Harry’s Take: Closing bookstores detract from city’s vitality

April 21, 2014

Cutthroat competition and surging rent prices have forced many of New York’s booksellers to abandon shop. For local bookstores, the price of rent has reached a level that has proven unsustainable. Despite residents who choose to buy their latest novels from local bookstores instead of online behemoths, increasing rent prices have outstripped any improvement to sales figures. Last week came the news that Shakespeare & Co. will be added to the growing list of bookstores that have to close this year. Under a wave of gentrification and increased rent prices, the very face of New York is disappearing.

Shakespeare & Co. is not the first bookstore to succumb to the cost of New York rent prices, with the monthly rental price for the small Broadway location pegged at over $50,000. Rizzoli Bookstore, a landmark on 57th Street, was also forced to close despite its cultural and architectural history. As The New York Times recently wrote, surviving bookstore owners are choosing to open shops in Brooklyn and Queens rather than face the anxieties of Manhattan real estate.

With the impending closure of Shakespeare & Co., we are saying goodbye to a friend of the NYU community. It is not NYU’s obligation to save the local bookstore. It’s unlikely that even if Shakespeare & Co. reached a mutual agreement with the NYU Bookstore located just a few doors down, the additional revenue would offset the surge in rental prices.

So what can be done to keep bookstores from collapsing? Residents should press their local representatives to pass The Small Business Survival Act that would protect local businesses from sudden rent hikes. Moreover, bookstores must diversify and modernize to help bear the brunt of higher rental prices. Strand Bookstore on Broadway has been notably successful in forging social media campaigns to engage with the local community for example.

As a society we have always held libraries as monuments and testaments to our collective knowledge. We should hold our bookstores in the same regard. They should not simply be treated like any other business. Writer Neil Gaiman summed it up well — “What I say is, a town isn’t a town without a bookstore. It may call itself a town, but unless it’s got a bookstore it knows it’s not fooling a soul.”

The shops of the early immigrant population — stores that had family dynasties and were representative of their particular community — once etched the elusive character of New York. That New York has been slowly replaced by something shinier and less unique — appealing to tourists seeking out the myth of the real New York.

Baristas have replaced booksellers, and high-end fashion boutiques have supplanted bookstores. In the end, perhaps this is just a sign of the modern era, of people preferring to read the summary of their latest novel on a Kindle rather than perusing the aisles of a bookstore. Institutions such as Shakespeare & Co. and Rizzoli once carved the New York which many still remember. Those remnants are slowly eroding under the weight of gentrification. If we wish to keep the New York with character and soul alive, Shakespeare & Co. should not be left to simply close.

A version of this article appeared in the Monday, April 21 print edition. Harry Brown is a staff columnist. Harry’s Take is published every Monday. Email him at opinion@nyunews.com.

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