October 23, 2014

The Bronx now has zero bookstores UPDATE: It has one bookstore again!


You can visit Poe's house in the Bronx, but you can't buy his books. Image via Wikipedia.

You can visit Poe’s house in the Bronx, but you can’t buy his books. Image via Wikipedia.

UPDATE: Barnes & Noble is not closing its Bronx store after all. 

As reported in the New York Times, the Bronx now has no bookstore. (No disrespect to The Lair—for purposes of this article, “bookstore” means general interest, non-religious). After fifteen years, the Co-Op City Barnes & Noble is vacating their space in Bay Plaza. Development of the mall at Bay Plaza has been going so well that Prestige Properties, the landlord, asked for more rent than Barnes & Noble were wiling to pay, in a narrative nowhere near unfamiliar to bookstore patrons, owners, and really any resident of the city who isn’t a plutocrat.

Steven Kaufman, a state assemblyman in the 1990s, led the charge to bring a bookstore to the Bronx, and petitioned B&N for years to open a local store.

Mr. Kaufman, now a lawyer in private practice, said he had been fielding calls from Bronx residents who were upset about the closing. “It’s like someone put a hand in your body and yanked out some of your heart,” he said. “It hurts because this is a symbol of the intellectual coming-of-age of the borough and it’s just being removed because of a dispute between Prestige Properties and Barnes & Noble.”

If you’re tired of reading about bookstores closing up shop because of rent hikes, we’re just as tired of writing about them. It’s exhausting to comprehend, but this may point to the problem of New York book culture greater than ever before – in a borough of almost a million and a half people, there is now no general interest bookstore. No more independents, either. Not even a chain. Home of Ozick, Delillo, Edgar Allan freaking Poe among others—no bookstore. You can and should sign the Change.org petition to stop the store from closing. And the Times article is slightly optimistic:

But Mr. Kaufman and other Bronx leaders said they had not given up hope. A spokesman for Ruben Diaz Jr., the Bronx borough president, said that Mr. Diaz and his staff were working to negotiate a compromise between Barnes & Noble and Prestige Properties.

Bookstores, like any renters, shoulder the danger of getting pushed out by rising rents and the ambition of their landlords. The Bronx is the target for plenty of developers, hence the rent hike. If the B&N wasn’t making as much money as a Foot Locker, then it’s a victim of math. Nobody is arguing that the residents of the Bronx have no way of accessing books. The librarians in the Bronx do fine work, and mailmen still deliver to the Bronx from B&N.com, last I checked. But narrowing a community’s access to books in the name of economic opportunity doesn’t mean that we can expect a new crop of bookstores that succeed where B&N failed – smaller, leaner, just as community-centric but still able to pay rent. That would be great. But so would landlords with vision or bookstores that own property.

I’m prone to depressive thinking whenever bookstore closure stories make their way around the Internet—I’m not alone—but you don’t come to MobyLives for cynicism. So let this serve as a message to anyone who’s sinking money into the Bronx. There is a real, complex, and human need for bookstores in any major urban center, and now there is an immediate need, a vacuum in the Bronx like never before. For the love of culture and community, act on your noble aspirations and start urban planning. Be like Robert Moses if he was an English major and not a total asshole. Someone has to be.


Liam O'Brien is the Sales & Marketing Manager at Melville House, and a former bookseller.