An Old Fashioned Book Seller: An Interview with Harold Nestler

Harold Nestler in his basement office, 1962

By Abby Tallmer

On a blisteringly cold and snowy day, this reporter trekked from the relative warmth of her New York City apartment to the Port Authority Bus Terminal, all in pursuit of an AE Monthly story. The aim? To travel to Waldwick, New Jersey, a small and charming town just outside the (relatively) bustling community of Ridgewood, to meet and interview one of the few truly old-time book dealers left. Harold Nestler, age 81, has been in the book business for fifty years – this is indeed his anniversary year – and he does not own a computer. Nor does he know how to use one. (He warns me of this the first time we talk on the phone.) His business, which specializes in local and New York State history, is all accomplished the old fashioned way, through printed catalogues (typed by Mr. Nestler himself, who beyond his family has no assistants) and distributed via the U.S. mail to his steady list of approximately 500 customers.

This is the way his business has always been conducted, and Mr. Nestler likes it that way. He tells me so almost immediately after I enter his cozy two-story house that also serves as his business’s home base. (As soon as I arrive, Mr. Nestler proudly informs me that he and his family have lived in this house for 45 years, and that they paid $11,000 for it back then.) From his home – and mostly from his basement office, which he jokingly refers to as his “Dungeon” – Mr. Nestler acquires and sells off inventory and types descriptions of each book and manuscript he handles on a 3 X 5 inch index card, annotated by him as to which customer purchased this particular item and when the purchase transpired. He also keeps his stock of reference books in his basement-cum-dungeon, as well as an (electronic!) typewriter and an adding machine of the sort that this reporter hasn’t seen in some time. His only assistants are his wife Helen, who pulls orders, and his son Timothy, who transports packages to and from the local Post Office.

Although in some ways an anachronism, Mr. Nestler is not as much of a throwback as he may seem: many book dealers still operate with no web presence whatsoever and with an equal lack of computer know-how. And the secret is: they do fine, or in many cases more than fine. They are a force to be reckoned with – even in this new millennium/internet trading age (as we at AE have seen from the results of our recent survey of ABAA Book Fair attendees, an analysis of which runs in this same issue of AE Monthly)– and thus I’ve come to Mr. Nestler’s comfortable abode to chat with him so that he can share his wisdom, his observations, and his memories of the book business as it was as well as his opinions of the book business as it is now.

The Interview:
What follows is a selective paraphrase of our conversation; HN stands for Harold Nestler, and AT stands for this reporter.

AT: So, I understand that this is your fiftieth year of being in the book business. Congratulations. This seems like an appropriate moment to ask you what it was that brought you into this business in the first place.