March 5, 2019
New York City bookstores’ disappearing act
by Michael Seidlinger
It seems like every day we hear of a bookstore closing. In a short expanse of time, New York City, one of the country’s most literary cities, has suffered a dramatic shift.
According to Nell Casey of Gothamist, Manhattan’s 386 bookstores in 1950 shrank to 106 in 2015. If that seems bad, The Strand’s most recent count is an outright crisis, orbiting the 80-store mark. J Oliver Conroy of The Guardian reports that the legendary Book Row—the area surrounding 4th Ave from Union Square to Astor Place—used to contain upwards of 50 used bookstores. How many do exist today? Just one: Alabaster Bookshop between 4th Ave and 12th Street.
The leading causes boil down to being priced out by increased rents, reading habits changing, and the continuous, tireless pressure from Amazon. We’ve reported for years about the effect of Amazon on book sales and the publishing industry, but it’s important to remember how it affects independent bookstores too. Beyond the increase in commercial leases by the city, Amazon cuts the margin on book sales so low, bookstores are forced into increasingly desperate measures—like the emphasis on event programming (alongside required purchase of both ticket and a copy of the book for admission). Oh, and there’s still the effect of eBooks, Kindles, and so forth.
The biggest independent bookstore in the city, The Strand may seem to be thriving but is, in fact, also scraping by, feeling the persistent pressure. The Strand owns the building that houses its magnificent and multiple mile-long stacks, but the city commission continues to be a bother. When the idea of landmarking the building arose from the commission, owner Nancy Bass Wyden reacted in horror rather than celebration. For something to be given landmark status, there’s an extensive amount of fees that could effectively destroy the store:
Please do not destroy the Strand by adding more bureaucracy and unnecessary expenses and restrictions, slowing us down just when we need to be our most impactive. In an attempt to preserve history, you may very well end up destroying a piece of the city.
The landmarking proposal is yet another example of real estate pressure facing bookstores in the city. Jeremiah Moss, author of Vanishing New York: How a Great City Lost Its Soul, told Conroy that “owners are forcing out tenants because buildings are sometimes more valuable empty … the goal is to empty these buildings of rent-regulated residents and small businesses.” There’s the possibility of commercial rent control, but it has yet to pass legislation.
Depressed yet? But wait, there’s still the issue of shifting reading habits. Writer Caleb Crain, in a 2007 New Yorker article, discussed how reading is becoming more of an elite activity. Crain’s follow-up to the article, published in 2018, adds to, rather than dispels, the direness of the situation. “America’s middle class is shrinking … maybe people read less when they have less money? It turns out that the rich read more—but they read less and less every year.” Making sense of the statistics, it turns out, is difficult, and ultimately the takeaway for most readers is that “Americans do appear to be reading less.”
With these issues stacked against bookstores, it seems easiest to give up. The silver lining—chances are if you’re reading this, you’re an avid reader. Readers are loyal and stubborn. We don’t give up easily. Bookstores like the Strand continue to fight the good fight.
Michael Seidlinger is the Library and Academic Marketing Manager at Melville House.