A fixture in Chelsea for nearly four decades, Books of Wonder plans to relocate when its 15-year lease at 18 West 18th Street runs out at the end of the year. To help finance a move to a new location, owner Peter Glassman launched a GoFundMe effort last month.
“I think it’s important that New York City have a children’s bookstore,” Glassman said. “It would be a crime not to have one.”
Glassman had been planning to move when his current lease expires and found a new spot in the Flatiron district, near Eataly and the Rizzoli Bookstore. But to renovate and move will require an investment of $250,000 to $350,000. (He also operates a store on the Upper West Side, at 217 West 84th St., which opened in 2017.)
Many might wonder why a store that has been so successful would need to find a new home. For many years, Glassman said, the financial stability of the Chelsea store was dependent on the contribution of its sub-tenant, a bakery/cafe/caterer. That business was responsible for 40 percent of the rent and other expenses. But they went out of business during the great recession, owing more than $300,000.
Glassman found another sub-tenant, Birdbath Bakery, a division of City Bakery, that he said paid faithfully the first few years. But it ran into financial difficulty, he said, and left him having to pay most of the rent. “Their financial troubles made it impossible for them to keep up with their share of the rent,” Glassman said.
A Lifetime of Books
Glassman, 59, grew up in Caldwell, N.J., and fell in love with books at a young age. Though his parents, Robert and Sandy, didn’t share his passion, they were business people like him. His dad owned a children’s clothing manufacturer and his mom worked with him.
“By the time I was 13, everyone knew I was the kid who loved books,” he recalled.
At the age of 14, he applied to the three bookstores in his town and none hired him. But a year later, Book World gave him a job. It was there that he learned the business, and within six months he was the buyer for sci-fi and fantasy books.
After attending Brown University and dabbling in acting, Glassman realized he was happiest around books. So, at 20, he took a leap of faith and opened his first store.
Books of Wonder launched in September 1980 at 444 Hudson Street. The original idea was for the store to be devoted primarily to antique children's books, until Glassman discovered that he didn’t have enough antique books to fill his shelves. He quickly added a section of new children’s books. “As only a 20-year-old could, I thought I knew it all,” he said.
A Business and a Passion
In 1986, Books of Wonder expanded with the opening of a second store at 132 Seventh Ave., on the corner of 18th St. As business boomed at the Seventh Avenue location, Glassman expanded that space and, in 1993, closed the Hudson Street store. In 1996 they moved to 16 West 18th St, and eight years later they moved to 18 West 18th. “It just grew and grew over the years,” he explained.
Families flocked to the store, and famous authors, including J.K. Rowling, Madeleine L’Engle, Lloyd Alexander and Maurice Sendak, all visited.
“We always recognized that the experience of visiting a bookstore was more than just the books on the shelf,” Glassman said. “It was the people in the store. I have been blessed for 40 years to have the most amazing people work for me.”
However, ultimately he decided he didn’t want to be in a position of relying on someone else to pay rent. “I never really intended to renew the lease here,” he said. “I didn’t want to go through this again with a sub-tenant.”
As he looks to the future, Glassman feels a new store will be a fresh start. “We have a very loyal following” he said. “God bless our customers. They’re wonderful. I’ve been here 15 years and it [moving] will feel weird at first, but every new space feels weird.”