Manhattan was once a wonderland for lovers of literature. What happened?
They began disappearing slowly, one by one, block by block. Some warned of the coming end by posting handwritten apologies and lengthy explanations on their windows, and some just closed their doors, quietly, saying nothing at all. But in the end it didn’t matter—apologies or explanations or silence—because the stark reality remained: The days of small, dusty, toy- and gadget-free independent bookstores were dwindling.
I was twelve when I first experienced one of these places. My mother, a recent convert to the early ’80s New Age spirituality craze, would drive from Astoria, Queens, to a Lower East Side shop filled with healing crystals and prisms, tarot cards, pendulums, gem stones and anything else that could alter energy or enable someone to commune with the dead. Wanting to shop without my pre-teen banter telling her that the stuff was “just dumb rocks,” she would send me next door to the nameless hole-in-the wall bookshop, which was actually the living room of a ground-floor apartment occupied by a mother and daughter. Evelyn, a doe-eyed wisp of a young woman with bangle-clad arms and a slight stutter, ran the “shop,” while her mother, an equally slender woman with coal-black hair and eyes to match, read tarot cards in the back room.
The shop, where I came to spend Saturday afternoons while my mother learned to channel, overflowed with used paperbacks and smelled of incense mixed with stale cigarettes and aging paper. Covering much of the walls were pieces of paper with handwritten quotes or questions; the largest one, above the door, asked, “What is life without books?” I could have spent my time reading the quotes, but instead I sat cross-legged on a sagging velvet couch listening to Evelyn make her way through passages from the books she loved—Gatsby and Catcher in the Rye were favorites. When she wasn’t reading from a book, she was reading from her own stories, strange tales that always seemed to feature cats. Two months later, on a crisp December day, my mother announced that she was done with New Age spirituality. “It’s expensive and a lot of bullshit,” she said.
“But what about Evelyn and the bookstore?” I protested, having grown fond of the cramped shop and its young keeper, whose voice was like silk and whose passion for words was infectious.
“This city is full of them. Trust me,” she said, and sent me in to say goodbye.
She was right.
Six years later, fresh out of high school and intoxicated with the idea of becoming a part of New York’s fabled literati, I began frequenting the bookstores. Some were tucked into tiny storefronts between vacant lots, and some sprawled out in grand buildings on Fifth Avenue, but all, despite their architectural differences, were sanctuaries from the frenetic pace of the city—spaces of stillness, escapes. In those dusty second-hand shops, where the messiness of life was ordered only by subject or genre or loosely by letter, I could, in an instant, move from the nodding junkies and dime-store street preachers to the sheltering sky of the North African desert. And for years I did, disappearing into other worlds under the roof of Frances Steloff’s famed Gotham Book Mart.
There, in the cozy haven Steloff created, where the ideas of great minds—Eliot, Stein, Pound, Nin, Dreiser, Williams and Updike (to name a few)—hung in the air and the piles of books scattered about formed miniature skylines, I would curl up in a nook and read or think or write. I came to know the staff and the regular customers who recommended I read this or that—Nabokov entered my life when a middle-aged clerk with thick glasses and knotted fingers handed me a tattered copy of Lolita. My poetry-aisle friend, a cross-dressing actor on a quest to find a first edition of Wallace Stevens’s Harmonium, introduced me to Virginia Woolf one gray March afternoon when she handed me To the Lighthouse. And then there was Camus and Nietzsche, imposed on me by a dour, steel blue-eyed philosophy student who claimed that existentialism was “indefinable and absurd in itself.”
For me, coming of age in the grim constellation of 1980s city life, where constant crime, racial tensions, filthy streets and subways, and the growing terror of AIDS were regularly splashed across the front pages, these cocoons, with their book-loving staff members and lively clientele, were nothing short of magical. At one time, there was an abundance of them. But no more.
So what happened?
* * *
From the late nineteenth century to the mid-1960s, the small stretch from Union Square to Astor Street on Fourth Avenue was known as Book Row. Gracing both sides of the street were more than forty-five secondhand bookstores with names like poems—the Raven, the Corner, the Abbey, the Anchor, Arcadia, Atlantis. On any given day, there would be throngs of people from all walks of life perusing the bins and stalls outside the shops. “A regular cash customer is the lady of the evening who collects the works of Marcel Proust. There is the Bowery bum who panhandles to buy books containing the word ‘hell,’ books which he burns ‘to destroy the devil,’” Don Samson observed in his 1944 Saturday Evening Post article “Book Row.” Add to the eclectic patrons the rare book collectors, book hunters and traders, and it was a regular literary carnival.
