The window display at Shakespeare and Co. on Lexington Avenue. Photo: Courtesy of Shakespeare and Co.
The scent is a mishmash of newly printed paper and freshly heated croissants. There is also the sound of footsteps, on occasion accompanied by the click-clack of walking sticks, finding their way to the back of the store, to where books by their beloved favorite writers are neatly arranged. At still other times, you can make out the rhythm of tapping fingers on keypads, arrayed as they are near the windows overlooking bustling Lexington Avenue.
This is the vibe at the Shakespeare Bookstore and Café.
Despite digitization and the proliferation of online booksellers, independent bookstores are on the rise around the city and part of the reason, it seems, is that fecund atmosphere.
Dane Neller, CEO of Shakespeare and Co., suggests that his bookstore is as much a community center and a place to buy books. Having a café and a bookstore in one place allows him promote the space as a hangout spot. Besides, he says, a book-reading affair is more “intimate” than any digital experience.
“The book in its original form, that is the physical paperback, has survived digitization,” Neller said recently. “Small neighborhood bookstores are coming up as a reaction to more defined neighborhood borders.”
When Neller took over the then-teetering Shakespeare & Co. brand a few years ago, few expected a retail renaissance for books — except maybe Neller, a former CEO with Dean & DeLuca. With what he calls the “Espresso Book Machine,” he advanced the idea that absence of a title in the store did not mean it couldn't be had.
“One day hopefully sooner or later, a consumer can walk into a bookstore and never be disappointed for not finding the book they want on the shelves,” he said. The machine prints a book store-quality paperback in under 15 minutes and is unique to Shakespeare Bookstore and Café. A similar mechanism will be in place at Shakespeare's new location on the Upper West Side, which will open on Broadway near 70th Street in early fall. Another branch will also open in Greenwich Village.
“I picked the West Side because I thought there was a loyalty to the Shakespeare brand,” said Neller. Indeed, after the closing of the original Shakespeare & Co in 1996, the Upper West Side has experienced a tremendous growth in independent bookstores, much of it in the last five years.
But growth isn't confined to New York City. According to the American Booksellers Association, there has been a 27 percent growth in independent bookstores in the last decade or so.
Among those that opened in the city is Books of Wonder, the children's bookstore, which opened its second city location, at 217 West 84th Street, last year.
“Its very much a strong community on the West Side. People are passionate about their neighborhood and care about what happens here,” said Peter Glassman, Books of Wonder's owner.
Inside, mothers are reading out to their young ones, surrounded by other children and families. It is here they experience their first bonding moments.
A bookstore can be a lot of things — a place to start over, a place to pause, or even a place to find your significant other, much like Christopher Doeblin did.
Doeblin, who owns the Book Culture outlets at on West 112th Street and at 450 Columbus Avenue, and his business partner at the time, Cliff Simms, both met their significant others at the bookstore.
“My wife (who worked at the store then) is the kind of person who'd listen to people and sometimes I had to send patrons in to tell her to keep off the phone because all these people would call to talk,” Doeblin said. “They'd come to talk to people at the bookstore because they are lonely.”
For Doeblin, it's about the touch and feel of books, and, importantly, the personalized service, including staff recommendation tags, that separate his bookstore from an online platform.
“It's like deciding between Starbucks and a unique café,” he said. “You'd want to go to a café for its ambience, interiors and variety, which is why people come to bookstores and not just shop from Amazon.”