Across the Street From the Future With Tom Nissley

Escaping Amazon, thanks to Jeopardy!

Tom Nissley is exactly where he said he’d be when I arrive at Herkimer Coffee. He describes the table, straight back from the counter of the humming Phinney Ridge cafe, as “his”—one he claims early. “Was it Wild Bill Hickok who liked to be at the back so no one can shoot him?” Nissley asks with a grin. Google later confirms he’s right. Of course he is.

If you know Nissley, it’s probably because of Jeopardy!. Herkimer is his local coffee house, eight blocks from his Phinney Ridge home. Across the street is his neighborhood bookstore, Santoro’s, the reason for our meeting. Nissley, who spent a decade as a book editor at Amazon before leaving to parlay game-show success into a writing career, recently bought it.

He’s pounding out an e-mail on his moose-adorned Mac when I arrive, wearing the same brown flop of hair and Joker-like smile he did when he took home $235,000 during a 2010 Jeopardy! winning streak and $100,000 more as a runner-up on the “Tournament of Champions.” His buttoned-up dress shirt is more wrinkled than the ones he wore facing Alex Trebek, but that’s to be forgiven. It fits the coffee-house motif.

“Everyone should do it. I highly recommend it,” Nissley says of his streak. Later he tells me that Jeopardy! indirectly led him to this point. “It was kind of the push that broke the golden handcuffs of Amazon,” he says. “It gave me confidence to do more imaginative things with my life, I think.”

In the land of Amazon and in the wake of the eBook, perhaps it doesn’t get much more imaginative than jumping into the independent-bookseller business, as Nissley rather hastily and unexpectedly decided to do last January. Though last fall he published A Reader’s Book of Days: True Tales From the Lives and Works of Writers for Every Day of the Year, the allure of recommending books for people, as he’d been able to do at Amazon, was still strong. When he heard Santoro’s was for sale, at what he describes as “a very affordable price,” Nissley says it “felt like the universe was talking” to him.

“I love the idea of me and my whole family being at the heart of the neighborhood,” he says of Santoro’s, which he plans to rename Phinney Books and run with his wife and children. “It really is a neighborhood store.”

Some things scare him, of course, but sitting in Herkimer, his back against the wall like Wild Bill, Nissley doesn’t sound spooked—or delusional. Making “a small living” through the store, he says, “would be cause for celebration.”

“There are people—myself included—who really prefer a physical book,” Nissley promises, saying “there are, and will be, enough of those people” to make the venture work.

“A lot of people think owning a book store would be a nice gentleman’s profession, a hobby kind of job . . . I have no illusions that it’s not going to be all-consuming.”

After nine years, the store’s last day under current owner Carol Santoro will be May 3. Nissley says he plans to have Phinney Books up and running by June.

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