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Dizzyingly High Rents Drive Bookstores Out of Manhattan

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Before I address how few independent bookshops are left in Chicago's suburbs, the subject of my next series, I am circling back to the precipitous decline in the number of bookstores, independent or otherwise, on the isle of Manhattan. Back in March, Julie Bosman reported in The New York Times that when Sarah McNally, owner of McNally Jackson Books, which is located at 52 Prince Street (between Lafayette and Mulberry), wanted to open a second bookshop, she looked at the Upper West Side, which had been home to writers from Edgar Allen Poe (1809-1849) to Nora Ephron (1941-2012) had called home, but was “stopped by the skyscraper-high rents.”

“They were unsustainable,” Ms. McNally commented. “Small spaces for $40,000 or more each month. It was so disheartening.”

What Ms. McNally ultimately decided to do was to open a second bookshop in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood this fall.
Ms. Bosman observed, “Rising rents in Manhattan have forced out many retailers, from pizza joints to flower shops. But the rapidly escalating cost of doing business there is also driving out bookstores, threatening the city’s sense of self as the center of the literary universe, the home of the publishing industry and a place that lures and nurtures authors and avid readers.”

Her observation came as The Rizzoli Bookstore on 57th Street prepared “to leave its grand space on 57th Street because the owners decided that the building would be demolished.” As I chronicled in April, the Rizzoli Bookstore, which had once been the flagship of a national chain, closed on Friday, April 11, 2014 an event Mathew Katz described in detail. Charles V. Bagli wrote in The New York Times on January 14, 2014, “the owners of the building at 31 West 57th Street” announced a “plan to demolish the six-story, 109-year-old building, as well as two small, adjoining buildings.”

This was the second time this had happened to Rizzoli. Bagli noted, “Twenty-nine years ago, Rizzoli Bookstore, whose Old World charm, hand-wrought chandeliers and big storefront windows make it a favorite of noted authors, book lovers and tourists, fled Fifth Avenue two steps ahead of the wrecking ball.”

Jon Michaud, a former Rizzoli employee, posted a tribute to the Rizzoli Bookstore on Friday, January 17, 2014 on The New Yorker’s Page-Turner blog. Rizzoli Bookstore posted an excerpt with the note, “We would also like to thank all of our loyal customers who have voiced their profound sadness and outrage over the shameful news that our beloved store is slated to be demolished to build yet another luxury high rise. The building may not escape the wrecking ball, but the memories of the bookstore will continue to live on.”

Rizzoli also posted a tribute to its original 5th Avenue location by Thomas H. Collins on March 23, 2014. It was illustrated with pictures from a 1964 photo-shoot depicting a model in a cream-colored jacket and skirt browsing bookshelves.

I wish I could report that Rizzoli had located a new space in which to re-open, but while Rizzoli Bookstore continues to operate online, the official history of the Rizzoli Store Web page does not even reflect the physical shop’s closure. There was, however, a nice tribute to the staff posted on Tuesday, May 6, 2014 under the heading “The People of Rizzoli.”

Any great team is only as good as the sum of all its members’ strengths, and Rizzoli Bookstore was fortunate to have some of the best booksellers in the city. It was only through their passion; diversity; dedication; knowledge and well-cultivated tastes that Rizzoli maintained its reputation as one of the most culturally relevant and vibrant destinations in New York City.

Like many of you we are heartbroken to lose our historic 57th Street location. For many of us this bookstore was a second home and a place of great inspiration. We will miss collaborating together in “the most beautiful bookstore in the world.”

We raise a glass to the staff of Rizzoli 57th Street. We salute and bid them adieu. Buona fortuna, to all who have worked in this great palace of books wherever they may go...

Ms. Bosman also related that back in December, the Bankstreet Bookstore, located at 612 West 112th Street (at 112th street and Broadway) had announced it would not renew its lease when it expires in February of 2015 because it had lost money for the last ten years. Like Rizzoli Bookstore, it is looking for a new home.

She recounts how in the 1990s chain superstores ran independent stores out of business, as depicted in You’ve Got Mail (1998), which led Manhattan literati to fear the chain bookstores would dominate the isle. Instead, Borders Group went bankrupt in 2011 and when its stores closed across the U.S. five Borders stores closed in Manhattan alone.