Today, walking those six blocks certainly doesn’t provoke the same sense of literary excitement. Sadly, by the late 1960s, almost all the bookshops on Fourth Avenue were gone, victims of skyrocketing rents, mismanagement, and gentrification. A few of them relocated, bouncing around Manhattan in search of affordable space, but eventually they either closed or moved to online-only sales. Pageant Books and Prints, originally a used and rare book store, stopped in-store books sales in 1999 to focus solely on unique prints and maps. Weiser Antiquarian Books, an internationally renowned store specializing in occult and magic, not only moved a number of times, but also went through several owners before becoming an Internet-only shop in 2006. The only real survivor from the original Book Row is the Strand, whose stenciled signs, towering shelves, and dizzying array of seemingly disorganized books give one the sense that it belongs to a grittier time.
But enter the store and it becomes evident from the candy-lined checkout counters and the abundance of merchandise around the store—tote bags, children’s toys, T-shirts, journals, Shakespearian finger puppets, kitschy oven mitts, stationary and other appealing literary-related objects—that this isn’t the no-nonsense, no-frills bookstore of the pre-gourmet-cupcake East Village I knew.
This new incarnation is jarring, but not surprising, given the rate at which indie stores have been closing in the last ten years. The Open Education Database reports that between 2002 and 2011, the number of independent bookstores nationwide dropped from 2,400 to 1,900. In the same year, Amazon distributed 22.6% of all books sold in the United States.
These statistics reinforce one notion: If an indie bookstore is going to remain open in today’s digital age, in a city like New York, with soaring rents and Barnes & Nobles strategically positioned across Manhattan’s grid, then the owners need to be discerning, flexible and innovative.
Enter eighty-four-year-old Fred Bass.
A soft-spoken gentlemen with a neat, close-cropped beard, Bass is a savvy, book-loving businessman who has been running Strand for the last fifty-seven years. Founded by his Lithuanian-born immigrant father, Benjamin, in 1927, the younger Bass grew up surrounded by books, giving him an innate, almost organic understanding of the business and the culture surrounding it.
When Bass took over the business in 1956, a lease termination forced him to move the store from its quaint Fourth Avenue spot to its current location at 828 Broadway. The new store was 4,000 square feet, its size almost inconceivable for a used bookstore. “In the beginning, we didn’t have enough books to fill the space, and I was a little worried. But I had good people working for me, bought good books, and I put everything I had into the store,” he says, shifting his eyes toward the towering shelves around him. Diligence, patience, and an unshakeable work ethic, which he attributes to his father, paid off, and eventually he filled the store not only with books but also with a clientele that reads like the Hollywood A-list.
“Everyone came in to buy books—writers, artists, musicians, movie stars,” he says, pausing and deliberating before continuing. “Once Sophia Loren came to buy books, but she never came into the store. She didn’t want to be recognized, so she stayed outside in her car, and her assistant told me what she wanted. I got her books and brought them out to her car, and she invited me to sit next to her. She was very gracious and apologetic. And once Saul Bellow—excuse me,” he says, turning to a young staff member and handing her a pile of books that he has finished checking in. Despite having an office, Bass prefers to spend his days sitting at the bustling book-buying counter.
“Saul Bellow, he used to come in,” he says, not missing a beat, but also not quite finishing his thought.
It’s clear that Bass is more interested in recalling the store’s history and that of Book Row than its famous clientele. “Rising rents were not the reason most of the stores on Book Row closed. Yes, they were a factor. But so was the closing of Wanamaker’s department store in the ’50s. It changed the foot traffic. Suddenly, there was half the amount of people walking the streets. Mostly, though, it was the fault of the sellers, who didn’t teach anyone the business. These guys were crass, competitive, shrewd, and some were greedy,” he declares, his voice filled with conviction. “So when the original owners died, there was no one to carry on the business.”
That’s where the Bass family differed. Not only did they “carry on the business,” but they also continued to expand it, turning Strand into, by some standards, the largest indie bookstore in the country. “When it became available, we kept taking more space, adding more books. Eventually, in the ’90s, the landlord agreed to sell me the building,” Bass says matter-of-factly.
Bass now presides over 55,000 square feet, and acquiring ownership of the building has eradicated any anxiety over greedy landlords raising rents, a worry that plagues many indie owners. St. Mark’s Bookshop, for example, the avant-garde, Lower East Side store known for its top-notch Critical Theory section, has been crippled by rent increases since 2011. Despite petitions to landlords and Internet fundraisers, the owners can no longer afford the downtown rent and recently announced that they would be auctioning off several first-edition books to fund a move to a smaller store. Their story is not unique. Skyline Books, Librería Lectorum, Coliseum Books and Gotham Book Mart, some of New York’s most beloved stores, all closed because of rent-related issues.
Still, in today’s ever-changing world, owning a building can steel you against rent increases, but it can’t combat those sleek devices with names like “Kindle” or “Nook,” or that six-letter word that sends shudders up the spines of indie owners: AMAZON. While Bass recognizes the stress that e-books have put on the indie bookseller and the tremendous effect the Internet has had on the book business, for him, the effect has been more positive than negative.
