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Shelving the Mainstream: With Books’ End, New Independence

The day Borders closes will be a “sad day in book publishing’s history and will do severe and lasting damage to the industry’s ecosystem,” commented Michael Norris, senior trade analyst for Simba Industries, this summer. Late last spring, Borders locations across America displayed flashy yellow signs in their windows, informing the public that “Everything must go!” By the end of the summer, the remaining books were sold, all Borders locations were fully liquidated, the signs were taken down, and behind dirty glass windows, empty bookshelves stood lonely and out of place.

Why did Borders close? It’s unclear if Borders had to close their stores because of a business snafu or because of the way they were marketing books. Yet what was Borders really providing its costumers? A nice kiosk in the mall enhanced by a flashy sale signs and New York Times bestsellers? Mainstream, high-priced reads already available for free at the public library?

With all books with expired copyrights available at Project Gutenberg and with other books available electronically for relatively cheap, books are no longer as precious as they once were. Yet reading is still valued, perhaps more than it once was. Everyday, we read email, Facebook newsfeeds, and online articles. Words are not dying, but binding them together in the form of a hard-copy book is becoming outdated.

InReads, an online site that explores the synthesis of technology and books, provides each user with an electronic bookshelf where he or she can add books to “My Reads” and join conversations with other readers on the site. The site uses technology to enhance the reading experience and makes it less confining and solitary. Reading is becoming a shared group experience, no longer confined between two covers, and no longer accessible to only one person at a time. Words are becoming a transparent medium that can immediately connect people across the globe.

The lightness of carrying around an e-reader as opposed to a heavy bag of books, the ease of scrolling through pages as opposed to flipping page by page has begun to outweigh the thrill of holding a book. Books are for showing as opposed to for reading, and bookcases are for showcasing as opposed to casing valuable books. Cluttering your walls with books means that you want to give off the impression of being well read, forget about actually being well read. A recent window holiday display at Bergdorf Goodman uses books as decoration, cutting them up into exquisitely strange shapes, using their pages to create art instead of esteeming them for containing valued printed information. Ironically, Bergdorf Goodman recently published a book titled Windows at Bergdorf Goodman. Real books are still valued for displaying art, poetry or design.

But basic research is easily done online without even stepping foot into a library. As such, if a library or bookstore only provides books, it becomes an entirely pointless venue. Borders failed to provide an atmosphere unique to what they were selling, failing to enhance the experience of book shopping or reading. The only reason to enter Border’s was to purchase a book, something people are doing less and less. Why spend money on something when you can get it for free, and cheaper?

And so, bookstores that will continue to survive are those that provide a specific atmosphere and have a special flare that draws not only customers, but also readers and thinkers. Bookstores today must draw on what books are about in order to attract buyers. They have to sell more than books; they must also sell an atmosphere and an ambiance that enhances reading and intellectuality. In order to succeed, bookstores need to provide a specially selected group of books, much akin to a Google search. Except the links in a bookstore are real, based on the juxtaposition of books next to each other, and specific collections of books are databases humanly selected. The space in bookstores can be a perfect way to surround books with meaning, as opposed to detracting from their essence as unique works. Wrote The Village Voice, “With the rollout of the iPad and each new version of the Kindle, the idea of opening a bookstore is akin to opening a typewriter shop at the beginning of the dot-com era. But to open a small, independent bookstore seems even more suicidal.” Yet even if independent bookstores across New York City aren’t succeeding financially, they’re succeeding in creating unique atmospheres to sell books without being overly consumerist and mainstream.

Perhaps one of the most acclaimed independent bookstores in the city, McNally Jackson, located in the heart of SoHo, boasts a café offering espresso along with a highly selective collection of books. McNally Jackson has filled its shelves with independently-published zines in addition to mainstream reads. The adjoining café serves up espresso in a small space, the walls decorated with wallpaper of famous book pages. Lamps and books hang from spears jutting out of the wooden ceiling. In the middle of the café is one of the only espresso book machines, which allows you to plug inaflashdriveoremailafiletobe printed instantly with your choice of paper, binding and ink, combining the speed of new technology with the reliability of the printed word. This bookstore has great staff selections and is a great place to come if you’re searching for a quirky, interesting or bizarre novel, magazine or anthology.

McNally Jackson’s Twitter account is run by Dustin Kurtz and Sam MacLaughlin, who pride themselves on being booksellers, not retailers. Their tweets constantly rant about the evils of consumerism and big business, much like their counterpart protestors further downtown occupying Wall Street. They tweeted on November 26, “‘Small business’ is loaded with judgment— shouldn’t all business be small? Celebrate Appropriately Sized and Not Evil Mongery Day with us.” This bookstore is true to their mission of embracing small business and taking down large companies.

