by Francis Morrone
In American cities today, the decline of bookshops ranks high among the losses that plaintive bloggers, urban nostalgists, and literary fuddy-duddies ascribe to soaring commercial rents and the impacts of the internet. When I moved to New York City more than thirty-five years ago, I spent inordinate amounts of time in bookshops of all kinds. There were the famous temples of print on and just off of Fifth Avenue. Scribner’s at 48th Street (where my future wife worked when she was a graduate student in philosophy), Brentano’s, the two Doubleday stores (of which the larger, at 56th Street, was excellent), the old Rizzoli, and, farther down, at 18th Street, the main Barnes & Noble, inelegant, where you had to stash your bags in lockers, where a coffee bar was a laughable notion, and which was superbly stocked. Off the avenue, amid the diamond dealers on 47th Street, was the legendary Gotham Book Mart. Elsewhere in Manhattan were Coliseum, one of the best-run bookstores in America, on Broadway and 57th Street, and Books & Company (“the best bookstore in New York City,” said Susan Sontag), owned by the daughter of the head of IBM, on Madison Avenue next to the Whitney Museum. I caught the end of the Eighth Street Bookshop in the Village, where future Nobel laureate Bob Dylan used to shop.
And then there were the secondhand shops. Gotham sold both new and secondhand books. The Strand was on Broadway and 12th Street, Academy on 18th off Fifth. A store I loved was Isaac Mendoza on Ann Street, in the Financial District. Dauber & Pine creaked along on Fifth Avenue and 12th Street. And fabled Book Row, on Fourth Avenue below Union Square, had not yet expired, though was a ghost of its former self. Pageant, which began on the Row but had moved off it, with loads of good books and prints, made a star turn in Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters (1986).
Specialty bookshops abounded. In the art capital of America, Hacker (Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning shopped there), Wittenborn, Weyhe, and Jaap Rietman sold nothing but art books. The superb Urban Center Books sold only architecture books, in many languages. (I worked there once.) Cinemabilia was a cinephile’s dream come true—always making me think of the scene in Day for Night when Truffaut opens a box and out tumble monographs on all his favorite directors. New York Bound Bookshop (I worked there, too) specialized in new, used, and rare books about New York, as well as maps and prints. It is where I met Joseph Mitchell.
Academic bookshops naturally clustered near Columbia: Book Forum, Salter’s, Papyrus, all of them on Broadway within a block of Columbia’s main gate. Need an eleventh edition Encyclopaedia Britannica or a Webster’s Second? You could, as I did, walk right into Literary Mart, upstairs on Broadway and 31st, a specialist in old reference books, and walk out with them. On West 89th Street was the New Yorker Bookstore, owned by Peter Martin, who was the son of the Italian anarchist Carlo Tresca and who had co-founded San Francisco’s City Lights Bookstore with Lawrence Ferlinghetti in 1953.
Of these bookshops, which ones are with us still? Precisely one: the Strand.
The Strand, it must be said, is bigger and better, and brighter, than ever. In my time, it’s never had more good books, in better condition, at fairer prices. A few other shops have taken up the slack. Book Culture operates three shops, of which the biggest, on West 112th Street, is one of the outstanding bookshops in the world today. Other shops have opened, many with a bright cheerfulness that was not a feature of the old shops. McNally Jackson, on Prince Street in what used to be Little Italy, is a good example. It has a popular café, 55,000 well-chosen books, 50 employees, and an Espresso Book Machine (for print-on demand titles), and seems always to be filled to capacity with browsers and sippers. Owner Sarah McNally, according to New York Business Journal, is apparently sick of having yet again to explain how her bookshop thrives against overwhelming odds. In Brooklyn, Greenlight Bookstore, in Fort Greene, is excellent, as was Book Court, on Court Street. Book Court recently closed after 35 years, a reminder that even when a store’s owner owns the building, and is immune to rent rises, he may wish one day to sell the building to fund his retirement. To fill the void left by this fine store’s demise, one of its former clerks, now a well-known novelist, Emma Straub, announced that she and her husband were opening a new bookshop, to be called Books Are Magic, on a nearby street. Three Lives, in the West Village, is a legend in its own right. Recently, amid rumors that the shop was threatened by a rent rise, Three Lives negotiated a new lease and looks set to remain in its present location, West 10th Street and Waverly Place, for some time to come. Rizzoli moved from Fifth Avenue to West 57th Street. Its closing a couple years ago aroused much hand-wringing as that once elegant shopping street began its absurd transformation into an address for super tall, super skinny condominiums for billionaires. After a brief hiatus, Rizzoli has reopened in the stately St. James Building, on Broadway and 26th. The new incarnation is, in my view, by far the best Rizzoli ever, beautiful and wide-aisled and well-stocked and, as an added bonus, with more of my own books on its shelves than at any other bookstore I’ve been in. In the cases of both Three Lives and Rizzoli, a lot of people wrung their hands unnecessarily.
