May 1, 2015

DUMBO’s P.S. Bookshop in danger of closing

by

Earlier this week, I was strolling around DUMBO, the unfortunately named neighborhood where Melville House‘s U.S. offices reside, when I noticed this flyer on the window of a business on Jay St.

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P.S. Bookshop is a used bookshop with an eclectic and diverse selection of books—and a particularly strong collection of fiction titles; it’s a favorite of several Melville House staffers, including myself, and an important part of a neighborhood that’s changing rapidly. (DUMBO has the distinction of having the highest residential rent in Brooklyn, which hasn’t stopped the neighborhood from developing rapidly.)

The message of the flyer was clear: P.S. Bookshop needs help! But there was still other questions: why is the shop in danger? How can patrons help it survive? I wrote to the shop’s owner, Yuval Gans, who agreed to an interview covering the store’s past, present, and future. His responses to my questions are printed below. If you’d like to make a donation to help PS Bookshop survive, you can contribute to the store’s IndieGoGo campaign here.

How long has PS Bookshop been in DUMBO?  

I started P.S. Bookshop in 2006. My first location was 145A Front street. In 2009, with the end of my lease approaching, I accepted David Walentas‘ kind offer of a long lease and moved my store down the street to its current location, the corner of Front and Washington streets, one of the best retail spots in the entire neighborhood.

Why did you decide to open the shop?

Prior to P.S. Bookshop I was the manager of Heights Books on Montague street, Brooklyn Heights. This was one of my best bookstore experiences. I literally built the place ground up—bookshelves, aisles, window display areas. Each morning I would come in and ask myself, “How will I arrange my books today?” It was a pure labor of love. Since starting my own bookshop, in which most of my time is spent on the prosaic tasks of running the business, I can’t help but reminisce of those good old days when my entire attention was centered around, well… the books.

Opening my own bookshop followed the birth of my daughter, Paloma Salomea. The bookshop is named after her.

The choice of DUMBO was obvious to me. I have been observing the changes in the neighborhood since the mid-nineties. I recognized the open niche for a used and out of print bookstore and grabbed it.

Are there any particular events in the store’s history that standout for you?

Events planning has always been a sore spot for me—never my strongest suit. I dedicated all my time and resources to building the store itself, improving its inventory and growing its customers base. As a result, I’m sad to admit, the occasional authors’ events that we did hold were poorly publicized and were never quite successful. It’s a shame, because some of these guests were quite talented and interesting. I justified this to myself by considering the busy events schedules PowerHouse, Melville House and more recently Berl’s Poetry Shop were offering and by assuming that my regular weekly offering of children’s classes and Story Time were my own service to my community.

I recognize my error—there is no justification for today’s bookstore, chain or independent, without a full events schedule. If it boiled down to simply selling books—we’d be all put out of business by the internet. The reason for the steady growth in the number of independent bookstores is based only on their perceived image as cultural gathering spaces.

To remedy this state of things I’ve delegated this task to the indomitable Nikki Judd who has already done some great work in this department: authors’ talks, play readings, dance performances and more. Unfortunately, with my limited personnel, events management is only one of several hats that Nikki wears. I hope that by raising the right funding I can allow her to manage store’s events exclusively. People who wish to contact us about any type of event should address her on the store email address: [email protected]

How has the neighborhood changed since you first opened? Do you see PS Bookshop as part of DUMBO’s long-term future?

 The change in the neighborhood was the business rationale that prompted me to open a store here in the first place. The development during our years of operation allowed us to grow steadily, even through the economic depression following 2008. The thing that I set out to do – buy and sell books – had to be supplemented by a large sideline of tourist oriented merchandise, which became a decisive factor in Dumbo’s foot traffic. The store’s success relied on the increasing capital flowing and invested in the area. But my reliance on the gentrification process proved to be my wage of sin (allow a secular Jew this Christian metaphor). I was watching my business grow while my artist and musician friends were being pushed out. Now, when I’m finally starting to see the reward for my years of hard work, it turns out that the neighborhood has become too dear for me as well. Even though my long lease protects me for next several years, taxes alone can drive me out.

The future for me, as part of arts and creativity in DUMBO, and for that matter generally in Brooklyn, seems very grim: living and working here we are accustomed to the constant presence of numerous TV and film productions shooting in the area. I daresay Brooklyn is the most televised and filmed location in the entire world. What is happening here, I believe, is a real estate campaign of unprecedented scale.

I recently subjected myself to the painful experience of a TV mini-series The Slap. I say subjected because I love the cast members, some of which are my store’s patrons, and because I am fascinated by the vicissitudes of American adaptations of Scandinavian, British, Israeli or, in this case Australian productions, which always entails interesting shifts of idiom.

In the case of The Slap, the one and only subject of the American version was the rise of Brooklyn real estate vis a vis Manhattan’s unchallenged supremacy. Anyone who may insist that there was some other plot line going on, involving a crisis among friends or whatever, was probably watching something else. The question here was not a simple case of product placement. The series as a whole was placed in the product. As a Brooklynite and a DUMBO store owner I couldn’t take my gaze off this pretentious piece of bogus propaganda. The DUMBO and Brooklyn that real estate moguls are internationally promoting, the place to be for young creative individuals with dreams of success, a throne that costly Manhattan has abdicated, would be ludicrous, if it wasn’t so painful. To me, definitely. But not to me alone.

Is the store in danger of closing?

Yes, indeed. I am already in a $40,000 debt of real estate tax going back to 2010. This tax bill, considered additional rent, was presented to me by my landlord only this year. The rates of this commercial tax are going through the roof. I actually found a solution—a deal to open a coffee shop at the store by one of the best bakeries in the city. However, my landlord, who initially allowed me to pursue this course of action, decided that this is a bad idea after all. I am pretty blown away by this, but I am still unwilling to give up. I have already moved my store once. I am not eager to undertake another such project. And even if I were, it seems that I am already priced out of Greenpoint, Bushwick, Bed-Stuy, Gowanus—the areas where Dumbo’s residents have fled to over the last decade.

What can people do to help? 

I launched an indiegogo.com campaign. My a goal is to raise money to pay my tax arrears and to sponsor my plan for expanding the store’s operation. My campaign page is
https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/keep-p-s-bookshop-in-dumbo

To stay informed of any developments and possibly get involved visit psbookshop.info

Alex Shephard is the director of digital media for Melville House, and a former bookseller.

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