Independent booksellers may have dreaded Borders's arrival in New York City in 1996, but it was Barnes & Noble that tried to keep its longtime rival out by leasing every available 40,000-sq.-ft. space on its home turf.
In the intervening decade and a half since Borders gained a toehold at the World Trade Center, much has changed. Superstores are no longer the wave of the future. And Borders's decision to abandon three of its five Manhattan superstores (or 96,000 square feet of selling space), along with two stores on Long Island and stores in Ithaca, Saratoga Springs, Scarsdale, and Wappinger Falls, has largely been met with a shrug among other booksellers. Although many beloved independents have shut their doors since Borders arrived in New York—including Coliseum Books, Gotham Book Mart, and Oscar Wilde—as have Barnes & Noble stores in Lincoln Center, Chelsea, and Astor Place, the most recent spate of closings have less to do with Borders than a rejiggered bookselling landscape shaped by e-books and e-tailing.
"The only difference I see in Borders's leaving affecting BookCourt is the number of people applying to work here," says Zack Zook, general manager and events coordinator of the Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, indie. In fact BookCourt, which opened 30 years ago, is coming off its best year ever in 2010 and has begun to expand. It reopened its lower level, which it turned into offices three years ago, and now features remainders and bargain titles. In the summer it plans to add a coffee and wine bar downstairs.
Nearby in Greenpoint, WORD experienced strong double-digit growth in 2010. The four-year-old indie saw sales rise 50%. "I know that's an anomaly," says owner Christine Onoratii. "I'm in a growth mode. But my clientele is very committed to us. They're not just buying here. They're going on Twitter to tell other people that. You can't underestimate the value of social media. For us, it's working." Still, she says, "I do worry about the effect Borders is going to have on the industry. I feel like we aren't as valued as we should be because the big guys get so much attention."
With the addition of language classes, three-year-old Idlewild Books in Manhattan, which specializes in foreign language, world literature, and travel books, also saw sales double last year. "The biggest growth for us has been in things that are hard to find elsewhere," says owner David Del Vecchio. He added more travel guides, while other stores scaled back, and upped imports from the U.K. and for French- and Spanish-language books.
Sarah McNally, owner of one of Manhattan's largest independents, 7,000-sq.-ft. McNally Jackson, says business has been good and expects little to no gain from the downsizing of Borders. "I really can't imagine that my customers shop at Borders. My only concern is with the industry as a whole," she says. For the past two years the store has seen double-digit growth, and it wasn't until earlier this month that McNally decided to scrap plans to open a satellite location on the Upper West Side. "It's an enormous amount of work running a bookstore," says McNally, who views the store's new Espresso Book Machine, installed in February, as a separate self-publishing/print-on-demand business. "It's one of those things that will be as big as we want to make it," she says. "I think it will be extraordinary."
"Borders had no impact on us," says Toby Cox, owner of the extraordinarily tiny and carefully stocked 550-sq.-ft. Three Lives & Co. in the West Village. His biggest concern is the economy. "We're just getting out of the hole from the 2008–2009 recession. We're not quite up to 2007 figures," says Cox. Although he knows that some of his customers have e-books, he has no intention of competing for that business. "It isn't about Facebook or making friends online or Tweets," he says. "It's about them coming in and exploring books. It happens right here. To me, that's essential. It's about the experience with the store, the book, and fellow customers."
By contrast, Posman Books at Grand Central Terminal has been affected by the velocity with which e-books have taken off, especially for commercial hardcover fiction. The Grand Central store has changed its product mix to incorporate more nonbook items, according to v-p and buyer Robert Fader. However, books, particularly food-related titles, are a key part of the inventory at the Chelsea Market store. In early April, Posman at Chelsea Market moved to a temporary location across the hall while it removes a wall and remakes its two-room store into one big space. In addition, it is selling cookbooks at a pop-up restaurant set up by the James Beard Foundation at the entrance to the Market.