Still, the days spent going from one bookshop to another, when one went home on the subway with bags laden with goodies that one had no bookshelf space for and that added to the teetering stacks on tables and floors, those days that made almost any Saturday feel like Christmas—those days are now as remote as a night at the Stork Club or a Nedick’s hot dog. Yet, despite repeated resolutions to reduce my library, the books continue to pile in. Of course, they now come via the internet. How shopping for books has changed! For all the wonderful stores of yore, we all experienced the deep frustration of wanting a particular book and not finding it anywhere in Manhattan. My travels, in the United States and abroad, once always involved carefully planned bookshop itineraries. No matter the reason for my visits to Washington, for example, they always began, and usually ended, with lengthy visits to Second Story Books. In London, Heywood Hill, Fisher & Sperr, and the charming Daunt, on Marylebone High Street, took more of my time than my visits to the National Gallery, the V&A, and the Wallace. I always hoped to find all the books I could not find in New York. Sometimes I did, but more likely I’d buy things I’d not set out to buy, all those books prompting me to seek other, related books—and often leading to further frustration. Still, nothing was ever so sweet as those days, weeks after a trip, when the boxes arrived on my doorstep.
“A good bookshop,” wrote the sociologist Edward Shils in 1963, “blows the breeze of contemporaneity on one; it puts one ‘in touch’; it permits first contacts and offers prospects of greater intensity. It is a place for intellectual conviviality, and it has the same value as conversation, not as a ‘civilized art’ but as a necessary part of the habitat of a lively intelligence in touch with the world.”
Or, as Joseph Epstein put it, bookshops are the intellectuals’ equivalent of pool halls.
Some years ago, Roger Kimball, the editor of The New Criterion, asked my help in locating the long out-of-print two-volume Harvard University Press edition of American Architecture and Other Writings, by Montgomery Schuyler, America’s finest architecture critic in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. No one in New York had it in stock. None of the usual booksellers’ catalogues listed it. So I ran an ad in the secondhand trade paper AB Bookman’s Weekly—that last, cumbersome, and entirely hit-or-miss resort of the desperate searcher after a particular title. The only reply I got was for an old Atheneum paperback abridgment. I bought it. But it wasn’t what we were after.
A visit this morning to AbeBooks.com located sets for sale ranging from one in “good” condition, without dust jackets, for $23, from a bookseller in North Carolina, to one in “fine” condition, with jackets, for $100, from a bookseller in Vermont. So it is with almost any title you may want.
Getting the book you want is easier than ever. Not just easier, but easy. What could be better? I admit that I love and use AbeBooks. I will go further: I love and use Amazon. I love and use Google Books. I love and use my Kindle. Furthermore, I have a strong distaste for the kind of hand-wringing and cries from the heart that accompany the closings of old businesses and the craterings of old classes of retail—lamentations acted out, of course, via the very medium, the internet, that is in some measure responsible for such closings and craterings. So I must be sanguine about the decline of bookshops, right? I wish it were so simple.
In his recent, sharply observed book Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class, Scott Timberg writes about the decline of the creative middle class, by which he means the middle, often lower middle, class that once made its livelihood from the arts and books. He writes, in one section of his book, about how bookshops once provided steady employment for people involved in literary pursuits. He notes certain writers who spent their formative years working in bookshops. A well-known example he cites is the novelist Jonathan Lethem. As a teenager, Lethem worked in Brooklyn’s Brazen Head Books, on Atlantic Avenue near the Boerum Hill neighborhood where he grew up and that he later vividly chronicled in The Fortress of Solitude. Later, after he’d dropped out of Bennington and moved to San Francisco, he worked in the famous Moe’s Books, in Berkeley. Indeed, he published his first novel (Gun, with Occasional Music, 1994) while working at Moe’s. Timberg also cites Patti Smith, the singer and poet and memoirist, who worked at Scribner’s—at the same time as my wife. And a couple of others.
He could have gone further. George Orwell’s essay “Bookshop Memories,” in the Fortnightly Review in 1935, recounts his experiences as a clerk in a London bookshop. Those experiences inspired, a year later, his novel Keep the Aspidistra Flying. Orwell worked at Booklover’s Corner, at Pond Street and South End Green, near the Keats House, in Hampstead, in 1934–35. By then he was in his early thirties, and no longer a fledgling writer: He’d already published Down and Out in Paris and London, Burmese Days, and A Clergyman’s Daughter.
