ITHACA, N.Y. — Laura Larson’s journey to opening a bookstore sounds as if it came straight out of a novel. From an early love for books, to repurposing a basement in a 200-year-old building, to a global pandemic — Odyssey Bookstore in Downtown Ithaca has finally opened its doors.

Odyssey Bookstore, an independent community bookshop, opened on June 23, three months later than initially planned. Larson, who grew up in Ithaca, said that she has always wanted to open a bookstore. However, she didn’t decide to take action until about two years ago when she was searching for what to do in the next phase of her life, and she moved back to Ithaca from Seattle to pursue her dreams.

“In my heart, a bookstore is a place where people can come together and find out what they share and have great conversations,” Larson said. “In this community, it can be so siloed, even though it’s so small. How can people who live so close together still kind of segregate themselves? So if you bring people together and be like, ‘I like mysteries and you like mysteries, it turns out we do have something in common,’ you can start a conversation around that, and hopefully you get to know each other and you find out the things that you share and create a community.”

Housed in the basement of the grand stone-facade of 115 West Green St. below the Crossmore Law Office, it might not seem like the most typical location for a bookstore. Larson originally was looking for locations in Cayuga Heights to open the store, but Ed Crossmore, whose law office is located in the building, suggested she use his space because it is across from Press Bay Alley and receives heavy foot traffic.

The basement was constructed as a living area before Larson’s store moved in. Larson said that she tried to maintain the integrity of the space by showing off the exposed stone, positioning books around the fireplaces and repurposing some of the items that had been left behind, like turning old doors into tables and gas fixtures into lights.

“Laura has made a number of improvements to the basement — my belief is that the last substantial work done was by Horace Mack in 1838 — that are nicely executed and very much in keeping with the character of the building,” Crossmore said.

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The building has been in Crossmore’s family since 1913. Larson said that one of the many challenges of repurposing the space was going through the decades’ worth of items that were left behind in the basement, working with the city to rezone the building as a commercial space, and getting air conditioning and lighting through such thick stone walls. 

“It’s been so much harder than if I took a random space in the strip mall. I wanted something that was magical, and I got it,” Larson said. “I love how this space makes me feel. It’s special. I want to welcome people in. I want to share this. This is like magic. This is part of this town’s history and heritage, and I want everyone to have the chance to come into it.”

Ironically, all of Larson’s books arrived on March 13 — Friday the 13. Just the following week, New York State closed all non-essential businesses due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Still, Larson did not let the pandemic put her dreams on the shelf. She spent the next two months in the space mostly by herself, sorting through her books. Odyssey pivoted to an online store, an avenue that she was not expecting to roll out so quickly, and introduced curbside pickup. Although the store is now open — with social distancing guidelines — for browsing, Larson said these options are still available for customers who feel more comfortable remaining outside of the store.

“To me, what diversity and inclusion means is that you feel welcome when you walk in the space, and you see yourself reflected back from the bookshelves, whatever that means to you,” she said. “COVID-19 protocols to me are about making customers feel safe and welcome and that this is a place they can feel good in. It’s not an expected extension of that, but it is just an extension of that.”

Larson originally planned to have readings and book clubs in the shop, but is hoping to adapt to host these events virtually. Even though there were a few bumps in the road, she said that she hasn’t felt discouraged opening amid the pandemic.

“I’ve never been a small business owner before, so I don’t know any different,” she said. “It’s not easy, but it’s all new to me. It’s all hard, it’s all confusing. The learning curve is always on a steep slope up.”

Odyssey has over 7,000 books, from gardening guides to romance novels to anti-racist materials, and Larson hopes to add at least 1,000 more titles. 

“This is a store that may not have as much depth,” she said. “There’s one, or maybe two of everything. We’ll get everything quickly, we’ll order what you want and the idea is whatever your head is at, we’ll have something that’s exciting for you to read.”

The Ithaca Connections section features books from authors who have a tie to Ithaca in some form — from Toni Morrison, who earned her master’s degree at Cornell University to Alexandra Chang, a local novelist. Larson said that she is always looking for community input for the types of books to carry in the store.

“A book has to earn its right on my shelf. I feel like every book on that shelf is a reflection of me,” she said. “I take that really seriously, that what we have here is a reflection of what we believe.”

Over the last decade, there has been a resurgence for independent bookstores, according to the American Booksellers Association. However, independent bookstores in Ithaca haven’t always followed the national trend. In 2017, Buffalo Street Books nearly closed after facing a financial crisis, and The Bookery closed in 2019. Still, Larson said that she thinks there is enough room in Ithaca for a thriving independent bookstore community.

“I don’t really think of being compared to anyone else,” Larson said. “I’ve built the bookstore I’ve dreamed of having. I built the bookstore I always wanted, and I did it the way I’ve always wanted to do it. If there had been another one like it, I still would have done it the same way, and I believe that there could be a dozen bookstores in this town and they could all have their own flavor and their own voice.”

Madison Fernandez

Madison Fernandez is a contributing reporter at the Ithaca Voice. You can reach her by email at mfernandez@ithacavoice.com.