For some indie booksellers, the death rattle has a surprisingly danceable beat
A report in June that American publishers took in more revenue from e-books than hardcover books in the first quarter of this year seemed to suggest that independent bookstores in New York City will soon be a thing of the past.
And recent developments at two prominent Manhattan booksellers appear to confirm the worst. Partners and Crime, the cozy mystery bookshop that has resided in Greenwich Village for the last 18 years, announced last week that it will shut its doors on Sept. 20.
“This is the worst environment for publishing and bookselling pretty much in the history of publishing and bookselling,” Maggie Tompkins, one of the owners, told Michael Wilson of The New York Times on Wednesday. Earlier this month, St. Marks Bookshop, the 35-year-old independent bookstore in the East Village that barely fended off closure last autumn, turned to the crowdfunding platform Lucky Ant to raise money for “a more affordable location” and a “more sophisticated online presence.” Seven days remain for the shop to raise $23,000. They are currently around $6,500 short.
All this would seem to discourage prospective bookshop owners from gleefully throwing open their doors to the public. But the story is actually more complicated than that. The death of the independent bookstore is more and more starting to resemble a Lucille Ball death scene, where the actress keeps saying one more last word before swooning and shuttering her eyes and then opening them again to gasp out one more.
Just this month three new independent bookstores are opening in Brooklyn: Molasses Books, Human Relations and Singularity and Co. Each comes with its own unique business model and youthful spirit, as well as a refusal to be cowed by the dismal financial realties of the American bookselling business. The most ambitious of the new shops is Singularity and Co., located at 18 Bridge Street in DUMBO. Dozens of bookish young men—and not a few young women—showed up for the opening party last night, which featured live music, sci-fi movies and “competitive cosplay.” A 30-foot-long bookcase against one wall was stocked full of yellowing used copies of the complete L. Ron Hubbard and titles such as Voyage of the Space Beagle by A.E. Van Gogt and Harlan Ellison’s The Glass Teat.
“We're excited to be flying in the face of conventional bookshop wisdom,” said Kaila Hale-Stern, Singularity and Co.'s managing editor, who is also a freelancer writer and media consultant.
Last spring, Singularity and Co. made waves for raising $52,276 against an initial $15,000 Kickstarter goal in an effort to “rescue unique, out-of-print sci-fi books from copyright limbo” and “make them available online and as ebooks.”
Now, Singularity and Co. hopes to apply this model to a brick-and-mortar shop. They laid out their “big idea” on their website (full text here):
We love books. A lot. And we love sci-fi books, new and old. But mostly old.
And there are a lot of great old sci-fi books out there that are out of print, out of circulation, and, worst of all, not available in any sort of digital format.
Given the subject material, that’s just not right.
So here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to open a bookshop, both online and and in real life, in Brooklyn, NY where we live and work. It doesn’t have to make much money. It doesn’t have to make any money at all, since our day jobs cover our rent.
But what it will do is let us choose one great out of print work of classic and/or obscure sci-fi a month, track down the people that hold the copyright (if they are still around), and publish that work online and on all the major digital book platforms for little or no cost. Every month on this website visitors will get to vote on the next great but not so well remembered work we will rescue from the obscurity of the past.
The ideas behind Molasses Books and Human Relations, which are just eight blocks away from each other in Bushwick, are less futuristic. Matthew Winn, who opened Molasses at 770 Hart Street late last month, plans to supplement the income from his collection of used books by selling coffee and, eventually, alcohol. (The shop does not yet have a liquor license.) As Winn, 27, told the Daily News: “In the 21st century you might need to be more open to subsidizing the fetish of selling physical literature with other things.”
Human Relations, which is located at 1067 Flushing Avenue and opens with a party on Saturday night, was envisioned in part by the people behind Book Thug Nation, one of two independent used bookstores in Williamsburg (the other is Spoonbill and Sugartown on Bedford Avenue). Like Winn, the owners used to sell used books on the street. From their Facebook page (we reached out to them but haven't heard back yet): “Human Relations is a new (used) bookstore in Bushwick. Human Relations are difficult, especially for book people. Nevertheless, we are bringing you the best in quality used Literature, Philosophy, Film, Foreign Language, Noir, History, Art, Science, Science Fiction, Food, Drama, and pretty much everything else. (In order to make human relations even harder.)”
Interestingly, the founders of Molasses and Human Relations did not appear to be aware of one another until this week, despite their proximity.
Speaking to DNAInfo, Winn called that a “weird mistake,” adding: "I don't think they would've done this if they'd known I was opening a shop, and I wouldn't have either if I knew they were opening theirs.” Still, in keeping with the odds-defying optimism of the new indie bookshops, Winn said he remains “super psyched.”
Their enthusiasm may not be unwarranted. After all, indie mainstays like The Strand and Forbidden Planet (pictured at left in 1989 in a photo by Andrew Buckle) continue to prosper despite soaring Manhattan rents, Amazon.com and the e-book revolution. And while we were mourning the death of the independent bookstore, small neighborhood shops like Community Bookstore in Park Slope, Book Court in Carroll Gardens, Corner Bookstore and Crawford Doyle on the Upper East Side kept chugging along, and McNally Jackson sprouted up and flourished.
In fact, Forbidden Planet—which opened in 1981 and sells Star Wars and other geek-friendly paraphernalia, role-playing games materials and figurines in addition to science fiction, fantasy and horror books—recently moved into a new space on Broadway with twice the square footage of its previous location.
Jeff Ayers, the manager at Forbidden Planet, said they’ve managed to survive by specializing and focusing on customer service.
“When Barnes and Noble showed up 15 or 16 years ago, people said Forbidden Planet and The Strand would go out of business. But we’re both still here. It didn’t stop people from wanting to go to a small bookstore where people really know their material.”
Admittedly, The Strand and Forbidden Planet are not exactly small, at least compared to the new Brooklyn outlets. Nevertheless, perseverance and occasionally blind determination are crucial for any successful business.
“Part of what allowed us to go forward with this is willful ignorance on the state of the market and conventional wisdom,” said Hale-Stern. “If we stopped to think how it would happen, it never would have happened.”