Literary City, Bookstore Desert
When Sarah McNally, the owner of McNally Jackson bookstore in Lower Manhattan, set out to open a second location, she went to a neighborhood with a sterling literary reputation, the home turf of writers from Edgar Allan Poe to Nora Ephron: the Upper West Side.
She was stopped by the skyscraper-high rents.
“They were unsustainable,” Ms. McNally said. “Small spaces for $40,000 or more each month. It was so disheartening.”
Rising rents in Manhattan have forced out many retailers, from pizza joints to flower shops. But the rapidly escalating cost of doing business there is also driving out bookstores, threatening the city’s sense of self as the center of the literary universe, the home of the publishing industry and a place that lures and nurtures authors and avid readers.
“Sometimes I feel as if I’m working in a field that’s disappearing right under my feet,” said the biographer and historian Robert Caro, who is a lifelong New Yorker.
The Rizzoli Bookstore was recently told that it would be forced to leave its grand space on 57th Street because the owners decided that the building would be demolished.
The Bank Street Bookstore in Morningside Heights announced in December that it would not renew its lease when it expires in February 2015, saying that it had lost money for the last decade. Both stores are scrambling to find new locations.
Independents like Coliseum Books, Shakespeare and Company on the Upper West Side, Endicott Booksellers and Murder Ink have all closed their doors.
In the past, those smaller stores were pushed out by superstores — a trend memorably depicted in the 1998 film “You’ve Got Mail” — leaving book lovers worried that someday, Manhattan would be dominated by chain bookstores.
But now the chain stores are shutting down, too. Since 2007, five Barnes & Noble stores throughout Manhattan have closed, including its former flagship store on Fifth Avenue and 18th Street, which was shuttered in January. Five Borders stores in Manhattan were closed in 2011 when the chain went bankrupt, vacating huge spaces on Park Avenue, near Penn Station and in the Shops at Columbus Circle.
State data reveals that from 2000 to 2012, the number of bookstores in Manhattan fell almost 30 percent, to 106 stores from 150. Jobs, naturally, have suffered as well: Annual employment in bookstores has decreased 46 percent during that period, according to the state’s Department of Labor.
The closings have alarmed preservationists, publishers and authors, who said the fading away of bookstores amounted to a crisis that called for intervention from the newly minted mayor of New York City, Bill de Blasio, who has vowed to offer greater support to small businesses.
Mr. Caro said in an interview that he is heartbroken by the loss of bookstores from Manhattan, calling it “a profoundly significant and depressing indication of where our culture is.”
“How can Manhattan be a cultural or literary center of the world when the number of bookstores has become so insignificant?” he asked. “You really say, has nobody in city government ever considered this and what can be done about it?”
With the closing of several Barnes & Noble and Borders stores, it is difficult to shop for new books in Midtown, the same neighborhood that houses Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster and much of Penguin Random House.
“There are some great bookstores, but there aren’t a lot of them,” said Michael Pietsch, the chief executive of Hachette. “Compared to other cities, New York is no longer a bookstore city.”
There are still six Barnes & Nobles remaining in Manhattan, but with the company closing roughly 20 stores each year nationwide, some people in the industry have urged publishers to step in. Whispers that publishers will re-enter the brick-and-mortar business — harking back to the days when the storied names Doubleday and Scribner graced bookstores on Fifth Avenue — have intensified in recent months. Some publishing insiders have speculated that Penguin Random House, by far the largest trade publisher in the world, will expand into retail to fill the void left by Barnes & Noble, which has struggled to find its footing, and compete with Amazon.
“You just have to walk down Fifth Avenue to see what New York has become — it’s become an outlet mall for rich people,” said Esther Newberg, a literary agent, adding that she had just received an email from a Random House editor noting that the company was able to print books quickly because it owns its own printing plant. “Why don’t they own their own bookstore?”
Despite the difficult conditions, some stores appear to be thriving. Posman Books, a small independent chain, opened a new outpost in Rockefeller Center in 2011.
And just as many writers have fled to Brooklyn or Queens in search of more affordable housing, some bookstore owners have followed. Greenlight Bookstore in Fort Greene opened in 2009 to robust business and year-over-year increases in sales.
In December, Christine Onorati, the co-owner of Word bookstore in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, opened a second store in Jersey City.
Ms. Onorati said she never looked seriously at Manhattan because the rents were so unaffordable. Even with lower rents in Jersey City, she opened a cafe within the bookstore that serves pastries and Stumptown coffee as an additional source of revenue, something she had previously vowed she would never do.
She said she was concerned that bookstores in high-rent areas like Manhattan would shift their merchandise away from more accessibly priced paperbacks toward more expensive items with wider profit margins.
“My worry is that to make these rents, people are going to have to make the bookstore a place where only wealthy people can be,” she said. “The higher and higher these rents go, do you have to bring in these expensive leather journals and art books that only rich people can buy?”
David Rosenthal, the president and publisher of Blue Rider Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House, predicted that stores like Urban Outfitters and Anthropologie would become more important in the publishing ecosystem as stand-alone bookstores decrease.
“The serendipity of hanging out in a bookstore is just diminishing,” Mr. Rosenthal said. “We’ll become more dependent on stores that are not primarily bookstores, but have some degrees of books. It’s better than nothing.”
After spending years scouring Manhattan for a second location, Ms. McNally of McNally Jackson abandoned her search. At the urging of a former employee, she began looking in Brooklyn and settled on Williamsburg, where she found a “magnificent,” loftlike space with a 20-foot ceiling. The store will open this fall.
“I started walking around Williamsburg and I fell in love with the neighborhood,” she said. “I have not figured out a way to make it happen in Manhattan. And I wanted to.”