People descended on the partially empty shelves like vultures on a carcass. This carcass was none other than the former Borders bookstore by Penn Station. As bargain hunters prowled through the store, looking for classics and new bestsellers, I realized that this was not the place for me. Chain stores are for people who think they like books but may just be looking for a Starbucks to read People (or the Twilight series). I, a true bibliophile, prefer smaller, independent bookstores where lovers of books assembled. I’ve made numerous friends and acquaintances in small bookstores. My favorite childhood playmate was someone I met while buying colorful Berenstain Bears books. We both bought the same book and our parents set up a play date for us to “read” them together. I wasn’t about to make any friends in this half-gutted Borders and left without making any purchases.
New Yorkers pass by them every day, chains like Barnes & Noble and the former Borders, as well as smaller, independent stores, not giving them a thought except when they want a book. Online shopping for bestselling thrillers would not even be worth mentioning, if it wasn’t erasing my safe havens around the city. Nowadays, as the Kindle ad kindly points out, we don’t even need bookstores at all. Soon, they may be extinct. However, bookselling is an old institution, with history going back thousands of years, much like the church (and one can argue that a store like City Lights in San Francisco or Shakespeare and Co. in Paris are indeed hallowed ground).
Printing began in New York as early as 1693, but bookselling was not popular. Even Benjamin Franklin’s 18th century efforts to make it an illustrious trade didn’t help as schools and libraries ordered books from Europe. However, after the second war against England, printing presses became more popular and the rise of newspapers and spread of education created a greater demand for books. It’s important to realize that the distinction between publisher and bookseller happened recently, as initially, they were one and the same.
While it is impossible to write about bookstores in New York without mentioning Barnes & Noble, which incidentally opened its first store in New York, and Strand, the only surviving bookstore from the original Fourth Avenue “Book Row,” we do not have to fear losing either any time soon. Barnes & Noble is the largest bookstore chain in the United States and Strand is currently competing for the title of world’s largest used bookstore — a joy for lovers of Starbucks and Dan Brown as well as the true bibliophiles of this city. However, bits of the city’s literary history have already been chipped off.
The oldest bookstore in New York, the Isaac Mendoza Book Company, opened its doors in 1894. Sadly, it closed them in 1990 after the owner, Walter Caron, had to start taking money out of his own savings to pay the store’s rent. Three floors of 15 Ann Street once catered to the browsing pleasures of Buckminster Fuller and Christopher Morley, until high rent prices limited the store to the second and third floors. The rumor that J.P Morgan bought a Gutenberg Bible at the store wasn’t true, but Isaac’s ability to gather “unusual books” caused the store’s clientele to flock there. Upon his death, the store passed to his sons, but Isaac’s legacy remained. After the death of David Mendoza, Caron, longtime friend of David and his wife, Gilda, bought the store and sold its wares until closing on February 28, 1990.
New York’s “millennials” probably don’t remember Isaac Mendoza’s store, but most of us know St. Mark’s Bookshop, which unfortunately may be heading in the same direction. Established in 1977, it’s an East Village institution now facing a crisis that caused many of Strand’s “Book Row” competitors to go out of business: high rent and decrease in sales. The store was particularly popular with the Beat Generation; it was the place Allen Ginsberg met Philip Glass which led to Hydrogen Jukebox. Currently in negotiations with its landlord, Cooper Union, St. Mark’s faces financial difficulties and requests rent to be lowered by $5K, something Cooper Union is not keen on. Co-owner Bob Contant has been using his own Social Security benefits to stay in business. They have cut expenses, laid off part-time staff and are even receiving aid from the state to pay full-time staff. To be fair, Cooper Union is not entirely evil. As an engineer who paid tens of thousands of dollars every year throughout college, I’d like to point out that Cooper Union offers full scholarships to every undergraduate student they accept.
As the president of the Cooper Square Committee, Joyce Ravitz, said, “Bookstores like St Mark’s make the Lower East Side the Lower East Side.” Residents of the area, members of the community board and avid readers across the city have started a petition to keep the store open. Why? Because they love the store and they love its books.
I first stepped into St. Mark’s as a high school student, after I stormed out of the house following an argument with my parents regarding college majors. Determined not to major in a “stable subject that will always provide money” (the universe is laughing now), coconut bubble tea from Saint’s Alp Teahouse in hand, my friend and I spent the afternoon in St. Mark’s reading books of poetry and vowed to dedicate our lives to the written word. Nowadays, to reacquaint my jaded 25-year-old self with the 17-year-old who had a dream, I sit in that same corner and read, certain that another generation will do the same thing, in St Mark’s (hopefully) and other stores across the city and the country.
Our city may be the center of the publishing world, but smugness is unbecoming. This isn’t the only book-loving town and other parts of the country are not lacking in their own share of quality bookstores. While researching this article, I stumbled across Marc Fitten’s blog which chronicled his quest to travel to 100 independent bookstores around the U.S. — he isn’t finished and is saving NYC to countdown the final ten. The New York born author of Valeria’s Last Stand travelled the length of both coasts without a map or GPS, only hearing of stores along the way. Fitten noticed that walking into a bookstore, he met all the people from a town that he would have wanted to meet. The heartfelt conversations he had with people in those stores were the most important part of his journey.
“Booksellers are passionate and they’re gamblers. The only thing as crazy is being a writer,” Fitten said. He also added that New York is “unlike every other city in America” with its sheer number of bookstores. Readers in New York have more options of stores and books, whereas in smaller towns, with fewer stores, a particular book may not be readily available and shipments may take days to arrive.
We New Yorkers are lucky in many ways. However I would hate to live in a city, or a world, where I can have a falafel at four in the morning, but can’t walk into a small bookstore and have the owner recommend me a book. After a late night snack last week, fingers slightly slippery from oily tahini sauce, I dropped my keys while stumbling into my apartment and noticed the little red Borders reward card I got on a day that I was looking for an iced coffee and a magazine. I took it off my keychain, and in a bittersweet moment, despite my bookstore-snobbery, I was sad that there was one (really many, considering Borders was a chain) less bookstore in the world.