Inside the Unoppressive Non-Imperialist Bargain Books store on Carmine St., just past the Shakespeare, Dylan and Twain tomes, a few feet from a fortune teller, Amy Bergenfeld oversees a collection of handbooks, exam guides and assorted prep paperbacks.
The few dozen mostly green-and-yellow spiral books arrayed on a few shelves toward the back of the Carmine St. location comprise the latest incarnation of the Civil Service Bookshop.
Toys, Then Books
Founded by her father, Leonard Bergenfeld, in the 1950s, the niche shop has helped thousands secure coveted city and state jobs, with police and transportation departments, in the Post Office, on board the MTA, in the construction trade, and in dozens of other occupations.
It started as a toy store. Following his service on a troop ship in World War II, Leonard Bergenfeld and a partner opened the store at 299 Broadway, on the corner of Duane St. That happened to be the same building as the city’s civil-service department.
Seeing hundreds line up to apply for jobs, mostly with the Sanitation Department, and then looking to have their applications certified, they branched out as notaries.
The pair then had an idea to publish an exam guide. They did so, for sanitation workers, and sold it for $2.
Roslyn Bergenfeld, Amy’s mother, stepped in during the 1970s. When Leonard died in 1984, Roslyn presided over the shop, including a move first to Worth St., and then to Lispenard St..
Amy has run the Carmine St. shop on her own since its move to that location two and half years ago.
“They were pretty dedicated to selling these books,” Ms. Bergenfeld said on a recent afternoon.
Despite occasional problems with distributors—a principal one just moved to Chicago, which delayed the arrival of a recent shipment—Ms. Bergenfeld, whether in person, by phone or, more recently, online, keeps up the custom.
‘It Baffled Me’
She was barely 5 when she started helping around the store, chiefly by talking up customers, occasionally by bagging books for them. Still, she said, “It all baffled me as a child.”
Amy, who majored in theater at SUNY New Paltz, wouldn’t return to the shop, at least full time, for a few years after graduation. She worked retail stints first at Bloomingdale’s then at Alexander’s department stores. Her next gig, at Arco Publishing, where she did design production, landed her closer to her parents’ vocation.
She next worked at Starlog Magazine, a monthly dedicated to aficionados of science fiction, designing pages. When, as she put it, design software took over and “there was no more paper, scissors and glue,” she moved on.
“I came in 1980 to help them,” she said. “It’s been an interesting transition.”
Ms. Bergenfeld estimates there are roughly 500 book titles she could have on hand. While she doesn’t stock all of those, she keeps tabs on upcoming exams by dropping in to the Department of Citywide Administrative Services. She also attends occasional job fairs, where she quizzes recruiters.
“I want to know what they’re hiring for,” she said. She orders accordingly.
Among her best-sellers are guides on Bus Driver and Court Officer tests. Sanitation also does well.
She ensures quality control, too. She’s taken seven civil-service tests herself, sometimes finding errors on the tests. “People kept telling me the book wasn’t like the test; it was EXACTLY like the test,” she said. “I heard the people who write the tests use these books.”
The Greenwich Village location isn’t near as ideal as the ones closer to city agencies downtown. “Up here, they have to find me,” Ms. Bergenfeld said. “Downtown is more working class. People around here don’t even know what civil service is.”
‘Not the Same’
The Forest Hills resident works the shop weekdays, as well as the occasional Saturday.
Although the books business “is not the same,” what with online and large brick-and-mortar retailers such as Barnes & Noble having encroached on what was a singular enterprise, the Civil Service Bookshop still has a dedicated clientele. “People would rather come in and look at it in person,” she said.
Particularly when the city and state, and even the Federal government, advertise sought-after jobs.
Such as, as it happens, a Sanitation Department gig, for which she believes an exam will be scheduled in June.
“These tests come up suddenly,” she said. “That’s the one that made my father money.“
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