The late Lee Sandlin, as fine a writer as his generation (which is also mine) produced in America, worked for many years in Howard Cohen’s Booksellers Row, an excellent bookshop on North Lincoln Avenue in Chicago. (When Lee and I were in college, we worked together in the big B. Dalton on South Wabash Avenue. I owe as much to my literary conversations with him, who was the most omnivorous and sophisticated reader I’ve ever met, as to any professor I ever had.) Around 1920, Peggy Guggenheim entered into New York’s cultural swirl when she worked—without pay!—in the legendary Sunwise Turn bookshop, near Grand Central. As Francine Prose writes in her recent biography of Guggenheim:
What a revelation it must have been for Peggy, emerging from the claustrophobic, convention-bound world that her parents and their parents had constructed, to meet writers and artists who cared deeply about literature and art and gravitated to a bookshop that also functioned as a gallery and a performance space for poetry readings and plays. Though Peggy received no salary, she was permitted to buy books at a discount, and she voraciously read the modern classics. Cultural celebrities— Amy Lowell, Lytton Strachey, Marsden Hartley—passed through Sunwise Turn, and when the customers encouraged Peggy to study art history, she immersed herself in the writings of Bernard Berenson.
My favorite example of a writer starting out by working in a bookshop has to be the critic and poet R. P. Blackmur. Blackmur dropped out of high school. In lieu of college, he worked as a clerk in the Dunster House Bookshop in Cambridge. The shop was run by the fabled bibliophile and Melville expert Maurice Firuski, and was frequented by the young Harvard aesthetes, led by Lincoln Kirstein, who were planning the magazine Hound & Horn. Kirstein was deeply impressed by Blackmur, who, though like Kirstein of college age, seemed old beyond his years. No one at Harvard, thought Kirstein and his friends, had Blackmur’s finely honed appreciation of modernist literature—no one at Harvard, indeed, seemed as widely read as Blackmur. Kirstein wrote in his autobiography, Mosaic, that Blackmur was the “best read individual I’d ever met,” and, in his introduction to the Hound & Horn Letters, the “best-educated man I’d ever met.” Kirstein and friends made Blackmur the editor of Hound & Horn, which put him on his path to fame—The Double Agent (1935), a 25-year professorship at Princeton (where the former bookshop clerk ran the Gauss Seminars in Criticism), and a send-up in Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift (as Professor Martin Sewell, “a muttering subtle drunken backwardleaning hollow-faced man”).
Of Dunster House Bookshop, Kirstein wrote, in Mosaic, that it had “the same rare quality as Heywood Hill’s on Curzon Street, Basil Blackwell’s in Oxford, and Terence Holliday’s on Forty-ninth Street in New York have. Such shops, which were also gathering places of men interested in ideas, seem hardly to exist today, even on the university level.” For what it’s worth, Heywood Hill’s and Blackwell’s are both still very much with us, though they may no longer be the “gathering places” Kirstein extolled. Heywood Hill founded his eponymous bookshop, on Curzon Street, in 1936. The shop is now owned by the 12th Duke of Devonshire, the son of Deborah Mitford. Benjamin Blackwell founded his bookshop, in Oxford, in 1879. His son, Basil, took over in 1913. The renowned academic bookshop is still there, on Broad Street, and has grown into a chain of more than forty branches throughout the UK. As for Terence Holliday’s, it’s long gone. The Holliday Bookshop opened at 10 West 47th Street in 1920, and moved in 1925 to 49 West 49th Street, where it lasted to 1951.
At the Harry Ransom Center, at the University of Texas in Austin, you can see the wooden office door preserved from a short-lived Greenwich Village bookshop of the Twenties. The door belonged to Frank Shay’s bookshop at 4 Christopher Street, at Greenwich Avenue. In 1915, Shay—radical, writer, publisher, and bookseller—took over the legendary Washington Square Bookshop that the brothers Albert and Charles Boni had opened two years earlier on MacDougal Street. In 1920 Shay opened his new shop on Christopher. On the wooden door that led from the selling floor to his office, the proprietor asked writers and others who visited his shop to write their names. The door bears the signatures of Sherwood Anderson, William Rose Benét, Theodore Dreiser, John Dos Passos, Hugh Ferriss, Ludwig Lewisohn, John Sloan, Edwin Arlington Robinson, Sara Teasdale, and many, many others. Terence Holliday signed Shay’s door, and so did Christopher Morley, a close friend of the proprietor. In 1925, Shay left the Village, and his shop, for Provincetown, where, inspired by his friend Morley’s novel Parnassus on Wheels, Shay became a mobile bookseller. The Christopher Street shop lasted all of five years. It’s remarkable that all those well-known writers found their way to Shay’s bookshop in the brief period in which it operated. When one thinks of Terence Holliday’s, and Frank Shay’s, and the Washington Square Bookshop, and any number of other historic New York bookshops, it’s well to keep in mind that the vast majority of them came and went long before our recent waves of gentrification and long before the internet and Amazon.
