An independent bookshop owner explains why purchases alone can’t keep small stores afloat—and what to do instead
A s if we didn’t have enough kick-in-the-teeth bad news hitting our screens this week, the beloved McNally Jackson Bookstore in Soho is reportedly leaving its home at 52 Prince Street. The news, which hit Wednesday, engendered a collective gasp that shuddered its way through all five boroughs of New York City. Though McNally Jackson promises that they are “definitely staying in the neighborhood,” they are moving shop because the rent prices are too damn high.
We don’t have an exact count on the number of bookstores we have left in New York right now, but as of 2015, according to this report by Gothamist, there were 106 bookstores in Manhattan, compared to the 386 bookstores in the borough in 1950. These numbers don’t reflect the number of independent bookstores opening in Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx or Staten Island, but I remain pretty confident that we’re still below that original number.
While it may be easy to slip into a kind of dangerous daydream of the better days of yesteryear — “when people still bought books” — you shouldn’t do that. Because while buying books is important, that “call to action” distracts us from the real problem. Capitalism is not good for small, low return-on-investment businesses that we need in our community. So what are we going to do about that?
Commercial real estate norms are killing your darlings.
Luckily, we have bookstore proprietors like Lexi Beach, the co-owner of Astoria Bookshop in Queens, New York. In a tweet thread on Tuesday, Beach declared: “At a certain point, buying books from the store you love is not going to be enough to keep it open.” She went on to explain that the bigger problem lies in the relationship between capitalism, the commercial real estate market, and the toxic marriage between the two for low-margin businesses like bookstores.
Ok, bookstore loving friends, here is the truth: At a certain point, buying books from the store you love is not going to be enough to keep it open.
I promise you, there is no volume of business that McJ could have feasibly been doing such that, when the initial sweet deal of a 15-yr lease expired, they'd magically be able to pay market rent in that neighborhood.
The problem is not the sustainability of bookstores. It's the immoral capitalist (is that redundant?) system we've all accepted as normal wherein the composition of your neighborhood is dictated by people who do not actually live there.
“I’ve worked in the book industry for a long time, beginning with a job coordinating author tours at Simon & Schuster, where I was in regular touch with booksellers and events coordinators at bookstores around the country,” Beach told Electric Lit over email. “I’ve watched the landscape for brick and mortar stores change dramatically, a few times over, since 2003. I’ve always known that it’s not a business you get in to make a ton of money.” But, she says, she didn’t fully understand the calculations that go into the bookselling game until opening Astoria Bookshop in 2013. Now, the rest of us can learn from her experience.
In her Twitter thread, Beach outlined further calls to action for community members looking to keep the businesses they care about alive. We list them out here, in order to megaphone this real call to take down the bullies of capitalism with collective action.
Start at the Grassroots Level
Call your local officials. Write letters. Go to town hall meetings. Speak up about the value of this institutions in your community.
So what can you do? Talk to your hyper local elected officials. Community board, city council. Tell them how these locally owned, independently run businesses make your life in their district so much better.
Beach told us that grassroots organizations like the Institute for Local Self-Reliance give her hope that bookstores aren’t going anywhere. So does the fact that “local elected officials here in NYC are recognizing that empty storefronts are a community problem — for their tax base, for quality of life of their constituents, for health and safety — and looking for innovative solutions.”
One thing we can ask for: tax breaks for local businesses. As Beach suggests, there are not many incentives for landlords to keep rents reasonable for locally-owned businesses with low profit margins, especially in a city that continues to live up to its impossibly expensive mystique.
My idea is that landlords who rent to locally owned, independent business should get a real estate tax break. My occupancy costs went up 7% year one because of a real estate tax assessment after I opened.
Invite Small Business Owners for Panel Discussion on Community at Commercial Real Estate Conferences
Imagining the dialogue between bookstore owners and commercial real estate developers at a conference feels like fodder for a scathing short story, but it might also initiate an important conversation we don’t know how to start.
Maybe there is a conference for commercial real estate investors that would accept a panel of small business owners and BID administrators to talk about community?
Ph.D.s in Urban Studies Looking for a Project? We Need You!
I almost want to go get a Ph.D. in urban studies just to start this project.
Maybe some PhD candidate in urban studies wants to write a thesis on the inherent conflicts between a business model that aims for sustainable steady growth (small biz retail) vs one that aims for maximizing return on investment (real estate)
Or a parity study of leases to national chains vs locally owned shops. That would be so interesting!
And if none of these ideas suit you — we need more! As Beach writes in another tweet, we need to implement all of these ideas and more. Change is not going to happen in one sweeping gesture, but will require all of us to chip in with the actions we can take on.
Ultimately, Beach is optimistic. Channeling the spirit of Jane Jacobs (the urban studies activist who argued that urban renewal did not respect the needs of city dwellers), she believes these problems can be solved. “I’m hopeful because we sell copies of Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities very steadily,” Beach told us. “Her vision of what makes a neighborhood welcoming, safe, vibrant, and sustainable is still so relevant.”
What’s so important about Beach’s Twitter thread is that she houses the debate about bookstores in a much larger conversation about what it means to make our neighborhoods vibrant. Beach is hopeful that her bookstore in particular will go the distance “because Astoria is such an incredible neighborhood. Our customers are so supportive of us, and of the other wonderful small businesses here in western Queens. They are very outspoken about how glad they are that we are here, and quite determined to make sure that we stay for many years to come.”
Because bookstores are more than just book adoption centers. For me, I’ve fallen in love in a bookstore, I’ve met authors who became friends, I’ve pet cats that soothed my soul, and yes, I’ve found books that make me feel a little more whole. Bookstores are important spaces for reminding us that the work of building community is an art that takes time, takes dedication, and takes all of us to make it happen.
I'm just spitballing while I walk my dog and eventually get to work to help with the giant stacks of new releases. There are so many possible solutions to Make Our Neighborhoods Vibrant Again.
“Has minimum wage gone up? Yes. Does my rent go up regularly? Yes,” says Beach. “But I’m part of so many networks of smart people (the American Booksellers Association, Shop Small Astoria, the amazing community of NYC booksellers) who all face overlapping problems. There are solutions to all the questions we have and we’ll find them.”
Why Buying Books Will Not Save Our Beloved Bookstores was originally published in Electric Literature on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.