“The Internet has been a great tool for building our business because it’s allowed us to reach a national and international clientele through our website. Being online also lets us sell more books and forces us to keep our prices in check, something that’s really important when Amazon is selling books for a penny plus $3.99 shipping,” he says, adding, “E-books are more problematic. We don’t sell e-books, but on our website we offer books that are cheaper than e-books. You know, there are still a lot people who read e-books who come to shop for real books, especially hardcovers and art books.”
Real books with cracked spines and yellowed pages enticed so many of us into Strand, and Bass knows that. But he also understands the mind-boggling transformation that has swept his neighborhood. Less than twenty-five years ago, when the Strand was a dusty haven of books, Solstice, Whole Foods, DSW, Prada and Dean & DeLuca existed in places far away from the barren East Village streets and their boarded buildings and empty lots. Not anymore. Now they are the East Village, and their clients want something more than an old, cramped store that sells only books: They want indie, but they also want sleek.
It’s true that Strand still attracts hardcore bibliophiles and the famous, but something about the essence of the store has changed; the proportions, the colors, the feel are out of joint. There is an endless stream of people, but I don’t see many of them leaning against the rolling ladders or burrowed in alcoves lost in books. Instead, the store is crowded in that busy, near frantic, tourist-attraction way that compels people, like the group of Italian women or the pixie-faced Scandinavian girls, to take pictures of themselves trying on tote-bags and T-shirts in a space that is supposed to be a bookstore.
That Strand has become another tourist stop for people who spend their days shopping at the glossy stores on Broadway is no secret, and Bass is just fine with that. “The store is much more customer-friendly now, and we have a much larger international clientele who enjoy shopping for book-related products, especially our tote bags. Honestly, if I had the space, I would even add a café,” he says, smirking. “If you are going to have a bookshop in today’s world, you have to be willing to change.”
* * *
A few miles uptown, on 81st and Broadway, the landscape doesn’t seem much different: another DSW, Zara, and fancy bake shop. But the repetition ends. Nestled between a Staples and a Best Cellars Wine sits the last remaining used bookstore on the Upper West Side, Westsider Books, recognizable by a large green awning proclaiming BOOKS and a few rolling bookcases and crates in front.
Since 1973, this narrow, split-level shop, with its floor-to-ceiling books, hanging French horns, stuffed raven named Sheryl and lingering smell of musty paper, has been indispensable to book lovers, students, intellectuals, and anyone looking to take a step back to a quieter time.
Lured by the air of mystery evoked by this tiny store—it always reminded me of a curiosity shop I imagined finding on a Parisian side street—I would wile away whole days exploring the twelve-foot bookcases, often discovering titles on obscure topics by unknown authors. Upstairs in the cramped loft, where the first editions are kept and where an old leather chair rests in the corner like a talisman from a bygone era, I spent hours talking with strangers, our conversations taking unlikely twists and turns, infused with a sense of urgency and importance.
Standing in front of the store now, I remember the years before the landscape of New York shifted, before its skyline became clogged with luxury buildings, its streets lined with fancy food trucks, and its hundreds of cafés either gone or replaced by chic, expensive, chain coffee houses.
So does Sam, a surly, saggy-faced West Side native and old-time customer whom I found poking around the book crates on the street. “I remember when this place was Gryphon Books. I was just married when it opened and on Sundays, my wife and I would get bagels from H&H and come to browse the books. We loved it. I still do; it’s the only real thing left in this neighborhood. Everything else, garbage,” he sputters, his face filling with indignation. “When the city becomes a goddam strip mall and the sexiest thing you see in Times Square are Minnie Mouse’s legs, that’s when you know we’ve gone too far. This ain’t the New York I knew.” And with that, he takes off.
Sam’s sentiment reverberates with Bryan Gonzalez, one of the owners of Westsider, who bought the store with Dorian Thornley in 2002. A laid-back guy with a goatee and clear-rimmed glasses, Gonzalez spends large parts of his day hanging out in a small nook at the front of the store, where he rings up books and engages in conversation. “It’s all different now. There’s more money here, and the people have changed, and so have their tastes. Not that long ago, the city gave you a sense of belonging to something unique, exciting, cosmopolitan. Now what you find here, I can find in a Jersey mall,” Gonzalez says, moving a stack of cookbooks that need to be shelved. He’s right, except that a Jersey mall wouldn’t have a bookstore that looks like an old attic.
Much of Westsider’s continued appeal lies in the store’s lack of pretense and the owners’ love of books and their community. Unlike Strand, Westsider has refused a facelift, remaining pretty much unchanged—dusty, overcrowded, low-lit and personable, with a staff that knows books and can instantly locate them on the store’s hard-alphabetized, double-rowed shelves.
