Neighborhoods need bookstores

02 Aug 2019 | 12:19

My community bookstore makes me smarter. And sometimes my community bookseller does too.

After reading in this newspaper that Book Culture might close its four New York City shops, I talked with the owner, Chris Doeblin. I wondered whether expanding in recent years had hurt the chance of surviving as a small business in the big city. Did going from two stores to four make it harder, or was I blaming the victim? Doeblin argued in a July 9 interview that essentially his company needed to get big enough to offset the increase in expenses. “Scale is one of the only things you can use to offset rising costs,” he said.

It makes some sense. Book Culture has another survival method, too, and it’s a dramatic one that borrows an idea from important nonprofit organizations around the nation. In a July 22 email to supporters, Doeblin reported on the initial success of a “community lending program,” wherein customers can pledge money to support the stores. Something similar happened when fund-raising kept Westsider Rare & Used Books open earlier this year. At Book Culture, the goal is to raise $750,000, and Doeblin’s email said the number’s already over $100,000. According to the Book Culture website, the total was $140,000 at press time.

Is this a viable long-term strategy? At first I wondered whether I would be willing to give money to keep a business afloat, especially without a long look at the company’s financials, something I’m unlikely to get. But then I realized: I support endeavors all the time that might not succeed. (Remember the money I gave to the Hillary Clinton campaign.) If we’re talking about bottom lines, here’s one of mine: I don’t want to live in a neighborhood without a bookstore.

Empty Storefronts

New York isn’t what it should be when it comes to bookstores. We’ve made inroads in recent years. Last week I roamed Rizzoli in the Flatiron district, appreciating the 21st-century twist on its old-timey charm. In August the great McNally Jackson will open a South Street Seaport spot. The Strand, its building landmarked against its will, is a pretty central part of my life. But with real estate costs here insane, New York City, and especially Manhattan, has not been particularly hospitable to bookstores. I’ve read that Austin, Texas is ahead of us when it comes to bookstores, and after visiting Book People there last year ... well, I believe it.

All the more reason that Manhattan residents would want to get directly involved — and financially committed. Our streetscape has a certain ghost-town appeal. In my neighborhood you can walk on Broadway at 100th Street by the old, abandoned Metro movie theater, which used to show great flicks and now shows that this city doesn’t care enough about the disintegration of our commercial districts to take action. There’s one empty storefront after another. Remember when we whined that everything was a bank or a Duane Reade? Now a bank or Duane Reade would be a sweet surprise.

One Man’s Optimism

Businesses come and go, but bookstores stay in my heart. I’m the child of independent booksellers, and I pick vacation spots based at least in part on where it’s best to browse titles. My mom described many years ago how Barnes & Noble was plotting to put people like her out of business. These days, I find myself rooting for that particular superstore, and hoping that its June sale for $638 million to a hedge fund will mean there’s a future for that chain. Certainly it’s appealing to hear the incoming mastermind, James Daunt, has had success with Waterstones, the British book retailer. His theory: turn each store into one that reflects its own neighborhood. I’m not sure how or whether that can completely work, cause big is big and small is small, but change is needed at Barnes & Noble. I can’t walk into the Upper West Side weirdly utilized space without wanting to redesign it myself. I’d put the bookstore’s focus on books.

We all have our preferences, I guess. Book Culture is near both my apartment and my heart, so I concentrate a bit on Doeblin, who says he’s making progress. Along the way he’s emerged as a key proponent in pushing the city government to understand what local businesses bring to our economy. “I’m optimistic about finding a solution,” he told me.

Which is good, cause optimism in our era can be even harder to find than a good bookshop.