How Do New York City’s Bookstores Stay in Business in the 21st Century?
With Amazon eating up a growing share of book sales, and the worlds of music and movies going digital, it seemed like it was only a matter of time until local booksellers went the way of the Automat. The convenience and unmatchable selection of online shopping, at Bezos’ store, in particular, was thought to be a death knell for the traditional bookselling model. While it’s true that many bookstores, both corporate chains, and local favorites, have fallen by the wayside, the independent bookseller is far from disappeared.
For devotees of brick-and-mortar bookshops, the current scene is highly encouraging. There’s reason to be optimistic for the next generation of readers in the five boroughs. For a variety of reasons, new and old independent bookstores have been surviving and thriving in this new economy. These are three of them, each with their own qualities to stand out in a crowded marketplace.
Know Your Audience – Printed Matter
Funded by a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting contemporary art, Printed Matter has existed in New York since 1977, moving from TriBeCa to SoHo to their current home on 11th Avenue in Chelsea. Managed by an artist’s foundation, Printed Matter is credited with popularizing art books as a whole, making the printed page a viable medium for unique artistic expression and not just pictures of paintings.
A new planned location in the East Village is just one of several art bookstores planned for the neighborhood, proof that this niche is one that inspires visits from devotees in enough numbers to support multiple locations. A retail outlet that knows its audience and even shapes it through thoughtful curation of their offerings can see long life, no matter how much the market churns. Printed Matter proves that customer identity matters.
Community Roots – Lit Bar
While this one has yet to open, the story of its origin is emblematic of the new bookstore trend. Barnes and Noble, the nation’s sole remaining major bookstore chain, announced in 2014 that their final Bronx outpost would be closing, leaving the borough of 1.4 million people without one solitary bookstore. Petitions were filed, protests held, but by the end of 2016, the Bronx was bookless.
Enter Noelle Santos. One of the passionate protesters went entrepreneurial to fight the tides, and her store, Lit Bar, a combination wine bar and family-friendly bookstore is slated to open this fall. Modeled on Denver, Colorado’s BookBar with a uniquely NYC twist, Santos’ bookstore will hopefully serve as proof that the Bronx is ready for a new resurgence of bookshops in this century.
More than material – Books Are Magic
Author Emma Straub’s Cobble Hill, Brooklyn store has been the toast of the area in the year since it’s opened, serving as the spiritual replacement for long-beloved neighborhood institution Book Court, which closed in 2016 when its owners decided to call it a career.
Straub’s new store wasted no time in making their name known, thanks in large part to a robust social media presence featuring the store’s highly Instagrammable outer mural and a pristinely manicured interior. But it’s not all style and no substance: frequent in-store author appearances and signings as well as sponsorship of larger events (a recent reading featuring Stephen King at St. Ann’s Church downtown drew a capacity crowd) combine with an ever-updated selection allowing Books are Magic to comprehensively serve “New York’s book borough” thoughtfully, pleasing both eyes and minds.
These stories may not necessarily be a detailed blueprint for booksellers to navigate today’s market, but they illustrate the fact that unique, independent retailers still have a place in New York City. For any retail outlet, offering the same experience as the place next door isn’t going to cut it in a world where nearly anything can be bought from the comforts of home, and the bookstore scene has adjusted accordingly.
Interestingly, even Amazon runs two brick-and-mortar bookstores in the city, proof that the physical space still has viability for corporate retailers, even if they exist partially to promote online offerings. It seems now that the death of the bookstore was greatly exaggerated. For book lovers of the five boroughs, these and other locations are providing a good reason to get off the couch and head out to get their fix.