A quick note on the Ransom Center: This remarkable institution not only houses one of the most important collections of rare books (and sundry rare artifacts) in the United States, but it has made its holdings accessible through a series of fabulous websites. One of them is an extraordinary site on the Center’s Gutenberg Bible, allowing the reader to zoom in and out on each page. Another is an excellent site on William Morris and his Kelmscott Press. And another is The Greenwich Village Bookshop Door: A Portal to Bohemia, 1920-1925, all about Frank Shay’s bookshop and its Greenwich Village milieu. The site is a model of its kind. Here we see another of the ways the internet has enriched the book lover’s life. It’s not just the easy availability of every book in the world, but the information at our fingertips. The Ransom sites make superb use of web technology and aren’t just transpositions of content from one older medium to another newer one. The amateur of the Gutenberg Bible could never before have studied it in such depth. That’s a good thing. And so too are the web communities that have grown around such bookish blogs as Patrick Kurp’s Anecdotal Evidence, The Neglected Books Page, the late David Myers’s Commonplace Blog, and Vertigo, a blog dedicated to W. G. Sebald. The web even has a place for a blog titled Yvor Winters: The American Literary Rhadamanthus. For a year, Michael Dirda, the wonderful book reviewer for the Washington Post, wrote a blog at the American Scholar’s web site, where he often recounted his adventures in bookshops.
Kirstein’s Mosaic was published in 1994. That was for me the swan song year of my peripatetic bibliophilia in New York. 18th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues had Academy, the very good Skyline Books & Records, a quirky shop called Book Friends Café, the main Barnes & Noble (with those lockers), and, across Fifth Avenue, the cavernous Barnes & Noble sale annex, and, for respite and perusal of the day’s haul, Zip City Brewing Company, one of New York’s earliest brewpubs, with an appropriately literary name from Sinclair Lewis. It was also the year of the release of Netscape Navigator, and of my first online book purchases.
Kirstein was right about “seem hardly to exist today,” and I’m sure he was not prophesying Amazon, which also began in 1994. Even before the World Wide Web, some serious booksellers saw some writing on the wall and took to curated mail-order catalogues to sell serious books. James Mustich, Jr. started his beguiling Common Reader catalogue in 1986, listing but dozens of books with highly personal, leisurely and often enchanting descriptions, a sort of bookish J. Peterman catalogue. If you’d never thought of reading a novel by Alice Thomas Ellis, you were powerless not to after it had been commended to you by A Common Reader. Ditto for any number of other titles—Rose Macaulay’s Personal Pleasures, Rust Hills’s How to Do Things Right, Ron Hansen’s Mariette in Ecstasy, to name a few that I ordered, and read, and enjoyed. (A Common Reader hung on for twenty years, as long as Jeannette Watson’s Books & Company, and longer than the vast majority of brick-and-mortar bookshops.) Jason Epstein, editorial legend (Anchor Books, Random House) and publishing-industry savant, always trying to stay a step ahead of the curve, came out with The Reader’s Catalog around 1990. Its subtitle, An Annotated Listing of the 40,000 Best Books in Print in Over 300 Categories, told of its scope. Today it survives as a web site.
The writing on the wall, as it was read by many, wasn’t Amazon, but the proliferating superstores. The first bookstores I remember being called superstores were the big downtown stores operated by B. Dalton, which was owned by a Minneapolis department store chain. Most Dalton stores were quick stops for bestsellers and greeting cards, designed to fit into suburban shopping malls. But after conquering the malls, Dalton—and how quaint the name sounds today—began opening very large, very well-stocked “superstores” in such locations as Chicago’s Loop and in Manhattan on Fifth Avenue and 52nd Street. These were good bookstores, though the suburban origins of the chain may have made them anathema to highbrows, besides which there was much hand-wringing (that term again!) over the big chains (there was also the even larger Waldenbooks chain) and their domination, or potential domination, of the publishing industry—power over what got in print, what was promoted, what sold. The rhetoric unleashed had just the tone of what one now hears about Amazon. As I said, quaint.
