Exquisite Corpse

New York Bookstores on My Mind

 The one way of tolerating existence is to lose oneself in literature as in a perpetual orgy. —Flaubert (on business card of Books & Co., closed 1997)

Who will teach me what I must shun? Or must I go where the impulse drives? —Goethe (on bookmark from Barnard Bookforum, closed 1995)

I. Bookmarks are sadder than books. In a perfect world they proceed cleanly from cover to cover, but for the bibliomaniac, they indicate stasis—work unfinished, joy untasted, every row of books a little cemetery. About a month ago, with an eye to some sort of classification, I removed a few shelves' worth of specimens. These divided evenly into the stopgap (business cards, bus transfers) and the authorized—those slipped into the bag by bookstore clerks. Some bore inscrutable notations; the foxed one from Bookmasters, which stood, before my time, on Third between 59th and 60th, cleverly doubled as an ordering form.

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

Wedged after page 72 of Nathalie Sarraute's Childhood was a receipt from Coliseum Books, Broadway at 57th, where I had purchased it. I can pinpoint the transaction to the minute: September 24, 1993, 9:45 p.m. Now that Coliseum is set to close on January 25, the date seems significant—just after Barnes & Noble opened its superstore on Broadway at 82nd, two years before B&N's five-level extravaganza materialized at 66th. According to Ron Kolm, Coliseum's night manager and a 30-year bookstore veteran, the first tapered Coliseum's growth; the second hurt it considerably. (Online vendors also took a chunk.) Co-owner George Leibson, who opened Coliseum in July 1974, says, "The last seven years have been tough. It's been a downward spiral. . . . It looks like the end of the lease will be the end of the store."

Leibson hopes to find another location in the neighborhood, though the chances of reopening there in anything like its present 12,000-square-foot glory seem slim. Its current building was acquired in 2000 by real estate developers the Moinian Group for $130 million; Publishers Weekly reported that a new lease would have nearly doubled the rent, with Moinian asking for up to $300 a square foot on the ground floor, $75 for the basement.

Though Newsweek occupies about a third of the 26-story building, the malling of Manhattan is everywhere to behold. Across 57th are a Gap and a Hold Everything; Duane Reade is catercorner. In truth, Coliseum itself was not exactly inviting, at least at first blush—it had a slight supermarket atmosphere, with its drab linoleum floors and rows of metal racks bulging with mass-market paper. But it had its pleasures—a thorough, serious fiction selection, the delightful miscellany bookcases, that downstairs table heaped formidably with those meticulously printed, slightly unreadable Black Sparrow titles.

It doesn't take a detective to explain the closing, but a fictional one might do in a pinch: Mystery novelist Lawrence Block's most enduring character, ex-cop and recovering alcoholic Matthew Scudder, lives on West 57th. Block doesn't see the chains as villains; in some ways, New York was "chronically underserved" by independents, some of which had the sort of snooty attitude that was "enough to make a person give up print." But he praises Coliseum as an eccentric, precious asset to the city—"and personally, they sell a hell of a lot of my books."

Described by employees as a "blue-collar kind of guy," with an admirable practice (by no means common in the trade) of employing workers of diverse backgrounds, owner Leibson is succinct about his store's appeal. "It's never been a Rizzoli kind of store," he says. "It's a Coliseum kind of store."


Not that the jewel-box Rizzoli Soho weathered the climbing Manhattan real estate market any better. Last June, the 18-year-old store closed, in the face of doubling rent—or is that quadrupling? According to John Brancati, vice president and general manager of Rizzoli Bookstores, "We said [to the landlord], 'we'll give you half the space back'—figuring we'd get a lower price on the lease, run a tighter ship. They said, 'OK.' It was the reduced space that was more than twice the previous price." Brancati, who has been with Rizzoli since 1970, says that "the real problem is that most people don't need books. And they don't want to spend a lot of money for them."

Whatever the factors—rent spikes, chain domination, reading-allergic citizenry, publishers' high price tags—it was hard for a bookstore lover not to notice all the closings in 2001. A Different Light, the trailblazing gay independent, ended its 17-year New York operations in March; owner Bill Barker estimates that the rent was three and a half times what ADL's California stores pay. The same month saw the shuttering of Posman Books' University Place location. The anarchist Blackout Books and Info-Shop on Avenue B fell to a $375-a-month rent increase in August 2000. Most wounding to me was the loss, in November 2000, of the subterranean Bryn Mawr Book Shop on East 79th and York, where I'd snapped up, for peanuts, everything from Maeterlinck's The Life of the Bee (1901, with cover damage suggesting use as an omelette pan) to James Thackara's The Book of Kings (2000, pristine).

In the words of professor, eminent science fictioneer, and Times Square anatomist Samuel R. Delany, "The world changes, and as fine old institutions give up the ghost, it's easy to grow nostalgic; still, we seem to have lost more than our share of fine independent bookstores in this city in the past decade." With the demise in the '90s of such mainstays as the flagship Shakespeare & Co. and Endicott, Delany says, "Coliseum had become more important—the independents provide a level of fine-tuned service that is simply beyond what Barnes & Noble can even approach." A Coliseum-goer since its opening week in '74, Delany says, "It takes a lot of fine reading memories with it."

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."

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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