By Patrick Doyle and Jamie Straub
Canalside Chronicles Staff
At his desk in the back room of Lift Bridge Book Shop, Cody Steffen plays a video game. On Steffen’s computer screen is a job search website opened to the “Jobs in Monroe County” page. At first glance, he looks like a part-time retail employee who is slacking off on the clock, but Steffen is the co-owner of Lift Bridge.
“Next Friday is my last day,” Steffen says.
Earlier that day, Feb 7, 2018, Steffen announced on the store’s Facebook page that he sold his half of the store to his business partner, John Bonczyk.
“The bookstore is not in the greatest shape financially and can no longer support two families,” Steffen said.
It’s not quite the storybook ending Steffen was hoping for when he bought Lift Bridge from its original owners in 2015. For Steffen, the bookstore wasn’t just a place of steady employment for the past nine years, it’s a landmark which shaped his life.
“The bookstore is not in the greatest shape financially and can no longer support two families.”
Steffen first walked into Lift Bridge when he was nine years old. He grew up in Brockport and frequently walked past the Main Street shop until he finally wandered in.
“I was looking for comic books,” Steffen said.
He didn’t have a clear memory of buying anything, but he remembers being disappointed that he couldn’t find he favorite superheroes on the shelves of the store’s expansive children’s section.
Nine years later, he wandered into Lift Bridge again, but this time as an intellectually curious college student.
“I was looking at philosophy books,” Steffen said, “and [I] sat there, reading them on the floor.”
Steffen had just read Jack Kerouac’s 1957 novel, On the Road, a guidebook for spontaneity and adventure for young Americans, and wanted to learn more about the Buddhist philosophy which heavily influenced Kerouac’s writing.
At the time, Steffen lived across the street from Lift Bridge and visited the shop frequently. Eventually, he applied for a desperately needed job.
“I started visiting and they started hiring, so it worked out,” Steffen said, “I got a job because I liked reading.”
Steffen started working at Lift Bridge in August of 2009 while attending classes at Genesee Community College. He quickly learned the perks of working for a small business. The bookstore had a stereo with a five-CD changer in the basement and the owners let Steffen put on his favorite albums. Steffen said he often read while on the clock.
Steffen also met his future wife, a fellow employee named Sara, at the store. They had a daughter and Steffen learned how to order books for the store so he could read new children’s books to her.
“It [was] fun to keep up on the kids’ books that were coming out,” Steffen said.
“I remember coming over the bridge when we came home for Christmas break and tears came out of my eyes,”
In 2013, Sara took a job at a children’s library in southern Maryland and the whole family moved out of Brockport. Shortly before leaving, Lift Bridge’s original owners, Archie and Pat Kutz, offered to sell the store to Steffen. Although he didn’t initially take the offer, it weighed on his mind.
The move didn’t last long. Steffen took a job at another bookstore, but he said it wasn’t the same. The Steffens were homesick. They missed the Brockport community in which they had grown up.
“I remember coming over the bridge when we came home for Christmas break and tears came out of my eyes,” Steffen said.
During that break, on January 2014, Steffen reached out to the Kutzes and made a serious offer to buy Lift Bridge with Bonczyk, another full-time employee at the store. The Kutzes accepted and agreed to pass over ownership after Bonczyk and Steffen received a year of training. Like Sal Paradise, the protagonist of “On the Road,” Steffen left home in search of adventure only to find it back where it started.
While Steffen spent the next two months getting ready for the move, Bonczyk took over the store’s day-to-day operations.
“It was daunting,” Bonczyk said, “but I knew Cody was coming…and I’d have someone else here to help me.”
Steffen did more than help. The new co-owners found that their skillsets worked perfectly together. Bonczyk was an accounting major in college and handled the store’s finances. Steffen worked to turn Lift Bridge into a gathering place for the village.
Over the next four years, Steffen and Bonczyk expanded their community outreach. They added children’s programming, brought in authors for readings, and started attending local school book fairs. Steffen said they wanted the store to become a community space.
Even with its lofty business goals, Lift Bridge eventually fell on hard financial times. Textbook sales to students who went to the neighboring College at Brockport made up a significant percentage of the store’s income. Year after year, those sales dwindled as the store was forced to match prices with Amazon and the college’s own Barnes and Noble bookstore.
“It’s sad because we do complement each other really well. The money just isn’t there to keep it going the way it is.”
Steffen said the store eventually couldn’t support two owners. He agreed to sell his half of the store to Bocyzk and his wife, Sarah, who also works at Lift Bridge.
“It’s sad because we do complement each other really well. The money just isn’t there to keep it going the way it is,” Boncyzk said.
The decision to leave Lift Bridge was a hard one for Steffen. When he announced the move on the store’s Facebook page, he added, “Our daughter used to come to work with us when she was an infant, strapped to her mama’s chest while she received books and worked the cash register.”
Through owning the Lift Bridge Book Shop, Steffen developed his identity. It’s where he read books he couldn’t afford in college, where he met his wife, and where his children spent time after school.
When he spoke about his departure, however, Steffen remained light hearted. He gestured to the book he’s currently reading, Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work. The book’s authors, Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, speculate on how to solve the coming mass unemployment caused by automation and internet businesses.
Steffen laughed and said, “I’m going to be in a world without work soon.”
Steffen thinks Lift Bridge will endure for a long time after his departure thanks to the store’s several longtime customers. The community Steffen looked to build when he took over the shop may be what sustains it for years to come. The store may have already sold books to a beatnik-worshipping college student who will eventually become its next owner.
For Steffen, the future is uncertain. Although he doesn’t have another job lined up, he says he’s not worried. He said he often jumps into his decisions without planning ahead, like a Kerouac protagonist.
As Kerouac’s Sal Paradise said in “On the Road,” “I was surprised, as always, by how easy the act of leaving was, and how good it felt. The world was suddenly rich with possibility.”