Between B. Dalton and Amazon came, of course, Barnes & Noble. I’m not talking about the old main store (opened in 1932) in New York, with its lockers. That store, which stocked academic and popular books, and which closed in 2014, was the last hurrah of the old B&N. Barnes & Noble originated in 1886 as a bookshop called Arthur Hinds & Company, in the Cooper Union building on New York’s Astor Place. As the location may suggest, it was rather a high-minded store. In 1894, Clifford Noble, a Harvard graduate who had worked as a clerk for Hinds, joined as a partner in Hinds & Noble. In 1917, William Barnes bought out Hinds, and the firm became Barnes & Noble. (Barnes’s father was a printer in Wheaton, Illinois, whose company grew into Follett Corporation, the gigantic educational wholesaler.) In 1971 a man named Leonard Riggio, a New York native and son of a professional boxer, acquired Barnes & Noble. Through the 1970s and 1980s he aggressively expanded the company’s college bookstore operations, and acquired two chains—Bookmasters and Marboro—that specialized in “bargain books,” both remainders and inexpensively produced coffee-table books and literary reprints. B&N also acquired the B. Dalton chain. Then in the early 1990s Riggio began to roll out B&N’s first superstores. Most of these were outside of central cities, but they were not mall stores. Rather, they were stand-alone, big-box stores. And they were a sensation. The stores were well-stocked, with as many as 150,000 titles, and included specially designed children’s book departments and coffee bars. Easy chairs dotted the stores and browsers sat and read at their leisure. For anyone who ever worked in a bookshop, this was shocking. People sat in the chairs, and sat down in the aisles, and read, and drank coffee—and seldom seemed to buy anything, all the while cracking spines, creasing pages, and otherwise destroying the merchandise. What was Barnes & Noble up to, anyway? They were trying to create a new ambience for the American bookstore, to make it as welcoming and relevant a place as possible in people’s lives, a place where families might spend a Friday night, and they were placing their superstores in parts of the country where there may never before have been a quality bookstore.
They also opened several superstores in Manhattan, beginning with one on Broadway on the Upper West Side. Two notable ones were the one in the old Adams Dry Goods Store on Sixth Avenue and 21st Street, since replaced by Trader Joe’s, and the one on 17th Street, in the old Century Magazine Building opposite Union Square, which is still there and since the closing of the old Fifth Avenue and 18th Street store the de facto “main store.” These were both sprawling emporiums of books and coffee, and I remember, in the early 1990s, European friends saying how much they loved the Sixth Avenue store, that there was nothing like it in Europe—that indeed its high-ceilinged, colorful, and caffeinated atmosphere epitomized to them their experience of New York City. Yet many right-thinking New Yorkers, especially those in the book trade, felt rather differently. One publisher told me as late as the late 1990s that in his and his colleagues’ view, Barnes & Noble was far more dangerous to the fragile ecology of book publishing than was Amazon. B&N, he explained, bought massive quantities of books, knowing that they would be returning most of them. (In bookselling, stores may purchase books from publishers and return for credit any books that do not sell.) The publishers felt powerless not to capitulate to the demands of the newly all-powerful B&N. Amazon, on the other hand, did not return books. The literary critic Brooke Allen wrote an excellent piece in 2001 in The Atlantic defending Barnes & Noble from its snobbish detractors, and everything she wrote was, as far as it went, true: Barnes & Noble was not, as it had been accused of doing, gutting publishers’ midlists, it was not displacing quality books with junk, it was not, in any way, shape, or form, lowering the collective IQ. Indeed, said Allen, Barnes & Noble had made more good books more widely available than had ever been the case. I say “as far as it went” because Allen does not mention, anywhere in her essay, the rise of Amazon.
