In 1945, there were hundreds of independent bookstores in New York City, with 50 on “Book Row” (the stretch of Broadway between Union Square and Astor Place) alone. While it’s unlikely that New York will ever see those numbers again, a revitalization is taking place, particularly in Brooklyn, where Word in Greenpoint, Greenlight Bookstore in Fort Greene, and Boulevard Books & Cafe in Dyker Heights have opened in the past five years; and 32-year-old BookCourt continues to flourish in Cobble Hill. Over the past year a number of small bookstores, some started by former street vendors, have begun swelling the numbers in Brooklyn and in other parts of the city, from Washington Heights to Astoria, and across the Hudson in New Jersey.
The metropolitan growth of bookstores may be related to having larger, densely populated communities that are accustomed to independent retailers. People run their errands by foot and hit the restaurants at night. Having a bookstore in the mix is valuable to these neighborhoods,” says Eileen Dengler, executive director of the New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association. “I think the demographics say it all—more per-capita spending, the high concentration of the arts, the fact that so much of publishing is here, and the student population.”
At a time when anyone can buy a book with a click, new stores are trying to give readers a reason to shop local, some with books and brews. Luke Harwood describes Happy Bones: Coffee and Publications in NoHo as “inspiration around espresso coffee.” The half–coffee bar/half–art bookstore is filled with limited editions of books and publications by and about New York artists from independent presses. Matt Winn has a similar strategy at Molasses Books in Bushwick, but with used books, beer, wine, and coffee. “It seems so obvious to me to have both things happening at once, a reading and a bar.” The booze contributes to the bottom line, and customers can sell their books for credit toward their bar tab.
Some stores fill a specific niche like the Bureau of General Services-Queer Division (BGSQD). It opened last November in collaboration with Strange Loop Gallery on the Lower East Side after a number of LGBT stores closed, including the Oscar Wilde Bookshop. “I like to say it started from shame that our city didn’t have an LGBT institution,” says co-owner Greg Newton, aka the Minister of Propaganda. He views the store’s role as championing all things queer, from zines to books, including store bestseller Why Are Faggots So Afraid of Faggots?, essays edited by Mattilde Bernstein Sycamore. “We could certainly do more business, the days are a little slow,” says Newton, who is considering moving the store to a larger space with more foot traffic. Events have been well attended, so in the meantime BGSQD is dialing them up and adding classes on autobiography and calligraphy.
Last June, Aurora Anaya-Cerda fulfilled her dream for a bilingual bookstore when she opened La Casa Azul Bookstore in East Harlem. The store is named for artist Frida Kahlo’s “Blue House” in Mexico City. Anaya-Cerda spent five years planning the bricks-and-mortar store, while selling books online and holding events throughout the city. In the store’s first six months, La Casa Azul held 140 events. “It’s exactly the kind of space we envision,” says Anaya-Cerda.
Ten-month old Singularity & Co. in Dumbo grew out of a Kickstarter project, called Save the SciFi. This summer it will launch a similar Save the Adventure fundraiser, aimed at adventure books from the 1920s–1970s. Initially the store published and sold monthly e-book releases of sci-fi titles on a subscription-only basis, but three months ago it began selling them individually on Amazon and via other e-tailers. “The publishing drove us to open the store,” says cofounder Cici James. The bookstore is not in an area with a lot of foot traffic, and she credits the Singularity’s Web site (SingularityShop.com), which it launched in December, with boosting sales. Still, it hasn’t been enough to encourage her to get a long-term lease. For now she and her partners prefer renting year-to-year.
Faye Skandalakis decided she wanted a bookstore of her own after selling children’s books as a Barefoot Ambassador. Skandalakis’s Story Nook Children’s Bookstore began online, then opened as a pop-up shop at Baby Noir boutique in Astoria in February 2012. Since then she’s taken over half of Baby Noir while she looks for a larger location. Even without a permanent space, she takes an active role in the community. “This year I’ve gotten more involved with schools doing book fairs and recommending books for their libraries,” she says.
Former S&S employee Lexi Beach and her wife, Connie Rourke, are also looking for a storefront in Astoria. “Our financing is in place; we have investments and loans from family and friends,” says Beach. Although the neighborhood would like to have a bookstore, Beach and Rourke are finding lease negotiations difficult. “There are a lot of landlords who don’t want to talk to us. They don’t think a bookstore is a good business,” says Beach.
Word Up opened a yearlong pop-up community bookstore in Washington Heights in June 2011 and is getting close to signing a lease for a 1,200 sq. ft. permanent space in the same neighborhood, according to general coordinator Veronica Liu. “The space will need work,” says Liu. “But in true Word Up form, we’ll expedite it. June is an important month for things in the arts, because of the Uptown Arts Stroll. We started two years ago during the stroll.” The new Word Up already has a core committee of 20 volunteers and close to $70,000, thanks to a successful fundraiser on Indiegogo. In its new location, the nonprofit will continue to serve its community with books in English, Spanish, and Russian, as well as multilingual events.
Several bookstores have recently added branches or are about to. Last fall PowerHouse Arena in Dumbo rebuilt after flooding from Hurricane Sandy, while moving ahead with plans for a small general bookstore in Park Slope–PowerHouse on 8th. Susanne Konig, who co-owns the store with her husband, Daniel Power, describes it as “a mini-version of the big store.” The Arena store saw sales rise 20% in the first three months of this year—traditionally its slowest months. The Arena store relies on a European merchandising model with one big wall that’s “an exhibition of books,” while the smaller Park Slope store has a more traditional feel and a strong children’s section.
Book Thug Nation in Williamsburg also added a smaller sister store, Human Relations, last August. “Our take is, ‘the more the merrier,’ ” says co-owner Corey Eastwood, speaking of the growing number of stores in Bushwick, including Molasses and a library/reading room that opened next door, Mellow Pages. The 600 sq. ft. store specializes in literary fiction, noir, and philosophy, and it has a strong Spanish-language section.
On the other side of the Hudson, Greenpoint’s Word is adding a bookstore and cafe with a walk-up window for books and drinks in Jersey City. “We are so specific to our neighborhood. I want to do the same thing [in Jersey City],” says owner Christine Onorati, who has an event planned with Chuck Klosterman for the official launch on July 9. She also wants the two stores to be as connected as possible. Onorati will do the buying for both locations, and they will share the same events coordinator.
But Word isn’t the only new bookstore in Jersey City. Last July, Carol Valleau and her daughter, Aleta, opened a 1,000 sq. ft. store, Tachair Bookshoppe, for new and used books. The pair raised money by selling buckets of used books at a local farmer’s market for the past two years. “ ‘Tachair’ means ‘to meet’ in Scottish,” says Valleau. “Really, books are only just a part of it.” The store also includes a cafe and art gallery.
It may not be hundreds yet. But New York’s bookstore renaissance is well underway.