But that doesn’t mean that Gonzalez and Thornley are living in a bubble, oblivious to the success of cleaner, swankier bookshops or to how rising rents and the Internet are challenging indie stores. “In this neighborhood, rents and the Internet have played a role in the bookstores closing—Endicott, Eeyore’s, Shakespeare, Murder Ink, Ivy’s Books & Curiosities: all gone. But it’s more than that, it’s also the large chain stores,” Gonzalez says, prompting a lanky, bearded man pulling books from the drama section to look over and exclaim, “I don’t buy from them.”
The owners of Shakespeare & Co, Endicott Booksellers and Burlington Book Shop specifically cited Barnes & Noble as their reason for shuttering. But for Gonzalez, the mega-chain, located a mere block away, doesn’t pose a threat. “We are totally different stores. They have new books and we have old,” he says, shrugging his shoulders. “A book has to be new before it becomes old.”
“Yeah, but a place also gotta have some character,” says a redheaded older woman who came in to inquire about selling a collection of books on Chinese porcelain.
“Yes, it does. And we have plenty of that,” Gonzalez says to her, and smiles. In fact, the store has so much character that the upcoming movie Fading Gigolo was shot here, with none other than Woody Allen playing Murray Schwartz, a failing bookstore owner.
* * *
Peter Birkenhead, a bookish-looking fifty-four-year-old former Broadway actor and author of the memoir Gonville, remains astounded that his childhood home, the Upper West Side, is populated by a single used bookstore. “The thing is this: The stores were all part of a moving stream of discovery. They didn’t just sell books, they carved out a lifestyle, an entire culture, a place for like-minded people to go and sit. You wanted a mystery book, you went to Murder Ink; you wanted children’s, you went to Eeyore’s; and so on. And then there was Gotham—it was like walking into an eternal book festival and becoming part of an artistic culture that didn’t come from some corporate buyer’s fantasy, but your own,” he says, his voice trailing off. “You know what I really miss? The wonder of those places.”
Wonder, mystery, discovery and chance are the essence not only of bookstores but of books themselves. The lure of a title or cover, the feel of the paper, the smell, the weight of the book—these things cannot be replicated online by Amazon or Google Books, which is on track to becoming the largest library and bookstore in the world, having scanned over thirty million titles. But are things like wonder and chance enough to keep people coming to the independent stores and buying books?
Some intrepid book-loving entrepreneurs believe so.
In the last several years, the outer boroughs, particularly Brooklyn, have witnessed the opening of numerous indie bookstores: Book Thug Nation in Williamsburg, Greenlight Bookstore in Fort Greene, and WORD in Greenpoint. And as of this past August, Astoria can boast of the only two indie bookshops in Queens: Enigma Books, an intimate store carrying new and used books and specializing in sci-fi, mystery, and fantasy, and the Astoria Bookshop, a small general-interest bookstore that carries new books and also sells e-books. Despite the naysayers, both sets of owners remain convinced that indie bookstores are not irrelevant relics of the past, and they have committed themselves to selling good books and creating vibrant community spaces, a model that worked well for the Brooklyn-based stores. Greenlight books just recently expanded, and the others have become important parts of their respective communities by hosting author events, hiring knowledgeable staff members, selling merchandise and offering workshops, leading to loyal followings and rave online and print reviews.
If the success of these stores tells us anything about ourselves, it’s this: We are sensory beings whose memories lie in smell, feel and touch, and we are prone to bouts of nostalgia. No, I don’t miss the dangers of the 1980s; the crack vials crunching beneath my feet and the barely-lit subway stations that reeked of urine and vomit. And, as a lover of indie bookstores, I’m happy that these new stores are thriving and that there are enough people like me who long for places where books are not merely objects for sale, but gateways to conversation.
And yet, there are moments when the neatness and newness and sleek, bright interiors of these shops seem a little too contrived, too staged, too manufactured, reminding me of a replication of a bookstore rather than an actual bookstore. In those moments, I’m left with a deep yearning for a city where I could sit on a rambling train and become lost in the technicolor words or images sprayed on its walls, or enter a dusty, disordered bookshop and feel like I was walking in the footsteps of giants. Trying to map out those years I spent drifting through aisles and aisles of books while the city crumbled around me returns me to that strange little place on the Lower East Side where it all began, the one where a young woman would read me passages from books under a handwritten sign above the door that asked, “What is life without books?”
Today I believe she might add, “What is life without books in bookstores?”
* * *
Maria Smilios is a writer living in Astoria, Queens. She is currently working on a series of short essays inspired by New York City playgrounds.
Jessica Bal hails from a two-stoplight town in Massachusetts and now resides in a city with too many lights to count, where she produces media for an arts education organization and looks for any excuse to write, photograph, and film stories that she’s curious about.