Now that Barnes & Noble is on the ropes, many who once professed to hate it now weep at its passing, for Amazon has become the devil. Barnes & Noble’s chief competitor among the chains, Borders, has already been put out of business. Borders began in 1971 in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where it became one of the most admired bookstores in America. It then developed into an enormous international chain of superstores—its highest-grossing store, Wikipedia tells us, was in Singapore. In New York, Borders had at one time, not long ago, four stores, of which one, on Broadway and Pine Street, was the only bookstore in the downtown Financial District. (That store opened soon after the Borders in the World Trade Center was destroyed on September 11, 2001.) In 2011, Borders ceased to exist, and now the Financial District, where New York bookselling began, where James Fenimore Cooper and William Cullen Bryant hung out at Wiley’s bookstore in the early 19th century, and where Isaac Mendoza hung on at 15 Ann Street from 1894 to 1990, has not a single bookstore. (Recently, a branch of the fine Posman mini-chain lasted but a few months in the ritzy Brookfield Place shopping center in the former World Financial Center.) Barnes & Noble, we are told, is teetering. It tried, with its Nook e-reader, to go head to head with Amazon. That proved tough to do. Now the chain is retrenching, closing stores and devising new concepts, one of which is to open full-service restaurants, with table service and wine and beer, in some of its stores, including one in Eastchester, New York. Whether this will work remains to be seen. I live steps from the Barnes & Noble store in Park Slope, Brooklyn, probably one of the most bookish neighborhoods in the country, home as it is to a highly educated, “gentrified” population and to many famous writers, including Paul Auster and Jonathan Safran Foer. Yet the local Barnes & Noble is a bit of a mess. There’s a big table up front stacked with adult coloring books, which I’m told are a big thing these days, and there’s a disheveled café, and magazines and greeting cards and Nooks, and no section that one would call strong. It is, in fact, dispiriting. I don’t know how business is, but the whole thing seems a waste. I’d be very sad to see it go, since many of its customers seem to drive or take the subway from bookless neighborhoods elsewhere in Brooklyn, and because I’m charmed by how Barnes & Noble stores, including this one, have become a kind of wholesome hangout for teens, and because I buy magazines there. But couldn’t it be so much more? When it opened, one of the two independent bookstores on our local “high street,” Seventh Avenue, closed immediately, as though to say it could not even hope to compete. The other independent, Community Bookstore, hung on, and, under new ownership, seems to be doing very well, highlighting books by local writers and sponsoring readings by celebrated writers, from Homero Aridjis to Slavoj Žižek. (Two very good used bookstores came and went, sadly the victims of spiraling real estate. Brightman’s Attic, the used and rare bookshop that is a central location in Paul Auster’s lovely novel The Brooklyn Follies, set in the neighborhood, is wholly fictitious.) Some of New York’s Barnes & Noble stores, though, are excellent. The one on 17th Street has the best paperback fiction section in town and is in general a browser’s delight.
Waterstones, the UK’s nearest equivalent to B&N, was similarly teetering. Founded as Waterstone’s—they’ve lately ditched the apostrophe— in 1982, the chain became a ubiquitous high-street presence. Under the ownership of HMV Group, which operated record stores—remember those?—and sought to be the king of all media, Waterstone’s (still apostrophized) ran into the bookselling headwind, also known as Amazon, and was in desperate shape when in 2001 the chain was purchased by a Russian billionaire, and former Yeltsin adviser, named Alexander Mamut. Mamut then hired James Daunt to be the new managing director. This seemed remarkable. Daunt operated a six-store chain of elegant bookshops, including his first store, opened in 1990 on Marylebone High Street, which is, quite simply, one of the most beautiful bookshops in the world, housed in a building purpose-built as a bookshop (an extreme rarity) in 1912. That the proprietor of a mini-chain could lead a 300-store mega-chain was perhaps a risk only a Russian oligarch would take. And it has seemed to pay off. Waterstones lost the apostrophe and climbed back into the black. Daunt did it, news reports tell us, first by a round of draconian cost-cutting, closing underperforming stores and drastically trimming staff in the surviving stores, and then through an intensive refocusing of priorities away from the homogenization characteristic of large chains to a greater attentiveness to local conditions and a renewed emphasis on traditional bookselling practices, such as handselling by knowledgeable clerks. As Daunt told an interviewer for the Guardian, “this business”—Waterstones—“which I had sneered at for many, many years, you suddenly think: ‘Oh sugar, if it disappears this is going to be really, really not good for anyone.’” This makes me think two things. One is that it’s hard to think of Lenny Riggio saying “Oh sugar.” And the other is that, unlikely as it may sound, might not Barnes & Noble seek its next leader not from the usual ranks of corporate executives and MBAs but from the independent bookselling world? Might not the proprietors of Three Lives or McNally Jackson, or of Denver’s much admired Tattered Cover, or of Square Books, in Oxford, Mississippi, or of Books & Books, in Coral Gables, Florida, be the ticket? Because, oh sugar, if Barnes & Noble fails, it really won’t be good for anyone, will it?
Meanwhile, Amazon has weirdly decided it wants to be a brick-and- mortar retailer, and is rolling out a series of bookstores, including two in Manhattan (one in Time Warner Center, where a large Borders once operated, and one near Penn Station).
