Beloved Greenwich Village bookstore may be displaced by sale of building
BY ERICA MAGRIN
“Your friendly neighborhood bookshop” is not a typical sight in New York City. But then again, neither is “your friendly neighborhood grocer” or “your friendly neighborhood pharmacy.”
There was, of course, once a time when small businesses were much more common. But in the very capital of big business, rising rents and the predominance of commercial behemoths, retail success for the little guy is ever more elusive.
Some, however, have parlayed passion into achievement. Privately owned bookstores have come up with creative ways to stay in business, even thrive. When the alternative is closing their doors for good, bookshop owners have to think outside the box. For example, Books of Wonder on 18th Street has an impressive collection of rare, first edition and autographed books for sale. Bank Street Bookstore, in Morningside Heights, markets itself specifically to teachers as well as to everyday patrons. Book Culture, with two locations on the Upper West Side, and Shakespeare and Co., on the Upper East Side, host events and book talkbacks sith authors. McNally Jackson in SoHo has a coffee shop. And the Strand is, well, the Strand.
Some, sadly, don’t always prosper. The long-established St. Mark’s Bookshop, late of East Third Street, closed in February. Coliseum Books, on Broadway and 57th Street, shuttered its doors in 2007. A Different Light, an LGBT bookstore in Chelsea, closed down in 2011. In the same vein, Greenwich Village’s Oscar Wilde Bookshop, the first ever LGBT bookstore, closed in 2009. The recession, competition from online retailers and the Kindle or Nook are among the reasons for the closures. Like many facets of our technologically driven society, these tablets offer immediate gratification. This technological convenience, however, takes away from an experience — that of quiet browsing.
In Greenwich Village, Three Lives & Company, on West 10th and Waverly Place, is a match for the neighborhood. Pulitzer Prize-winner Michael Cunningham called it “one of the greatest bookstores on the face of the Earth.” The Greenwich Village Historical Society called Three Lives “a pocket of civility.” But the building that houses Three Lives & Company has been put up for sale, leaving the store on a shaky month-to-month lease. Three Lives’ owner Toby Cox hopes to work with the building’s eventual buyer to keep the store in place.
The store, he said, relies on its ties to the community. It’s certainly vice versa. Three Lives is staffed by booksellers who are passionate and knowledgeable, and populated for the most part by locals.
“We’ve continually worked towards taking care of the customer,” Cox said. “Your best advertising is someone telling someone else ‘I went to a bookshop and had an amazing experience.’”
By staying faithful to its mission, Cox said he and his staff have been able to keep the store open. “We’re very well supported by this community. [Running a small business] is a constant hustle. It’s about being nimble, being quick — being in time to what the costumers want. We’re all about customer service, creating community.”
Three Lives & Company moved to their West 10th Street home in 1983, and now, 33 years later, there is no telling how the building’s sale might affect sales, staff and patrons. In an email to his consumers, Cox said: “We know how important this bookshop is to many of you, the history you share with Three Lives. It is your passion and support that keeps us going, that makes every day a joy,” he wrote. “We want to keep that experience going and we want you to be able to stop by, find some interesting books, chat about a recent favorite read, or to simply share the news of the day. Whether we continue to welcome you to our corner spot on West Tenth and Waverly or from a new location, we look forward to being your bookseller in the years ahead.”
Three Lives & Company had record sales years for the last three years in a row, according to Cox. But regardless, the shop could potentially become homeless, at least temporarily. Should the bookshop not be able to stay at its current location, Cox wrote he will actively “look for a new space to build our home.”
“It is our desire to stay in our neighborhood, the West Village, but we will need to find the right space at the right price, not an easy task considering the current commercial rental conditions in our area.”
Three Lives would certainly not be the first independent bookshop to have to migrate to a different neighborhood. Like Coliseum Books and St. Mark’s Bookshop before it, staying put in the community that fostered Three Lives might prove to be a challenge for the beloved bookstore.
The owner maintains that Three Lives is upholding regular business patterns for now. “We’re here,” said Cox. “We’re in this limbo state right now, but we’re still here.” As Cox spoke, a customer came into the shop. He said he had heard that Three Lives was having trouble with its rent.
“Is there anything I can do to help?” The man asked. “I’d find you guys anywhere.”