Exquisite Corpse

New York Bookstores on My Mind

II. Should Coliseum manage to open elsewhere, it will follow the lead of two even older independents. Faced with burgeoning rent and an ominous "demolition clause," co-owner (and former hoofer) Rozanne Seelen moved the Drama Book Shop from its longtime 48th Street space to one nearly three times as large (at 250 West 40th).The store now has amply stocked shelves, comfortable chairs, and a theatrical touch on the balcony—the outré red couch by which Nicole Kidman cavorts in Moulin Rouge. The staff has the requisite recondite knowledge, handling with aplomb a customer's inquiry about Hroswith. Who? "An Alsatian nun around the time of Charlemagne," says Seelen, who knows from Alsatian nuns. "She did bowdlerized versions of Plautus."

Thanks to the foresight of founder Frances Steloff, Gotham Book Mart owns its building at 41 West 47th, its home for 55 years. Owner Andreas Brown says the five-story structure was worth about $200,000 in 1967; today, with its precious air rights, the asking price is $7.9 million. After bidding ends later this winter, Brown plans to buy a new building within a 10-block radius and move the store by summer's end—not just its estimable stock, but also its gallery of Edward Gorey works, vintage photos of major modernists, and the James Joyce Society, which meets four times a year.

Brown laments the disappearance of Coliseum, seeing it as a classic example of an independent being crushed by chains, online vendors, and commercial property values, and he's passionate in denouncing what he sees as the former's deleterious, antitrust-worthy effects: "It was tragically destructive to the cultural fabric of the country, when you look at the trail of destruction that went behind it."

“When the Coliseum falls, Rome will fall . . . " —Bede
photo: Sylvia Plachy
“When the Coliseum falls, Rome will fall . . . " —Bede

III. Carl Lennertz, director of Book Sense's Publisher Programs, is a little sick of how the press portrays independent bookstores. "Why does the press only write about independents when they're about to close?" he asks. "We have a joke that most journalists have added a key to their typewriter, and by hitting it they automatically get, 'Independents are small. . . . Mom-and-pop stores are beleaguered . . . a dying breed. . . . ' "

Though hundreds of the country's independents fell by the wayside in the '90s, the American Booksellers Association's Book Sense program has united and revitalized its members, with strategies that include national advertising, individual Web site facilitation, a widely circulated recommendations list culled from participating sellers, and gift certificates redeemable at any member store. Oren Teicher, ABA's chief operating officer, says that though there are fewer independents today than two years ago, their market share remains at 40 percent. Twenty-three of the city's independents, including Coliseum, participate in Book Sense's marketing program.

Lennertz concedes that 2001 saw "a slight turn for the worse" as far as New York stores were concerned. But despite the closings and the post-disaster sales lull, some stores show signs of life. Chris Doeblin, co-owner of Columbia-area Labyrinth Books, exudes confidence as his store, with its deep scholarly stock, approaches its five-year anniversary in March. Toby Cox, who bought Three Lives & Co. in the West Village last February, feels that the independents that have survived are the stronger for it—though he admits to a moment of "What the hell did I just do?" when, within weeks of taking over the reins, the nearby Rizzoli, Posman, and ADL branches folded. And Jeannette Watson, doyenne of the dearly departed Books & Co., bought Lenox Hill Bookstore in August.

Two people at the ABA cited the collectively run Bluestockings Women's Bookstore (at 172 Allen) as an up-and-comer, and trumpeted a substantial remodeling at St. Mark's Bookshop—a little confusing, as the overhaul happened eight years ago, when the store moved from around the corner. Before September 11, St. Mark's was having record-setting sales—the best in its 24-year history, according to owner Bob Contant. By Thanksgiving, sales had picked up, and Chomsky's 9-11 became the store's all-time fastest seller—214 copies in three weeks. Though the clientele has given the store "enormous support," there are still some irreducible financial realities. As Contant wryly notes, "None of my staff can even live within walking distance of the bookstore."

IV. On the last Sunday of the year, when news of Coliseum's closing and fire sale has reached the public, shelves deplete as crowds increase, the activity more intense than the recent holiday flurry. "It's been crazy," says Kolm. A few days later, pockets of absence startle: Near the southwest window are over 200 metal magazine slots, empty save for a few issues of Raw Vision and Open City; there's nothing in the trio of spinnable plastic periodical racks, which are now revealed to look a little like turbines or giant space-age drill bits. A life-size pop-up skeleton looms above the stairs leading to the lower level, where anthropology and archaeology, myth and folklore, are completely bare.

"This is 20 years of my life," one customer says to Leibson, wishing him luck in relocating. "I spent four days a week here."

Another customer ambles by with a vertiginous stack: two Harry Potters, some midlist fiction, a few curiosa (Nordic Bound and Caged!). Who will teach me what I must shun? My basket overflows; I winnow my selections—Borges, Philip K. Dick, B.S. Johnson—and pay, receiving two bookmarks in my bag. Outside again, I look at the sign above the entrance, advertising the space soon to be available. There's no name to read, just a phone number and a green glyph in either corner, suggesting a slice of skyline, perhaps the letter M. Each lies in a square, edges slightly flared. It looks like nothing so much as a button on a keyboard. V

Research assistance: Celeste Doaks, Shana Liebman

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