December 9, 2016
An Interview with BookCourt’s Zack Zook
by Ian Dreiblatt
The news hit hard earlier this week: BookCourt, a beloved Brooklyn indie bookstore that has for thirty-five years stared down the ravages of Amazon, gentrification, and other forces of darkness, will be closing its doors at the end of this month. (Fucking 2016.)
Opened in 1981 by Mary Gannett and Henry Zook, who have run it ever since, later joined by their son Zack Zook, BookCourt has made itself an indispensable stalwart of the lit scene in Brooklyn, a breakaway republic situated just off the coast of the North American mainland. A key player in the retail renaissance of cozy Cobble Hill, BookCourt has thrived and expanded, becoming legendary for its excellent stock, ace staff, commodious event space (which, in New York City, is no small thing), and a certain je ne sais quoi that’s marked it as a store run not just savvily but passionately.
We caught up with Zack Zook—who, after nine years running BookCourt, left New York City in 2013 to run Seven Minus Seven, an NGO and non-profit art gallery in the US Virgin Islands—and he was kind enough to answer a couple of questions for us at what must be a busy moment:
ML: You sort of grew up in the store, right? What’s it like saying goodbye to a space that was surely so formative for you?
ZZ: I did grow up in the store, and in the house above the store. But more importantly, I ran the store for nine years. I dedicated my twenties to the store, to enhancing it, to working with my family. We accomplished so much. I resigned from BookCourt and moved out of New York City three years ago, so I kind of said goodbye to things then. It will be very emotional later this month to visit Brooklyn and to help my family vacate the premises. It’s a big project.
ML: How long has the idea of retirement been on the table?
ZZ: Retirement has been on the table for many years. My parents and I have a great relationship and we are very close. We have always discussed the long term candidly.
BookCourt has survived many challenges, but I think that at a certain point when, if you own real estate in one of the highest net-income neighborhoods in the entire country, you receive enough attractive offers to really start considering selling. My family got in early and invested wisely. They are grateful for having been able to contribute to the neighborhood for so long, though now that part of Brooklyn is barely recognizable.
As a bookseller, chances are you’re not making gobs upon gobs of money. Maybe it’s even difficult to afford health insurance. I think when one enters their sixties or seventies, peace of mind becomes very important. Stress can be an issue, death can come suddenly if you are compromised. Not that my folks are totally burned out, but look, they have been at this for thirty-five years, since they were a mere twenty-seven. They started the business with a $25k invesment and a rented $400-per-month storefront. They have more than put in their time on Court Street. A change of scene can also become necessity.
ML: Any favorite moments or recollections from your time there?
ZZ: Don Delillo.
I was so damn nervous when I asked Kate Bittman (who happens to be the writer Mark Bittman’s daughter, and was a publicist at Scribner at the time) if we could somehow, in any way possible, host Don Delillo at BookCourt. It was my “Bring Don to Brooklyn” pitch. Kate got back to me and said she loved the idea and that he had agreed to appear. I believe it was his only appearance for the book, Point Omega. We sat across the street in a reataurant before the event talking about baseball and New York City. Don’s wife accompanied and they were both so lovely and gentle and unassuming. When the event began we packed the store with over 300 people and a woman shouted from outside on the sidewalk about fire codes and being over capacity. A woman fainted in the middle of the event and we asked Don to pause briefly while we carried the woman out front on the sidewalk and layed her on our bench and found her a sugary drink, which healed her. She was with a date who was completely freaked out because she had passed out and went down hard in the middle of Don Delillo! During the Q&A a guy asked Don if 9/11 was an inside job and about the jacket cover for Underworld. Poor Don. It was a remarkable evening in so many other ways, of course, and it was a very, very special evening for BookCourt.
ML: You and your family are veterans of an incredibly fraught and dynamic period in the history of bookselling. Any advice?
ZZ: Talk to people who don’t look and think like you. The worst thing we can do for our mission and production and processes as humans is to live inside a sanitary cube, an echo chamber of gloss, and not engage outside our comfort zone. Insert yourself into conversations that make you uncomfortable and think about why you are uncomfortable. Write about it. Don’t assume. BookCourt has always been one of these places that brings different people, different ideas, together. It’s always been a place that is as welcoming as it challenging. Booksellers need to remember they can be true curators of art and concept.
ML: What are you reading!?
ZZ: I was recently re-reading Moon Palace by dear Paul Auster on a flight.
I became engaged in a meaningless conversation with someone behind me after we landed and were waiting to deplane. I was distracted by this person so I left the book! I can only hope one of the kind flight attendants picked it up and brought it to their hotel that night, in whatever city they ended up in. I hope they read the whole thing for me.
Ian Dreiblatt is the director of digital media at Melville House.