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March 17, 2022

Frenchtown Bookshop stands up to local government

Gianna Roberts
The exterior of the Frenchtown Bookshop, located at 28 Bridge St, Frenchtown, NJ.

The Frenchtown Bookshop has successfully fought the local Zoning Committee after a neighbor’s noise complaint led to a cease and desist letter being sent to the business.

The local establishment is a “family-owned independent bookstore” based in Frenchtown, New Jersey. Since its opening two years ago, it has been hailed by many as one of the best stores in the downtown area.

“I love the Frenchtown Bookshop,” said junior Sophie Brobrowski. “I get great books from there and the staff is super friendly.”

Last month, the store received a cease and desist letter from the Lambertville and Frenchtown Borough Zoning Office. A cease and desist is a formal document which informs a party that legal action will be taken if it continues a specific action. In this instance, the bookshop was told to stop hosting outdoor events, concerts, and gatherings that did not pertain directly to the selling of books.

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Scott Sheldon and Barbara de Wilde, the co-owners of the bookshop, were disheartened by the letter, as the events are a large source of income for their store.

“Events are a critical part of every bookstore’s business,” said Sheldon. “Virtually every bookstore relies on its event programming to increase brand and store awareness, bring in new customers, spur additional sales from people who are in the store, and have them attend a book group or a concert, which makes them look at and inspires them to buy books.”

The bookshop holds monthly concerts as well as poetry readings, book clubs, cooking clubs and more on its property. The concerts take place on the back patio space during the warmer months, typically lasting from 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., according to their appeal letter, and they don’t go above 70 decibels, or the average noise level of a TV.

Singer Maia Sharp performs a concert on the bookshop’s back patio. (Photo used with permission via Frenchtown Bookshop)

The letter also added that the store was built during the height of the pandemic. The patio was built in an effort to bring together the community in spite of COVID-19. The appeal letter stated that for this reason the patio is still important to their business, as some COVID protocols are still in place.

Sheldon, an attorney for 40 years, decided to fight the decision. The appeal was pending, with the final documentation set to be completed by January, after which the Frenchtown Planning Board could decide whether or not to hold a public hearing. The business owner hoped this letter would have a positive outcome.

“Ideally, instead of pursuing this appeal, the Borough will envision a comprehensive and uniform approach to dealing with this,” said Sheldon. “Since, after all, there are many places in town that run outdoor concerts all summer long.”

Sheldon’s prediction was correct. On Nov. 17, the bookshop added a post to their Facebook page updating the community.

“…the Borough Mayor and Council have been working on a thoughtful and flexible approach to outdoor events in the Frenchtown business district, to accommodate all building owners, business owners, and residents. And, the Zoning Office has been very helpful in explaining the reasoning of its Cease and Desist Letter.”

The update went on to say that the borough only had an issue with outdoor entertainment: concerts, film showings and author readings. From now on, outdoor activities must stay below a noise level of 60 decibels.

For events that go above this, they must end by 6 p.m. on weekends and 8 p.m. on weekdays and have an “overall cap on the number.” It is unclear if this cap refers to the number of attendees or events held within the town. A permit may be purchased by a business to override these rules.

This decision came soon after Frenchtown mayor, Brad Myhre, attended a meeting with the local business association. The conference, held on Nov. 16, was to discuss ordinances that could be established to solve the issue of outdoor events, according to Sheldon.

“The bookstore operates in an area that abuts residences… frequent concerts featuring amplified music in a residential area does not seem reasonable.”

— Ray Albergotti

“The Delphi” reached out to Myhre for comment, but did not receive a response at the time of publication.

Before the Borough’s decision was official, a friend of the owner’s, John Clement, created a petition to bring awareness to the community. Despite the over 4,000 signatures, not all residents agreed with the bookshop’s appeal.

“All businesses must follow local ordinances, and if those ordinances are out of step with community needs, there are legal processes through which variances can be obtained and/or ordinances modified,” said commenter Ray Albergotti. “The bookstore operates in an area that abuts residences…. frequent concerts featuring amplified music in a residential area does not seem reasonable…. [I] ask that the bookstore adopt a less ‘all or nothing’ approach to this issue.”

Despite some residents’ conflicting feelings, the bookshop seems content with the Borough’s decision. In their Facebook post, the bookshop referred to it as “a happy update,” and gave their thanks to those involved.

This story was originally published on The Delphi on November 28, 2023.