‘Book Row’ is gone, but a few stores are hanging on

BY EILEEN STUKANE  |  “Closed Forever” read the sign on the Barnes & Noble door on the corner of Sixth Ave. and Eighth St., the door of the last bookstore on a street that had once been considered “Book Row.”

At first blush it seemed that what might be “closed forever” was the culture of Greenwich Village, once avant garde but now killed by commercialism. It turns out that is not true.

There are still surviving pockets of traditional Greenwich Village around, located in places such as Three Lives & Company, bookbook, Left Bank Books and Bonnie Slotnick Cookbooks. These keepers of the flame have survived tumultuous times.

Before it was a Barnes & Noble, in 1981 that same “Closed Forever” door opened to a B. Dalton’s. And before that there was BookMasters, at 60 E. Eighth St., Marboro, at 56 W. Eighth St., and the most famous of all, Eighth Street Bookshop, at 17 W. Eighth St. Up until the 1980s, Village bookstores — which sold nothing but books — were owned by well-read individuals who hired those like themselves, steeped in poetry and literature.

The bookstore owners, like the Wilentz brothers of the Eighth Street Bookshop, and their historic clientele, including Edward Albee, Susan Sontag, Lenny Bruce and Joseph Mitchell, among others, created a social scene that lured artists, writers and intellectuals into an atmosphere filled with smart  conversation, ideas, debates, advice and kinship.

Then Barnes & Noble gobbled up, or rather, purchased, BookMasters, Marboro, Doubleday, Scribner’s and, ultimately, B. Dalton’s. In the 1980s and ’90s, the power of size, the volume of stock, the discounted prices, brought people into B&N superstores and killed the competition. The  independents on Book Row quietly departed.

Longtime Village residents still wax nostalgic for the Eighth Street Bookshop, which closed in 1979.  The literary avant garde, those who could debate ideas for hours, lost important gathering places with the arrival of the giants. Overextended and now focused on its Nook device and e-books, the great big Barnes & Noble has closed a number of its Manhattan locations. However, the official reason for its Greenwich Village closing, according to David Deason, vice president of development for Barnes & Noble, is: “The lease is expiring at end of January 2013 and we were unable to come to an acceptable agreement with the landlord to extend.”

While Barnes & Noble probably has additional reasons for closing its Greenwich Village store, it’s true that the link between real estate and bookstores that are the soul of Greenwich Village is significant.  Rising rents, combined with digital book buying, have had a hand in closings of the Village niche bookstores, the Oscar Wilde Bookshop (closed in 2009), Partners & Crime Mystery Bookshop (closed in 2012), and before that, Foul Play.

Left Bank Books, a local draw for rare books and first editions, moved from its 18-year location on W. Fourth St. to 17 Eighth Ave. because its lease would not be renewed by the landlord. In 2010 the venerable Biography Bookstore, after 25 years on the corner of Bleecker and W. 11th Sts., was forced to move because the landlord wanted to raise the rent “about eight times higher than what we were paying,” said Charlie Mullen, co-owner with Carolyn Epstein of bookbook, which is Biography Bookstore renamed, on Bleecker St. between Sixth and Seventh and Aves.

“Typically, a business will get a 10-year lease, and at the end, the landlord decides what happens. There is no cap on real estate increases for commercial businesses,” Mullen noted. “It used to be a congenial arrangement, but now there’s added pressure for landlords to jack up the rent.”

The space that used to be Biography Bookstore is now Bookmarc, a Marc Jacobs store that joined three other of his stores on Bleecker St. Bookmarc focuses on upscale art, fashion, design and music books that lean toward the coffee-table variety, along with various Marc Jacobs accessories and sketchbooks. Mostly tourists frequent the store, but those tourists are not to be derided. They are spending and keeping alive the traditional hubs of creativity and intellectualism that give the Village its identity.

At bookbook today Mullen and Epstein are building their children’s book section for  neighborhood families. And they take pride in offering a place of learning, with books from Exact Change, publishers of 19th- and 20th-century avant garde literature. Many of their customers are Asian, European and South American visitors. While tourist-thronged streets may irritate resident Villagers, the tourists are supporting the places we like to call our own, and helping them flourish.

Three Lives & Company, on the corner of Waverly Place and W. 10th St., was taken over from its original 1978 owners by Toby Cox in 2001. He and those who work in the store are readers who share their tastes and insights with those who want to come in and talk. Three Lives has existed in its current location in a family-owned building since 1983, and it is a much-loved presence.

“One thing that has not changed at Three Lives is the smart, engaged, passionate reader as our customer. This has remained consistent from before I bought the place,” said Cox. “There are book buyers here who want books they don’t necessarily read about on the cover of The New York Times Book Review. There are people in the city who want a space to buy a book and they want to feel comfortable in that space.” Shades of the Eighth Street Bookshop, that other corner store… .

Bonnie Slotnick Cookbooks, a unique source of cookbooks from as far back as the 18th century to out-of-print Fannie Farmers and Betty Crockers and beyond, has been on the first floor of an apartment building at 163 W. 10th St. for 13 years. Left Bank Books — with its literary first editions and rare finds in photography, art, music and film — and Bonnie Slotnick’s are two offbeat establishments that still make Greenwich Village unusual.

Rumor has it that the empty space that Barnes & Noble left behind on Sixth Ave. and W. Eighth St. may be going to a drugstore chain. Bonnie Slotnick has a better idea, which she wrote in a recent letter to the editor in The Villager: “I say, turn the empty store into an indoor book market for the local vendors and others who sell books on the street.”

Not a bad idea.

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One Response to ‘Book Row’ is gone, but a few stores are hanging on

  1. The original New York "Book Row" was of course Fourth Avenue, which lost its last stores sometime in the late 1970s.

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