Friday, November 30, 2012

Another Killing of a Neighborhood Bookstore


End of December and that’s all she wrote. Merry Christmas, now drop dead. The Barnes& Noble on 6th Avenue & 8th street, well known to Jersey City residents as the closest bookstore to any PATH station, is being forced to shut its doors and fire its employees.

We’ve all probably bought something to read there, it was too convenient to resist. The announcement of the closing is less than a week old. Well, go there while you can; lots of stuff is marked 40 percent off. More sales are promised. Say your own good bye and pay witness to a way of life that is no more.
More than 30 years ago now, I bought A Vision by William Butler Yeats at this store. The rare prose work by the Irish bard, A Vision spells out his theory on automatic writing, among other mystical concepts. I remember buying this book and I remember reading it through College so I must have gotten it early on; it was one of those works that seemed next on the list, after having gone through The Beats and French Symbolists. A Vision was one of those breakthrough modernist works all aspiring writers had to devour, or so I believed. A very heady read. I don’t remember anything much else about it now really; and to be honest, it was not the influential work I anticipated it to be. A little too modernist if you get my drift. I haven’t read it in at least 20 years, although it will always be in my library.

I do remember buying it though. I was with my buddy Tony and some other of our New Jersey crew, back in the day. Going into the City, hanging out in the Village, often it was like hit some bookstores, grab some pizza and see a concert at maybe the Palladium (American Academy of Music) or CBGBs or some other place. Tony went to school at NYU, but we had started hanging out a little more in the city as High School ended. I worked the year between High School and College. Sorry, exactly when I bought A Vision escapes me. Plus, I think the store was a Brentano’s back then. This was a very long time ago, but a memorable book buying experience.

I wanted to get this book and we spent time browsing, but I couldn’t find it. Unlike the bookstores in Bergen County, this store had three levels of books, not just a single floor. Huge – back then there were no book super stores, booksellers were basically a shop with an inventory selected by individual store owners. Tony said I know it’s here. He disappears, comes back with it in hand. I bought it; it’s still on my shelf. How long ago was this? Well, the price on the book is $3.95 and there’s no UPC code, i.e., before the age of scanning. At the time it was important to me, it had to be read. I remember the excitement of getting it, holding it, like forbidden fruit from the tree of existentialist knowledge. This was not a book sold in the Suburbs, nor was it meant to be read by a reading novice. A Vision was well beyond high school English classes, this was a read that was up to my intellectual ambitions. A Vision may have been the first book I ever bought in New York, which back then probably held additional if subconscious significance. Throughout the 80s, about once a month, I would make a pilgrimage into New York to buy books – the Strand, which survives, but also the Barnes & Noble on 19th & 5th, which was their flagship store and until the 90s, their only store. This store, which certainly was a B. Dalton by the Reagan era, was a constant stop; other stores too, but they are long gone now. Either just for books, or making a bookstore stop part of an excursion into the city, I bought a lot of books and New Jersey reading offerings were just a wasteland. I’ve been going to the 6th Avenue store a long time. I’ve gotten older, gone through many changes, read many books and through all the phases, not a year has passed without at least one stop here to browse, to find something to read, to seek out that year’s (or month’s) A Vision.
This location was the rare non-mall B. Dalton. When Barnes& Noble expanded in the 90s, they bought B. Daltons as their Mall outlets –competing with chains like the also defunct Walton’s Books –complementing the Barnes & Nobles Super Stores. That was before the advent of Amazon, when B. Dalton and Borders blossomed like Dandelions in May, choking off many independent bookstores in their wake. The B. Dalton in Jersey City closed twoyears ago when Barnes & Noble eliminated its Mall outlets, and this store officially became a Barnes & Noble, the only non-superstore left in the chain

