The Brooklyn state of mind: Kind to indie bookstores

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Daniel Power (right) with Craig Cohen and Jessica Lange. (PowerHouse Arena, via flickr)
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Jed Lipinski

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A few weeks ago, we reported on the changes taking place in the quirky, anachronistic ecosystem of New York's independent bookstores.

Partners in Crime, a mystery bookshop in Greenwich Village, had just announced plans to close on Sept. 20. And the perennially troubled St. Mark's Bookshop in the East Village was pleading for funds to open a “more affordable location.” (They succeeded a week later, raising $28,420.00 through the crowd-funding program Lucky Ant.)

But just as those independent bookstores were struggling, leading to the usual headscratchers about the sorry state of independent brick-and-mortar bookselling, three new indie bookstores announced plans to open in Brooklyn: two in Bushwick (Molasses, Human Relations) and one in DUMBO (Singularity and Co.)

Now, PowerHouse Arena, the cavernous independent bookstore, boutique and gallery space in DUMBO, has announced that they will open a second, smaller and more kid-friendly location in the former Reel Life video store on 8th Avenue between 11th and 12th Streets in Park Slope this fall.

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Curious as to why independent bookstores continue to open in New York City despite grim predictions for the species' survival, we contacted Daniel Power, the C.E.O. of PowerHouse Books, the publishing company housed inside the Arena. Power, 50, who also founded the New York Photo Festival, first opened PowerHouse in 1995, and continues to act as the shop’s proprietor.

In an email, Power compared today’s book-retail business to Citibank, noting that the company, in its quest to satisfy every customer need, gradually lost touch with its core market. Barnes and Noble and the now-extinct Borders simply had the wrong scale.

"People want, crave experience, and they'll always go online for necessary purchases in books, gardening supplies and the like," Power wrote. "But when they have a local outlet, or a destination place, where they feel uplifted in some fashion, by the literary offerings, by the environment, they will buy something. And more often than not they will come back and patronize again." And the Brooklyn sensibility has a lot to do with it. "In Park Slope, especially, people will go out of their way to patronize a family-owned pharmacy than a chain, and that worldview applies to most retail business by those that live there."

Of course, powerHouse is not a traditional indie bookstore. PowerHouse Books is a fully operational publishing company that predates the retail space by 12 years. Books at powerHouse, Power said, exist “for decoration in some ways.”

This makes it more akin to Singularity and Co.—which reprints old sci-fi books and will not depend on actual book sales to survive—than to St Marks. In fact, Singularity and Co. “doesn’t have to make any money at all, since our day jobs cover our rent,” according to co-founders’ mission statement.

What, then, to make of the success of Greenlight Bookstore in Fort Greene, the most traditional of the recent arrivals (it opened in 2009), which actually relies on selling books? Power attributes this partly to the fact that Greenlight is the only game in the neighborhood. Should the shop’s dogged events schedule begin to lag, he said, the novelty could wear off.

“In the Internet age, you need to drive audiences to revisit and challenge their experience,” Power wrote.

The new PowerHouse location will offer book clubs and space for community use, much like its DUMBO sibling. It differs, however, in that part of the store will be allocated to children under 10, Power said, and the general vibe aimed more at young parents than the 20-somethings that recline in the DUMBO store’s amphitheater-style seating during book events.

But beyond store design and basic business models, a crucial factor to consider before opening an independent bookshop in New York City may be how well you know the street it’s on.

“We live around the corner,” wrote Power, adding that he and his wife are active in their child’s school, P.S. 107, just a block away. “We know the neighborhood well, and we know what will work on 8th as opposed to 7th, so bingo.”