20-somethings walking out with a book—or more—in their hand.”
Lengle keeps the classics in stock, like To Kill a Mockingbird and Frankenstein, as well as works by Kurt Vonnegut, Jack Kerouac, and Ernest Hemingway. The shop has many new copies of classic novels in unique, collectible covers.
“Almost 20 years into it, we finally have a good grasp on great finds that we buy second hand as well as new books. It’s the perfect marriage,” says Lengle. “Everything else complements the books, so book lovers see gifts and collectibles they’d enjoy or know someone who would.”
Customers appreciate these shops keeping independent bookstores alive. “That’s one of the main reasons we got into this,” says Lengle. “We love to share our passion about books and preserving history. We have two teenage daughters who love the business, and it makes us happy that they can get involved, help us buy, and arrange the stores. They know what’s hot on TikTok so that’s been great! We’re also thrilled we have wonderful part-time help. It’s a dream come true, and we’re so excited to be in a space and town we love to spend so much time in.”
Cape May inspires many artists and creative souls. Every year, more books are set in Cape May or feature the town in some way. The Lengles strive to have ample local history content in the store, whether it’s a 150-year-old book or a recent Craig McManus offering. Cape May paraphernalia, like vintage beach tag collections and postcards, as well as other collectible Cape May City and county ephemera, is available.
Don’t forget the Cape May City Public Library on Ocean Street, which, in an exciting development, will eventually find a new home in the long-empty Franklin Street School. [See our blog post at capmemaymag.com]
“The new Cape May City Library at the Historic Franklin Street School will provide the much-needed additional space necessary for increased programs and resources,” says library director Andrea Orsini. “The goal is to create a 21st-century public library in the revitalized Franklin Street School, while preserving the history of the building, and fostering culture, diversity, education and library services for the citizens of Cape May and the surrounding communities.”
The Franklin Street School opened in 1928 as a segregated school. The building’s use was changed when segregation was deemed unconstitutional and it’s been cared for by the Center for Community Arts since 2002. Additionally, the Franklin Street School was designated a contributing building to Cape May’s Historic District and as a site significant to New Jersey’s African American history. ■
Other places to buy books in Cape May
Known for beach decor, jewelry, and children’s accessories, Whale’s Tale also has a wonderful selection of Cape May-related books by local authors as well as children’s books–something for everyone. “Children’s books have always been popular,” says co-owner Hilary Pritchard. “When e-books became the rage, we worried that hardback books would become extinct, but they’re more popular than ever. Jamie Castagnoli is our toy and book buyer and does a fantastic job.”
While grabbing a coffee or breakfast sandwich, browse the unique selection of books at West Cape May’s Ostara’s Coffee House, owned by sisters-in-law Victoria and Anastasia Maniotis. Visitors can choose from many new releases. Ostara’s also hosts a monthly book club, and has a free book exchange.
Givens has an intriguing variety of books to captivate shoppers, from selections for toddlers featuring famous artwork to short story collections to memoirs. Readers will delight at the carefully curated collection of books here.
In the Carriage House Museum shop at the Physick Estate, readers will find plenty of Cape May-related publications. Select from picture books, ghost stories, history and mystery. MAC has excellent choices for the Cape May lover—some signed by the author.
In a location steeped in history, visitors can enjoy the sights and a curated selection of gifts and Cape May-related books at Sunset Beach Gifts. Most of the books here are historical and include many coffee table books.
For over 30 years, this hidden gem in Wildwood has had the most organized and unique selection of second-hand books of all genres in the area. Venture off the island to Hooked on Books, open from May to September.
Throughout Cape May, readers can find many Little Free Libraries. This community book exchange is a convenient way to rehome books and find new ones. Locations include Cape May, West Cape May, Cape May Point, North Cape May, and Villas. Visit www.littlefreelibrary.org for information.