This is a profitable bookstore. There used to be half-dozen bookstores within 10 blocks of this store; since about when Clinton left office, this was the sole survivor. Physical books may be shrinking in aggregate sales, but there is still a sizable customer base, enough to sustain a store, especially one in such a prime location, the corner of a major thoroughfare with high pedestrian traffic, not to mention a decades old retailer possessing a well-established, large and loyal consumer following. Back in the day, the selection was always hipper here than in N.J. B. Dalton’s (NYC carried “A Vision” !) and they competed well with the downtown independents, carrying poets and noir and new writers, giving places like St. Marks Book Store (which still survives), Posman’s Books (gone), Cooper Square Books (gone) or Spring Street Books (gone)– they come immediately to mind – a run for their money. As the neighborhood changed, the children’s section expanded, much to the joy of the new Village moms and dads in need of a convenient place to take the kids and pass on a love of reading. The decimation of book stores seems to have ended with Borders closing – this year a new store actually opened in Jersey City! – there have been no reports of further consolidation by Barnes & Noble. Why is the Barnes & Noble on 6th& 8th closing?

Greed, pure and simple. A large sign promoting “The Nook,”Barnes & Noble’s e-reading alternative to The Kindle, seems to indicate that the bookstore chain fosters a lethal viper in its breasts, encouraging the demise of their own brick and mortar progeny. But E-Reading and online retailers are not the culprits in this slaying. An employee told me that the person who owned a cluster of buildings – which included this Barnes & Noble – in the neighborhood recently died. The store lost its lease. The employee said a lot of stores in the neighborhood had already closed. The new owners and their developer friends have other ideas for what Greenwich Village should be. A healthy and reasonable return on investment was made by renting these buildings to merchants, creating a unique, and long-thriving, commercial district that helped to make this neighborhood desirable – to live in and visit – and take the PATH to. But community is a consideration insufficient to prevent enacting a scheme devised for an even bigger return on investment. Thus are the motivations driving urban planning in Bloomberg's New York.
A glance down 8th street proved the employee right; more store fronts were dark and empty than lit up and filled with customers. The holiday shopping season has started and 8th street – all independent stores, shops and boutiques – is now practically a ghost town. New York was known for its stores, now the only stores that are left are the same chains in any Mall, and you have to travel far from 8th & 6th to buy from them. The hat store, shoe stores, the funky t-shirt stores, the head shops, weird jewelry – they were still here in the summer, now all of them are boarded up. Why leave NJ to shop? Merry Christmas 2012!

Maybe chain stores will open outlets here, but I doubt it. My bet is that 8th street will soon be absorbed by NYU, which has metastasized throughout the body of the Village and its growth shows no signs of slowing –anyone remember The Bottom Line? In any event, 8th street as we knew it is gone. The owners of the property housing the former B. Dalton were making a decent profit with this last remaining bookstore in the neighborhood. There was always a line at the check out counter. The store provided a useful service to its community. But bigger profits can be made with another enterprise. Quality of life, not to mention tradition – these things matter not; what drives our society is one aspiration: maximizing profits. If the lease goes to another retail establishment, the closing of this non-super store bookstore was really short sighted – this has been a business here for decades, bringing people into the neighborhood, creating economic activity – another store of any type is not guaranteed to replicate that success. Bookstores may be hardest hit, but they are not the only retail segment impacted by internet commerce. All brick and mortar stores are in some degree of jeopardy. That’s why I bet NYU has its sights on this and other surrounding buildings – your exorbitant Student Loans at work. Excessive tuition fees are way more profitable, especially in the long term, than honest retailing.

 So, this is the last Christmas for this bookstore. It will close at the end of the month. Half the employees have lost their jobs, the rest will be unemployed come January (there may be openings in the other NYC Barnes & Noble locations, although they weren’t hiring extra Christmas help this year). Any job loss should be mourned, but the loss of bookstore employment really stings because these workers sincerely love their jobs. Helping someone find what they want to read is practically a calling. Hand selling a book is nearly extinct. People who work in bookstores genuinely love working in bookstores and it’s truly tragic that through no fault of their own, a successful business is closed because of greed, because of soulless inconsideration, because of an unquenchable desire for more money. It is not that this store didn’t turn a profit, it’s just that a bigger profit was possible. Bookstores are not part of the New Order. Come the New Year, another thing that we took for granted, that we loved Manhattan for, that was part of our lives, will be gone, never to return.



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