I admitted upfront that I “love” Amazon. Can anyone truly love Amazon? I’ll admit this: Not a day goes by that I don’t find myself “browsing” on Amazon. Their recommendation algorithm seems to me something of a joke, other than for those times it actually leads me to books or writers I would never have otherwise discovered, a recent case in point being the delightful British novelist Barbara Trapido. Then again, the algorithm’s insistence that I am a customer for self-help books does make me wonder if they have surveyed my online activity and determined that I, well, need help. I am also an inveterate consumer of Kindle e-books. I know, I know, this marks me as a philistine. Sometimes I even buy a Kindle version of a book I already own in “hard copy,” as people now say. The truth is that a lifetime of reading has made me appreciate how easy on my eyes is the text on a Kindle Paperwhite, with its adjustable fonts and so on. Much of my work involves the constant consultation of reference books and heavily illustrated art and architecture books, and for these no e-reader will ever do. But at night, when I read novels, the Kindle has pretty much taken over. But have I made a deal with the devil? Mustn’t we resist Amazon, which has done so much damage to the fragile ecology of publishing and bookselling?
Maybe. I’m sensitive to the concerns of writers like Scott Timberg. It’s harder than it once was to make a middle-class living in the book trade. But it was never easy. In his 1952 autobiography, Lying in State, Stanton Griffis, the investment banker and diplomat who helped save the bankrupt Brentano’s during the Great Depression when he and Chicagoan Arthur Kroch bought New York’s most famous bookseller (and then decided to operate as separate Chicago and New York entities), claimed his business was under siege, from two forces. One was the then new book clubs, which were undercutting bookstores’ sales of new releases and bestsellers. (Remarkable fact of the day: Book of the Month Club still exists!) The other, and this is a doozy, was that, Griffis said, bookstore clerks had come to expect a living wage. “I can even at my advanced age remember the happy days of the book business when a man was able to employ bright young intellectuals, to whom the satisfaction of working among books was payment enough in itself. They were willing to work for a great bookstore for little or nothing”— like Peggy Guggenheim working in Madge Jenison’s Sunwise Turn. Yet even with the free labor, Jenison, as she recounts in her charming memoir of her bookshop, could not make ends meet. “There is a special and curious situation in the book trade different from that which exists in any other undertaking where buying and selling are carried on. It does not support the people who do it,” wrote Jenison in 1923. “Every bookseller is dying for his country.” Even the booksellers who don’t pay their staff. Just to be clear: The unpaid internship is nothing new.
“The retail book trade in new and second-hand books in the United States is in many important respects in an unsatisfactory condition throughout much of the country.” So wrote Edward Shils in his essay “The Bookshop in America,” which appeared in Daedalus in 1963. New York, he said, was the only American city with “a respectable number of good shops,” though good shops could also be found in Boston/Cambridge and in San Francisco. Not so his own city of Chicago, Shils said. In the 1970s, I studied with the filmmaker Stan Brakhage, who spent part of his year in Chicago. He’d grumble that Chicago didn’t have a decent bookshop. I can’t vouch for 1963, when Shils wrote his essay, but for the time I shared with Brakhage in the 1970s I can say unequivocally that the great filmmaker was as wrong as can be (and I told him as much). The city then had three outstanding neighborhood clusters of bookshops. Up in Evanston were the wonderful Great Expectations (as fine a serious literary bookshop as I’ve ever been in), which opened in 1949 and closed in 2001, and the bookshop of Richard S. Barnes, one of America’s great bookmen, who wrapped your purchases in brown paper and string. In Hyde Park, the original Powell’s (it predates the one in Portland by a year) opened in 1970, and is still going strong, as is Seminary Co-op, which opened in 1961 (two years before Shils’s essay was published) and which the poet Mark Strand called “the greatest bookstore in America,” a judgment with which I, and many others, concur. On the North Side, Booksellers Row, Aspidistra, and other good secondhand shops clustered. Brakhage was dead wrong, and Shils, who was pessimistic about the prospects for bookshops, was wrong, too. At one point even Waterstone’s operated a bookstore on North Michigan Avenue. Now most of those shops are gone, and Chicago does not feel like a great book town. (OK, maybe Shils was right after all.) But does any town, in 2016, feel like a great book town?
Shils is very sharp about what, in 1963, seemed to be ruining bookselling. Indeed, he sounds a lot like Jane Jacobs: The aged, low-rent buildings, often located on the peripheries of central business districts, that suit bookshops, which, to be good, “must render [their] capital inert by putting a lot of it into slow-moving lines,” were being bulldozed in orgies of “urban renewal.” Indeed, urban renewal wiped away more mom-and-pop businesses of all kinds than have the rent hikes associated with our own era of hyper-gentrification. How, then, to explain the bookselling renaissance that was clearly a feature of the 1960s and 1970s? Well, urban renewal subsided, and cities endured a general economic decline, with plenty of affordable space, and maybe that’s all there was to it, or maybe there wasn’t a renaissance at all, and Shils was overreacting in 1963. After all, Great Expectations and Richard S. Barnes (then still in the city and not in Evanston) were there, and Seminary Co-op had begun, though Powell’s hadn’t opened yet. My own feeling is that bookshops have always ebbed and flowed, and there have always been reasons why they were going to become extinct: clerks demanding livable wages, book clubs, urban renewal, superstores, gentrification, Amazon. Or just the dumbing down of America: “I tell you, New Yorkers don’t know books, don’t want to know them. . . . Of course there are our modern book collectors. . . . They buy books as an investment, just like pictures. . . . You can hardly call such people booklovers.” The speaker was the 59th Street bookseller E. A. Custer. The year was 1918.
