The Windmills of Old New Amsterdam

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Fourth Avenue in Manhattan deserves an epitaph, bookseller Walter Goldwater told The New York Times in 1981, for a story about the neighborhood that was then still known as Book Row.

“As a book center, the street is gone,” he was quoted as saying. “Somebody dies, somebody becomes moribund, somebody moves to Florida. Most of us never made a substantial living anyway.”

At the end of the article, using that inverted-pyramid journalistic form, the Times also quotes Jack Biblo of Biblo and Tannen’s bookstore, formerly at 63 Fourth Avenue (now home to The Shevchenko Scientific Society), and Biblo repeats Goldwater’s opening sentiment.

“I never intended to give up bookselling on Fourth Avenue, but you also had to work 16 hours a day, and sometimes you didn’t make a dollar.” He concluded, “It was a joy, but I’d hate to see it come back.”

Biblo got his wish. Those rare and used bookstores didn’t come back. In fact, things got steadily worse for independent booksellers—used, rare, and new—in the city. New Yorkers old and older can tick off a list of great independent bookstores that no longer exist (“…Brentano’s, Coliseum Books, Gotham Book Mart”). Younger New Yorkers might also point to the enormous Barnes & Noble in Chelsea that closed its doors in 2008.

But with Borders now experiencing financial difficulties and other bookselling giants focusing on web and e-book sales, is there an opportunity—if only briefly—for independent booksellers to make a brick-and-mortar comeback, filling a physical-store niche for the city’s readers and bibliophiles? This is the question posed by Crain’s New York Business.

“In retailing’s version of a David and Goliath story, the independent bookstore is making a comeback in New York,” the article states. “That’s right: in the land of crushing rents. Over the past couple of years, more than half a dozen indie bookshops have opened around the city, from Greenlight Bookstore in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, to Book Culture on upper Broadway. (Another independent store may soon appear in midtown Manhattan.)”

Can it last? Can new independent bookstores succeed? One Fordham business professor, who follows the book industry, quickly put the kibosh on the entire dream.

“The new indies are tilting at windmills,” he told Crain’s.

Tilt away, we say, to potential indie owners. Why not open a bookstore in midtown (or elsewhere in Manhattan, or in an outer borough) and do what you love, curate—that fashionable term—if you must, even though you won’t likely make a substantial living anyway?


Kevin Nolan writes essays and fiction. More from this author →