In addition, five Barnes & Noble stores in Manhattan have closed since 2007. One of these was the original Barnes & Noble flagship store on 5th Avenue at 18th Street. Leonard Riggio, the Chairman of Banes & Noble, became a bookseller while he attended New York University in the early 1960s as a clerk in the university bookstore.

He established the Student Book Exchange (S.B.X.) in Manhattan's Greenwich Village in 1965, and by the 1970s had a total of seven college bookstores, which he used as a springboard for the acquisition of the Barnes & Noble trade name and bookstore in Manhattan, which had fallen into decline. It became his flagship store and he modeled the suburban superstores on it.

In 2009, Barnes & Noble opened a second flagship store at 86th Street and Lexington Avenue. This multistory, 55,000-square-foot bookshop had room to accommodate 400,000 books, magazines, DVDs, and CDs, as well as a Starbuck’s coffee shop.

Last year, the old flagship store at 105 5th Avenue became the flagship store of Barnes & Noble College Bookstores. In 2012, Barnes & Noble announced it had consolidated NOOK e-reader and tablets, the NOOK digital bookstore and its chain of over 600 college bookstores into a subsidiary called NOOK Media, LLC, in which Microsoft invested.

In December of 2013, Barnes & Noble announced the old Banes & Noble flagship would become the flagship of its chain of 674 college bookstores. NOOK Media, LLC also effectively became a joint venture with Barnes & Noble, Inc. owning approximately 78.2%, Microsoft owning approximately 16.8%, and Pearson North America owing 5%. More recently, Barnes & Noble, Inc. has stated it may divide into two companies, spinning off NOOK Media.

Returning to Ms. Bosman’s article, she pointed out, “Independents like Coliseum Books, Shakespeare and Company on the Upper west side, Endicott Booksellers and Murder Ink have all closed their doors.” She found that between 2000 and 2012, the number of bookstores in Manhattan fell nearly 30%, from 150 bookshops to 106. There has been a corresponding decrease in the annual employment at bookshops of 46%, the New York State Department of Labor found.

The American Booksellers Association had just thirty-nine member bookstores at the time Ms. Bosman wrote her article, and that included museum gift shops “and Hudson News locations in Penn Station, where magazines and bottled water are displayed far more prominently than books.” On a more optimistic note, Ms. Bosman found, “Some independent bookstores have found it easier to survive in Brooklyn, the borough already teeming with writers like Jennifer Egan and Martin Amis.”

She pointed to the success of Greenlight Bookstore, which opened in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene neighborhood in 2009. Also, Christine Onorati, co-owner of Word Bookstore in Brooklyn’s Greenpoint neighborhood, opened a second shop in Jersey City, New Jersey in December of 2013. The company is now called Word Bookstores.

Perhaps this is only wishful thinking, but Ms. Bosman related that there are rumors that one or more of the great publishing houses that are headquartered in New York (or have their American headquarters in New York) will open a store.

With the closing of several Barnes & Noble and Borders stores, it is difficult to shop for new books in Midtown, the same neighborhood that houses Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster and much of Penguin Random House…

There are still six Barnes & Nobles remaining in Manhattan, but with the company closing roughly 20 stores each year nationwide, some people in the industry have urged publishers to step in. Whispers that publishers will re-enter the brick-and-mortar business — harking back to the days when the storied names Doubleday and Scribner graced bookstores on Fifth Avenue — have intensified in recent months. Some publishing insiders have speculated that Penguin Random House, by far the largest trade publisher in the world, will expand into retail to fill the void left by Barnes & Noble, which has struggled to find its footing, and compete with Amazon.

Hopefully at least one publisher, Rizzoli, will be able to (re)open a store. If another, larger publisher can open a store, even if it is only a solitary showplace in Manhattan or a small chain with locations in other major cities, so much the better. Ms. Bosman found one new bookshop in Manhattan, Posman Books, an independent chain with just three shops, all of which are on the isle of Manhattan, opened a new shop on the South Concourse of 30 Rockefeller Center in 2011.

***

Happy Birthday, Kennedy Faith! Uncle Sean loves you.

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