March 31, 2014

Are bookstores agents of gentrification?


Even an insane rectangle of a condo couldn't gentrify Williamsburg more at this point. (Image courtesy of SHoP Architects and James Corner Field Operations)

Even an insane rectangle of a condo couldn’t gentrify Williamsburg more at this point. (Image courtesy of SHoP Architects and James Corner Field Operations)

If bookstores are fleeing high city rents, what happens to the neighborhoods where they land? Are bookstores as culpable for gentrification as anyone else?

Last week the New York Times ran a story by Julie Bosman about rising rent prices in Manhattan, and how they’ve been killing some bookstores and driving others to the outer boroughs. Bosman’s examples included the new McNally Jackson offshoot planned for Williamsburg and the new WORD recently opened in Jersey City, as well as the soon to be closed Rizzoli bookstore.

And though I derided the Bosman piece at the time as obvious, it did lead me to consider this question of gentrification. It’s not simply that stores are avoiding Manhattan, after all. The issue is, where do they go instead? Some truly excellent booksellers are springing up at a ferocious rate across the outer boroughs, often in neighborhoods that are at the very crest of the expanding wave of gentrification. (In this metaphor, the wave has long since washed over Williamsburg, site of the new McNally Jackson, leaving that neighborhood with an unrecognizable demographic and many lovely stores selling Danish furniture and thousand dollar strollers.)

To be clear, gentrification is a complicated process, and to call someone a gentrifier is decidedly not an insult. Sure we can howl about new condos going up in every neighborhood in Brooklyn, but it’s difficult to blame the people who will occupy them. I’ve been an obvious if reluctant gentrifier myself in every apartment I’ve ever had in this town. The shame of it is omnipresent and unavoidable. Jane Jacobs compared us to birds.

The high-rent tenants, most of whom are so transient we cannot even keep track of their faces, have not the remotest idea of who takes care of their street, or how. A city neighborhood can absorb and protect a substantial number of these birds of passage, as our neighborhood does. But if and when the neighborhood finally becomes them, they will gradually find the streets less secure, they will be vaguely mystified about it, and if things get bad enough they will drift away to another neighborhood which is mysteriously safer.

How much guilt, if that’s even the word, can be placed on bookstores for gentrification?  If, as Jacobs is implying, it’s disengagement that sets a gentrifier apart, do bookstores that serve their communities get a pass?

I put the question to the owners of three new bookstores—all opened in the past two years—in neighborhoods that are swiftly being transformed by gentrification. These are their responses.

Lexi Beach, Astoria Bookshop, Astoria

I don’t think a bookstore is inherently (or even usually) an agent of gentrification. I think a newly opened bookstore might be following a trend of gentrification, because new books are a luxury, if a small one, and you have to have some disposable income and leisure time to be buying them. At the same time, the margins on books are so small that a bookstore can’t usually afford gentrified rents. If I’d been trying to find a storefront a year or two after I did, I’m not sure I would have found anything doable (and it was hard enough as it was).

But what I’m seeing in Astoria isn’t gentrification as much as continued diversification. I have customers of every imaginable background & ethnicity. I conduct transactions entirely in Spanish, and if I spoke Arabic or Greek, I’d do that, too. I have kids come in who don’t have enough cash for the sales tax, and customers who ask me to hold books for them for a few days until payday.

That’s not really what you’re asking, though. I just think the premise of all these articles about the demise of bookstores is entirely false…. And I get more and more angry every time I see the Times go into a piece with the starting point of “bookstores are irrelevant, no one buys books anymore, no one reads.” Nobody seems to want to write about how the chains/superstores are irrelevant, while indies with community ties are thriving.
Michael de Zayas, Hullabaloo Books, Crown Heights
In general, my feeling is that there is no connection whatsoever between bookstores and gentrification. But this is something that is maybe shifting under our feet. It may be the case already in some places. Not in Crown Heights.
To me a bookstore is more like a fetish shop for dreamers. (A word I denote with sensualists, intellectuals, artists, lovers and scientists.) These are the book lovers of humanity. To draw a connection to gentrifiers here strikes me as perverse.

Matthew Winn, Molasses Books, Bushwick

If we recognize that bookstores — especially used-bookstores — can’t sustain in pricy neighborhoods, and we are too paranoid about gentrification to open them in neighborhoods with slightly more affordable rents, then the question is simply are bookstores something that we think are worth existing at all? If the answer is obviously ‘yes’, then where does that leave us? Just hanging out selling books to each other on the Internet? If it is a question of whether bookstores, specifically, give enough value to a community to risk being agents of gentrification then we need to contrast the idea of the bookstore and its purpose with every other business in the community and those business’ purposes and I think we would certainly find that the bookstore is not the most vile of the lot, not the single ware that needs to be plucked out to preserve that neighborhood’s identity. To assume outright that newly opened bookstores in historically lower income areas can only benefit newer members of the community can also potentially be a classist or racist move.
I don’t pretend that gentrification isn’t a real concern, but there are larger forces at play than tiny hungry booksellers — the landlords are ultimately the ones responsible for the obscene rent hikes and the grotesque new buildings — and personally I’ve made peace by now with hawking books of quality, as a labor of love, anywhere, anytime and without apology.

Dustin Kurtz is the marketing manager of Melville House, and a former bookseller.