Benjamin Vengroff opened the doors of Red Jacket Books in the heart of Westhampton Beach almost exactly one year ago. The bookstore has quickly become a staple of the community, and many locals and Hamptons visitors enjoy stopping in to browse the latest releases, classics, and works by local authors. Red Jacket began as an online business, and their web presence remains strong, allowing customers to place orders online for pickup at the store.
In recent exciting news, after being open for less than a year, Red Jacket Books was named the best bookstore of Long Island in 2022! As their one-year anniversary approaches, Ben spoke more about what the store means to the community, and the success he’s found as a local business owner in the Hamptons.
Can you explain the story behind the name of the store and how and when you decided to start the business?
BV: The name comes from this red bomber jacket I used to wear all the time. I became sort of known for wearing it everywhere, and it became my lucky jacket when I was wearing it out and a tree hit my apartment. I lost so much, including the rest of my jackets, but not my red one! When it came time to pick a name and logo, I decided on Red Jacket because I saw how recognizable it had become, which is exactly what you want for a business!
The roots of Red Jacket Books go back to the beginning of the pandemic in early 2020. I wasn’t happy at my job, and once I had to start working from home, it only got less enjoyable. The pandemic got me thinking about how short life is, and I didn’t want to be wasting one more second of it being unhappy. I quit my job in May 2020 and began working on a website to sell books, thinking eventually I’d find a physical store to open up as well. RedJacketBooks.com officially opened at the end of August, and then I signed the lease for the WHB location that November!
What’s unique about being located in the Hamptons that couldn’t be experienced elsewhere? What do you love most about the Hamptons customers?
BV: I can honestly say Westhampton Beach was my first choice since the very beginning. My parents moved out here about ten years ago, and my mom and I would go to the old bookstore in town all the time. We were heartbroken when they closed.
As for the customers out here, they’re all lovely. I came into opening the store with this plan: I would have a little bit of everything in the store, and as we got to know the customers out here, we’d cater to that. I absolutely love when someone comes in and tells me all about a great book they’ve read, or when they come in with only an idea of a type of book they’d like, and I can help them find something.
What’s your favorite part about being in the Hamptons?
BV: I love the culture of being around here. There’s so much support from the customers and from all the other businesses around here. Whether I’m stopping by the bank and the teller is asking how the store is doing, or I’m at the deli and the cashier is asking for book recommendations, I’m always surrounded by so much support and love from everyone here.
What is the top value or quality that makes Red Jacket Books so successful?
BV: We’re here for the stories. We’re here to connect the people that walk into their next adventure or their next recipe, or anything they want to find. We’re not Amazon or Barnes & Noble. There are currently two of us (Ben and LT) here running the whole show, and during the summer, Jade was here with us too (and she’ll be back this summer too!) We’re a familiar face here.
What has been your greatest accomplishment working in this business to-date?
BV: Just recently we were voted Best Bookstore of Long Island for 2022! I still can’t believe it. Everyone voted and they chose US! In our first year, too!
How do you keep up with the ever-changing landscape of the book world?
BV: This was tough at the start, as it’s very intimidating. So many books come out every single week, and we can only get so many for the store. As we learn more about the tastes of our customers, we’re getting better and better at deciding which books to purchase each week. Basically, it’s a whole lot of research constantly to figure it out! We are also a part of the American Booksellers Association, which has plenty of resources at our disposal.
It must have been a challenge opening the doors during the height of the pandemic. Have you been able to have many live events, readings, or signings since opening? Have you had a favorite event so far?
BV: In the store, we began to have authors come in and sign books for us, and we’d use social media to advertise those signed books. As we became more well known in the area, we’ve been able to be a part of some really cool events, too, like having a book signing/horse rides at a farm for Carrie Seim’s “Horse Girl,” and being a part of the Hampton Synagogue’s Author Series each Thursday.
Would you say that starting the store online first helped you ease into the opening of the physical location? And how important is your online business to the success of Red Jacket?
BV: Starting the online store first made all the difference. My only retail experience before this was when I worked at Rite Aid during high school and some of college. I got to learn the ins and outs of the bookstore before having to pay rent anywhere. I would say that the online store, and especially having an online presence, is absolutely important to the survival of Red Jacket Books. In college and in my twenties I was in a few bands, and was always in charge of all the online marketing of everything, so the world wasn’t completely new to me. I used what I knew about advertising my music, and just applied it to books!
How does the East End of Long Island play a role in Red Jacket Books with the authors you support and the most popular sellers in the store? How much importance do you place on supporting local authors?
BV: As they say: location, location, location. Being in a semi-seasonal town, we do get a lot of visitors from other places (mostly in the summer). Our top nonfiction book last year was “Lost Boys of Montauk” by Amanda M Fairbanks, and three of our top five children’s books of the year (including number one) was the Montauk Mike series by Nina Ross.
Last year I was asked to talk at one of the meetings for the Long Island Authors Group and I absolutely loved speaking to them all. The local authors are everything to us, and I enjoy meeting all of them. We have an entire section devoted to local authors, and we have a spot in our window to highlight a different local author each week.
What is the top quality or value that you feel helped you become successful at running this business?
BV: I come from a family of entrepreneurs with a history of success. Since I was very little, I was surrounded by people starting businesses. My grandfather started his first company in the 1960s, and by the 2000s it had offices all over the globe. I remember my grandpa sitting me down all the time and explaining how easy it is to run a business and make money if you break it down. He always had so much advice for me and was one of my heroes. I’d like to think he’d be very proud of me for starting a business of my own.
It was very intimidating to start this, but here I am! I feel that honesty, not only with customers, but with myself, is important. If I don’t know how to do something, I ask, and I learn. This, coupled with working very hard I think will lead Red Jacket Books into being around for years and years to come.
Do you have one favorite book or author that you always return to?
BV: My favorite book of all time is “The Catcher in the Rye” by JD Salinger. I try to read it every year. Reading that book in high school was a definitive moment in my love for reading. I realized reading wasn’t this boring thing we were just forced to do for school, but that it could be the greatest thing in the world.
What do you want people to know most about Red Jacket Books?
BV: That we care. We’re here for the books and to get them in the hands of people that will love them.
Do you have any advice or wisdom to share for others who might be thinking about starting a small local business?
BV: Life is absolutely too short to do anything besides what will make you happy. If you’re looking to open a store or a small business, just do it. If you’re passionate enough, then it will survive!
To learn more about Red Jacket Books or to place your order for your next great read, visit them online at https://redjacketbooks.com.