“We finally dug ourselves out of the recession,” says Toby Cox, owner of the 44-year-old Three Lives & Company, giving voice to a sentiment expressed by a number of New York City booksellers. He ranks 2011 as one of the store’s best since he purchased it 11 years ago.
Newer stores, like five-year-old WORD in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn, are also seeing sales build this year. “We’re still growing double digits,” says owner Christine Onorati. “People are buying more books than ever. Suddenly our hardcovers are turning the most and becoming the most profitable.”
Based on the strength of last year’s sales and the start of 2012, New York City could be returning to its roots as one of the country’s most vibrant book towns. Certainly it’s been adding more new stores than most cities. La Casa Azul Bookstore will open in El Barrio in June, possibly as early as the start of BEA. At the show’s close, Word Up Community Bookshop, which opened as a pop-up store to serve northern Manhattan last June will celebrate its first anniversary. “Word Up is basically a 2011 Uptown Arts Stroll event that never went away. So it was very important to us to be in place for this year’s edition, and just to be able to hold a one-year anniversary on June 17,” says cofounder and collective member Veronica Liu. The store, which has worked out a month-by-month leasing agreement with its landlord, will mark its first year with 10 days of events starting June 7. And after losing the country’s oldest gay and lesbian bookstore, Oscar Wilde Bookstore, in 2009, New York could be getting an LGBT store later this year. The Bureau of General Services–Queer Division bookstore/cafe is scouting for a space in Manhattan.
Several stores with more permanent leases opened during the past year. In January, Idlewild Books added a second location in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, which focuses on foreign language books and offers language classes. “We’re doing well, and we haven’t even had to advertise,” says owner David Del Vecchio. He has also shifted the emphasis at his main store, which opened four years ago in Manhattan, away from travel. “Foreign language has become 20% of our book sales,” he says. “Two years ago it was zero. Travel books are increasingly being replaced by apps.” Del Vecchio is considering adding a third neighborhood store in 2013 patterned after the Brooklyn one.
Earlier this month Rizzoli expanded its presence and opened a store-within-a-store in Saks Fifth Avenue’s midtown flagship. The new store carries books on fashion, design, entertaining, interiors, travel destinations, and New York. At Posman Books, general manager Robert Fader says simply, “Now we are three.” In addition to its 5,000-sq.-ft. flagship at Grand Central, Posman remodeled its store at Chelsea Market last summer to accommodate more events and to expand the children’s section. Then in November it opened a scaled-down version of its Grand Central store in Rockefeller Center. “It suits our brand,” says Fader. “The public’s opinion of what a bookstore should be has changed quite a bit. Part of the process [at Chelsea] was to have a bookstore that didn’t look like a bookstore so we could sell more [nonbook items]. It did everything we hoped it would.”
Other stores have successfully adapted. “That’s what we’ve done time and again,” says Zack Zook, general manager of BookCourt in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn. “In the end you have to adapt.” After expanding the store’s physical footprint by 2,000 sq. ft. in 2008, Zook is rebuilding its Web site, which he sees as “a lifeline” for distributing content.
At the venerable Strand Bookstore in Greenwich Village, which turns 85 this year, one of the most important changes was likely invisible to customers. It moved its warehouse from the store to Brooklyn to free up expensive real estate. More eyes are focused on its table displays of writers’ favorite books. In May, the store will display Jonathan Franzen’s favorites; in June, Ann Tyler’s. “We’re putting a lot of effort into keeping things fresh,” says co-owner Nancy Bass Wyden.
Other stores are becoming more events-centric. Tatiana Nicoli is trying to make her two-year-old Boulevard Books & Cafe in Dyker Heights, Brooklyn, more of a neighborhood hangout by holding cooking demos and movie nights with pizza, popcorn, and drinks. “We’re doing more book fairs, and we’re in a perfect strategic location with lots of young families and people who like to shop local,” says Jessica Stockton Bagnulo, co-owner of Greenlight Bookstore in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. Sales are already up 20%–30% this year. But to keep the momentum, Greenlight is expanding its relationship with the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Last year it began selling books before and after BAM events—and BAM merchandise on its Web site (greenlightbookstore.com). This fall it will cohost a new literary series at BAM.