For Bob Contant, co-owner of St. Mark's in the Village, it's not so much e-books that're a problem as mobile phone apps that book buyers use to scan books that they buy online. "We have a lot of small press, university press, and what used to be called midlist titles. We have a large new title section and a large display table for photography and art books. We go to great lengths to make the store interesting," says Contant, wondering if those efforts are still valued. "There's no room in the marketplace for a showroom," he says.
The Strand Book Store, now in its ninth decade, continues to add new products and expand sections to stay fresh. "What we've always done well is create an environment for discovery," says co-owner Nancy Bass Wyden. "We're trying to make it even more so." In addition to adding nostalgia candy at the checkout area and lunch boxes and magnets, the store increased its comics and graphic novel section by 25% and hosted its first Strandicon comics event earlier this month. It has also begun partnering with other retailers like Kate Spade, which produced the short story collection She Is Quick and Curious and Playful and Strong, which was available at Kate Spade's New York and online stores and at the Strand. By year's end, Wyden will add a cafe to the store. Despite the Strand's nimbleness, Wyden worries that in the wake of Borders's collapse, customers will wonder about the future of bookstores.
The Other New York
For some entrepreneurial booksellers, changes in retailing and lost market share have spurred new revenue streams. Susan Novotny, owner of the Book House of Stuyvesant Plaza in Albany and Market Block Books in Troy, saw her business drop 20% in 1993 when a Borders opened nearby. She brought it back up and went on to become one of the first booksellers to create a print-on-demand business. In February 2008, Novotny teamed up with Eric Wilska, owner of the Bookloft in Great Barrington, Mass., to launch the Troy Book Makers. Since then the business has expanded several times, most recently this winter when it added another 900 square feet.
Last fall Novotny decided that the way to sell more of the books that sell best in her store would be to launch her own indie publishing house, Staff Picks Press. Her very first book, Peter Golden's novel, Comeback Love, was recently picked up by Atria, which will publish a new edition at the beginning of 2012. Just after the turn of the year, she and David Didriksen, president of Willow Books in Acton, Mass., came up with a way to take advantage of closing Borders stores by creating Bookstore Solutions Management to work with landlords to transition the stores into independents.
For many stores, including Borders, Amazon poses the greatest threat. "I can't compete with 57% discounts and free shipping. I just try to run a great bookstore," says Suzanna Hermans, co-owner of Oblong Books & Music in Rhinebeck and Millerton. Despite modest sales increases, up 2% last year, and slow sales throughout the state in January and February because of snow, she followed through with a 1,000-sq.-ft. expansion in Rhinebeck to create a large children's section and bring the store's size to 3,600 sq. ft. "We now have more space for events," says Hermans, "and are able to carry many more toys and games. We also re-carpeted the grown-up side of the store and moved nearly every book into a new location."
Shopping local has had a significant impact in keeping some bookstores alive, and contributed to the resuscitation of Buffalo Street Books in Ithaca. When declining sales caused the owner to liquidate in March, events coordinator Bob Proehl stepped in and encouraged others to join him in buying shares in the store. Thanks to college professors and others in the community—even a nearby church passed the hat—the store reopened last weekend as a co-operative. What had been the room for course books is being turned into a cafe, and the co-operative store also has a larger children's section. "Because we've done this publicly," says Proehl, now director of operations, "it's raised an awareness of the importance of buying your books locally."
Although she's an advocate for shopping local, Lucy Kogler, president of the New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association and manager of Talking Leaves... Books in Buffalo, which turns 40 this year, says, "I've never felt like the chains were our competitor. Amazon is our competitor. Like everyone else, I think the closing of another storefront is not a good thing." Without bricks-and-mortar stores, she thinks that the whole physicality of buying a book by walking into a bookstore will disappear.
While some industry-watchers fear that Borders customers will move online rather than transition to other bricks-and-mortar bookstores, the burgeoning of bookselling in Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Ithaca could be a harbinger of a renaissance for independents without Borders.