Edward Shils wrote: “The wonder is, given the unremunerativeness of the business, that bookshops exist at all. It takes a special kind of person, somewhat daft in a socially useful and quite pleasant way but nonetheless somewhat off his head, to give himself to bookselling.” The “quite pleasant” part is not always the case. Some of the most unpleasant people you will ever meet run and work in bookshops. It’s also true that among booksellers count some of the most truly wonderful, even noble, people you will ever meet. And while it’s sometimes nearly tragic when a fine old bookshop is forced out of business by, say, a rent rise, it is also true that the book trade has been the locus of continual grumbling for as long as there has been a book trade, and that booksellers like Griffis and Custer are the rule, not the exception. The disgruntlement factor is peculiarly high in bookselling.
In 1970, the charming, and bestselling, epistolary memoir 84, Charing Cross Road reproduced the New Yorker Helene Hanff’s transatlantic correspondence with the proprietor and staff of Marks & Co., a book dealer on Charing Cross Road, in London. Hanff had been trying, she said, to find clean, affordable, hardback copies of the books she most enjoyed in English literature, and had been unable to find them in New York. This was before I moved to New York, and I remember thinking, as I read this, “Come off it, lady. All you have to do is take the subway downtown and browse around Book Row.” For indeed Hanff wrote at a time when, we are led to believe, New York bookselling was in its pre-gentrification, pre-internet golden age. Frankly, I was incredulous that she could not find the books she wanted in New York and had to write away to London to get them. But as I’ve reflected, I think it’s entirely possible this was the case. Finding books, before the internet, was always a hit-or-miss, needle-in-a-haystack business. The stock at Schulte’s and the stock at Stammer’s largely overlapped or in other respects comprised mostly junk. Secondhand dealers have always had to buy most of their books in job lots. There might, or might not, be buried gems. This is the case at the level of books—clean, affordable, hardback—that Hanff was looking for. Of course, by 1970 paperbacks of the books Hanff liked were readily available in the better big-city bookstores, like Doubleday. But like many dedicated readers as they mature, Hanff coveted durable, legible hardbacks, and even in the glory days of Book Row those weren’t that easy to find. A Helene Hanff of 2016 would shop at AbeBooks.
Today in New York the young, peripatetic book-lover, or the aged book-loiterer, can still, just about, sate himself or herself. Housing Works Bookstore, on Crosby Street, and the Strand, and Argosy, as great as ever on East 59th Street, and the shops—Three Lives, McNally Jackson, the new Rizzoli, Book Culture—selling new books, are surprisingly many given the power of online book sales. The Strand, by the way, is larger than ever, and larger, in inventory, than all of Book Row was at its height. That might sound like a recipe for monopolistic pricing. In fact, from the time I moved to New York, more than 35 years ago, to today, the Strand’s prices haven’t kept pace with inflation. How can that be? The Strand now competes not with other Book Row shops but with Amazon and AbeBooks. The result has been salutary. Not every city has been as lucky as New York. But for a New Yorker, between the surviving booksellers in town and those on the internet, might it not be—should I duck?—the best time ever to be a bookish person? Two days a week I have free afternoons between classes, and I use this time to take long walks through the city, and visit museums. Whatever my route, I touch down in every bookshop I pass. I manage, once a week at least, to visit the Strand, and the new Rizzoli. Though it has been many, many years since I worked in a bookshop, I can’t enter one without compulsively straightening the books on tables and putting in order the books on shelves (I have always loved physically handling books in these ways), and I know that the clerks who see me do this know immediately that I was once one of them. If the clerks observe me, I also observe them: How does a book clerk survive in New York City today? No doubt as so many other young people do, by doubling and tripling and quadrupling and quintupling up in apartments in ever more remote neighborhoods of Brooklyn and Queens, and by eating ramen noodles for dinner. Or maybe they have trust funds and their bookshop jobs might just as well be unpaid internships. I eavesdrop for a sense of whether they’re as earnestly bookish as I was, or whether their universities inoculated them against Western civ. I breathe in the bookshop air, always try to buy something, and later that night go home to whatever novel I’m reading on my Kindle.