At McNally Jackson Books in SoHo, the addition of an Espresso Book Machine got off to a slow start. Now, says owner Sarah McNally, “it’s as busy as it could possibly be.” She credits the turnaround to hiring two people to serve as production staff. Another new hire, a part-time carpenter, has helped her re-envision the space. He built a bargain book section, so that she could begin carrying bargain and reminder titles, and he’s in the midst of creating a teen reading area. McNally is also planning to launch a book of the month club in May.
Obviously not every store is up. Boulevard is just beginning to break even, and a year-long rent reduction and a petition to save the store haven’t been enough to get St. Mark’s Bookshop in the East Village over the hump. “Traffic is down,” says co-owner Bob Contant. “We’re 20% short of where we need to be.” On the other hand, if a third of the 44,000 people who signed the petition came in and bought a book, the store would be in the black.
Even those with strong sales foresee potential wrinkles ahead. “I hope the agency model will prevail,” says McNally, referring to the DoJ lawsuit against Apple. “The price differential between us and Amazon is already so much. The price of a book will be four times as much [without agency pricing].” Chris Doeblin, co-owner of Book Culture with two stores in Morningside Heights, worries about credit. “I can honestly say the book business is pretty darn good,” says Doeblin. “Our overall sales are up, but credit terms are tightening to the extent that we can’t do orderly business.” He’s turned to upscale gifts, children’s toys and games for extra margin.
With the turnaround in sales has come leasing concerns. Even though her sales are up 20%, Marva Allen, CEO of Hue-Man Bookstore & Cafe in Harlem, says that rent in her area is quadrupling. She’s already met with her landlord in advance of her lease expiring in August. She has no intention of calling it quits even if they don’t come to terms. “We’re going to be around somewhere, somehow,” she says.
Power Readers at BEA
Starting this week a dozen New York City bookstores will display postcard-size invitations for their customers to attend BEA. Some will also Tweet and send out e-newsletters with their store code so that Power Readers (as their badges will be designated) can sign up at the BEA Web site to attend the show.
“It’s a good idea and overdue,” says Chris Doeblin, co-owner of Book Culture. But for him, like many booksellers, it’s not an unalloyed opportunity. He worries that BEA made the decision too late and that publishers won’t have time to develop interactive discussions and create big-draw events to bring in Power Readers this year. Andy Laties, who just took over as manager of Bank Street Books, is also hopeful that it will work and signed on to participate in the inaugural year. He’s disappointed that there’s not enough time for BEA to allow Bank Street to take a booth to sell books. According to BEA show director Steve Rosato, selling directly to consumers isn’t permitted in 2012 and won’t be addressed until next year.
Self-described “book nerd” Jessica Stockton Bagnulo, co-owner of Greenlight Books in Brooklyn, has attended a number of Comic-Cons and is glad to be able to offer a chance for her customers to see what BEA is like. “I think it’s good that they’re thinking creatively about BEA,” she says. Greenlight is giving customers who sign up with the store’s code a $5 gift card as a way of reimbursing them in part for the $45 ticket—and to get them into the store.
Christine Onorati, owner of WORD, is hoping that BEA will be like a less geeky Comic-Con. “I’m happy to make this available to our customers,” she says. So is BookCourt general manager Zack Zook, who views admitting the public as a good thing. “We think our customers would benefit from learning about upcoming books and new authors. It translates into potential business for us and it gives our staff something to talk about,” he says.
For others the jury’s still out. Tatiana Nicoli, owner of Boulevard Books & Cafe will probably not participate this year because she’s too busy working on summer reading lists with area schools. Toby Cox, owner of Three Lives & Company, is still on the fence. “I’m hesitant to do anything outside of making a beautiful space for readers,” he says.—J.R.