Book Culture on the brink

Book Culture owner Chris Doeblin. Photo: Emily Higginbotham
As the end looms for the popular bookstores, their owner says government should offer small businesses the same kind of support it provides to corporate giants like Amazon
By Emily Higginbotham

Book Culture owner Chris Doeblin thought his business had adapted to a market place dominated by Amazon. In fact, Doeblin has been dealing with the corporate giant since his store’s inception: both companies began at about the same time, Amazon in 1994, Book Culture in 1995, and both initially focused on academic textbooks.

For a while, with the support of Columbia University students and faculty, Book Culture was a success. Around 2000, though, Amazon started having a serious and damaging effect on Doeblin’s business. Revenue declined — and has continued on that trajectory ever since. But Book Culture adapted, and even expanded. It offered more new releases, literature, poetry and travel books as well as non-book goods. It created cozy spaces for children and parents to gather and read, and hosted events and readings.

“We’ve had some time to adapt to (Amazon) and I think to a certain extent we’ve caught that boulder,” Doeblin said. “It’s very unpleasant to have it around us, the boulder being Amazon, squashing us. To some extent, we almost say that we’ve weathered that.”

In fact, though, they haven’t. Book Culture’s four locations (three on the West Side and one in Long Island City) are on the brink of closing.

Minimum Wage Impact

Amazon is not totally to blame, Doeblin said. Rather, he points to the increase in the city’s minimum wage (up from $10.50 to $15 in three years) and the rapid pace with which those increases have taken effect. Still, Doeblin is invoking Amazon in his plea for the government to step in with a financial solution for his business, and small businesses throughout the city.

“This combination of talent and industry, so common in smaller businesses, is too often overlooked and not given the support and nurture that it deserves,” Doeblin wrote last week in an open letter to the community, which he penned with hopes of drawing attention to Book Culture’s dire situation. “The capital pools that allow projects like Amazon’s near entree into New York or building projects like Hudson Yards aren’t available for small businesses like ours. But they ought to be.”

Doeblin argues that the kind of government incentives offered to Amazon to open its second headquarters in Long Island City (a venture that ultimately collapsed) — including over $1 billion in refundable tax credits in exchange for job creation along with millions in state grants — should be offered to small businesses for the tax revenue they create and their contributions to the city’s economy.

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer agrees that small businesses deserve more government support. And she has personal reasons for her position as well. “My husband and I are regulars at our local Book Culture, and to see it close would be devastating for the communities they serve,” Brewer said in a statement.

“Book Culture’s stores generate over $650,000 in sales tax revenue each year for the city and state,” Doeblin wrote. “We employ over 75 people at peak season and had a payroll over $1.7M last year. All of that payroll along with the $700,000 a year that we pay in rent goes right back into the New York economy.”

It May Be Too Late

Since sending his letter, Doeblin has heard from several elected officials. He’s set up meetings with Senate Deputy Leader Michael Gianaris, who represents parts of Queens, including Long Island City, Council Speaker Corey Johnson and the Small Business Association out of the mayor’s office.

But a legislative or municipal answer isn’t likely to help Book Culture, Doeblin said. He thinks it’s too late for his business. The only way to save the West Side institutions is through the private sector, and he hopes that help will come soon. The stores won’t last through the end of the year without a significant cash infusion, he said.

There is hope for other small businesses, which is why Doeblin is speaking out now. He thinks he, as well as the government, have a responsibility to do what is necessary to keep these storefronts afloat.

“Our government has to own up and find some way of legislating and providing the resources and creating an environment that is more holistically supportive of the kind of city we want to be,” Doeblin said. “That includes lots of small businesses, authentic stores doing different things, and a large group of people who have a real vested interest in New York. That means a lot of people owning stuff, not just a group of people working for a handful of companies.”

If his business closes, and as other small businesses deal with the same problems without government solutions, the city will lose its vibrancy.

“The small business storefront community generates ton of value to New York,” he said. “Obviously if all of those stores close up there’s going to be a real lack of interest in living in New York City. That’s not what anybody wants.”