Bluestockings also has a political flair; the space serves not only as a bookstore but as a café and activist center. They display shelves of books about global justice, nonviolence and gay pride. Posters line the walls, political pamphlets are sprinkled throughout the store, and a bin with political t-shirts sits in the back, one of which illustrates capital punishment as a stick figure shooting at the capitol building. Their first art exhibition, now being displayed, is an Occupy Wall Street-themed

collection of posters and prints that anyone can contribute to. Seventy volunteers run the bookstore, allowing it to remain open for twelve hours a day, and the space serves as a venue for cultural events and a meeting place for political groups.

Housing Works Bookstore is also working towards a cause: as part of the Housing Works organization, the bookstore seeks to combat HIV/Aids in the homeless community by raising money through reselling clothing and books. The bookstore resells books and music, with a few shelves of classics and paperbacks at reasonably low prices. A second level looks out over the rest of the bookstore and onto the cobblestone street. Like McNally Jackson, this store also has a café in the back serving coffee and food. The books here are a grab bag, but the events, from poetry readings to concerts, are worth attending. Said Beth, volunteer coordinator, “[The customers] are getting something more than just gifts. They’re getting a culture and space for people to gather.”

St. Mark’s Bookshop has also been a gathering place for the Lower East Side’s cultural elite since 1977. The bookstore features eccentric poetry and an interesting selection of cultural theory. Highly colored prints line the walls as classical music seems to swell up from the creaky floorboards. The store smells like books and is littered with artists, writers and creative types. Owner Terrence McCoy commented, “We reflect this neighborhood, a neighborhood of people interested in the latest things going on in culture.” He continued to discuss the nature of books as one of flux, “Historical bookshelves as we know them today—trade paperbacks—they didn’t exist until the late fifties, going into the sixties—trade paperbacks were a new thing—kind of like e-books. Things change all the time in this business. With the advent of computers, we got the computer inventory systems, which enabled the superstore to exist. It wouldn’t have been cost effective for Barnes and Nobles to track the kind of inventory they have.” He sounds resentful of these superstores, yet acknowledges that even the superstore will eventually die out, as movements surrounding reading rise and fall.

A few blocks downtown is East Village Books, which is far from a superstore. This bookstore is small and narrow, and the underground wooden door creaks upon opening. Head to the backdoor for the Backyard Books section, a small outside room with books on sale. This bookstore was selected by The Village Voice as Best Bookstore (Used) in New York City, but Donald Davis, the owner, claimed the award hasn’t done much for business. Soon, Donald said, laughing, yet half seriously, the world will become one like Ray Kurtzweil describes: man and machine will meet and there will be no separation, and “books will become a moot point.” For a bookstore to survive, Davis believes, it’s about “what books you can get, not what you can sell.” Davis believes a bookstore has to provide a feel of selection and refinement, which will hopefully lead to more sales.

And then there’s Strand, one of the most famous of all independent

bookstores in America. The eighteen miles of books are stacked so high the shelves almost seem to teeter and tilt. The three levels are a maze of crowded books and crowded groups of people browsing the various nooks and crannies of the bookstore. Although entering Strand can be a book lover’s paradise, it’s often hard to find a specific selection or to reach books on the higher shelves, although the staff is incredibly helpful. Buyers looking for cheap books need not go further than the front door; everyday, twenty or so mini bookshelves line the sidewalk, offering books for $1-$2.

Right around the corner from Strand, Alabaster’s offers a smaller venue for those overwhelmed by Strand’s eighteen miles. Alabaster’s has maybe five small shelves and a surprisingly good selection of art and Judaica books. Although pricey, the bookstore is quaint and makes for pleasant browsing. Books waiting to be shelved lie piled on the floor, and a musty smell is in the air lending an authenticity to the store. Said owner Steve Crowley, “I’m a real luddite . . . that’s probably why

I own a bookstore.” A bookstore uptown, Westsider Rare and Used Books, is similarly priced and similarly sized.

All of these bookstores beseech their readers to come in, browse, and stay awhile. And perhaps while there and enjoying the environment, they may buy a book or two. Ultimately, independent bookstores are what will keep the thrill of reading and hopefully the purchasing of books alive. And no matter what happens to books, people will always want a unique and non-virtual space to gather and celebrate the independence and freedom that comes with learning and knowledge.

For more information on independent bookstores and other independent stores visit or For more details about the above bookstores or to buy books online, visit,,,, buyusedbooksnewyork. com, and