April 11, 2014

Rizzoli Bookstore closes its storied space on 57th Street


Photo via Rizzoli USA.

Photo via Rizzoli USA.

Rizzoli Bookstore, with its glittering chandelier and stories upon stories of art books, is probably closing for good today. The Vornado Realty Trust and the Lefrak family, who own the building, are going to demolish the six-story structure and two buildings beside it to make space for a high-rise.

Residents will rally around 31 West 57th Street at 10 AM, calling for the city to save this store. But it’s probably too late.

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer applied for landmark status last month. But the 109-year-old building’s interior was updated in 1985, when it was converted from a Sohmer Piano showroom to a bookstore. Additions include bookshelves (obviously), cabinetry, flooring, and those fancy chandeliers. So it’s not “architecturally significant” enough for the city to step in.

If anyone believes, and Andrew Wylie does, that book publishing is not Procter and Gamble, but Hermès, it must be Rizzoli.  If you haven’t visited the store in person, you’ve probably seen this place on Pinterest. It’s the kind of place you want to photograph, but also buy a postcard picture or a watercolor illustration of the central chandelier for your mom. The ceilings are so tall, all the customers whisper. The store still has a music section on the third floor with CDs for sale.

The ideal Rizzoli customer must love art books, because there’s a wealth of highly illustrated editions. Tourists must go to great lengths to fit the oversized, heavy editions into their rolling suitcases. These books must hold whole painstaking years of production editors’ lives. Unlike the closing of Borders or other chains, the only stock on sale last week was in the Christmas card section. This week books are 40% off.

Preservationists have been trying to register the interior as a landmark in New York. Yesterday, after a final attempt, they just couldn’t push it through:

“Our review concluded that because there are few remaining elements from the piano showroom era, particularly in comparison with other intact interior landmark spaces like the Steinway Piano showroom on West 57th Street, the site no longer retains the integrity of its original design, and the ca. 1985 redesign of the space does not rise to the level of an interior designation.”

More than 16,000 people have signed a petition to preserve the store. (They’re still looking for 8,000 more.) No demolition permits have been issued for the building yet, but the area has been developing so rapidly, some real estate people are calling it “Billionaire’s Row.”

Christopher Zara of International Business Times reports that Brewer and the Community Board Five will urge the Landmarks Preservation Commission to “hold an immediate hearing on the historical and architectural value of both the exterior and interior of the Rizzoli Building” in a news conference today. But from the signs out front, it looks like this bookstore is prepared to shut its doors at the end of the workday.

The bookstore is already scouting other locations, so while the storied space will be lost, the business will move on. It’s not all doom and gloom at Manhattan bookstores, but the fight for high-rise space is still tooth-and-nail.


Kirsten Reach was an editor at Melville House.