At the start of the new year, city marshals seized control of the Book Culture location on the Upper West Side for unpaid rent totaling more than $100,000. It later emerged that landlord Tim Quinlan had lost faith in the majority owner of the store, Chris Doeblin; Quinlan promised to keep the space a bookstore, just without Doeblin in charge. If the storefront does remain home to a bookstore, however, it will likely not be called Book Culture—on Tuesday, Doeblin wrote patrons to inform them that negotiations had fallen apart, and the store would be permanently closing.
"The Columbus Ave Book Culture store will not reopen," Doeblin wrote in the email. "Though we were hoping to enter into an agreement which would allow the store to quickly reopen under new management, those negotiations have ceased and no such deal is in place. This is the saddest and most destructive outcome we had imagined." He added that 12 of the store's 16 employees had been laid off so far.
In an email to Gothamist, Doeblin went into more detail, saying that minority owner John MacArthur, the vice president of Harper’s Magazine, was "no longer interested in acquiring the inventory and fixtures [because] he could not come to terms with the landlord and no longer planned to reopen a bookstore there."
"Our partner there, MacArthur, had stated repeatedly that he would go in his pocket and run the store correctly, and he and the landlord both suggested they would open a bookstore there and we thought they would," he wrote. "We imagined the new entity without me would pay for the contents of the store and reopen."
However, MacArthur's attorney Peter Porcino said that MacArthur was still interested in opening a bookstore at the space, and has been in contact with the landlord and other bookstore operators about making it happen. "My client’s goal is and has been from the beginning to see a solid independent bookstore operating on the Upper West Side," he told Gothamist. "He continues to work with the landlord and others to see if he can bring that to fruition. He has not abandoned that goal."
Porcino noted that negotiations with Doeblin to buy out the inventory of the store had ceased, but otherwise Doeblin was inaccurate in his retelling: "I told his attorney what I told you: I don't know if a deal will be made between Mr. MacArthur and the landlord, but to the extent that Chris Doeblin was relying on them reaching some sort of a deal, he shouldn't rely on that."
(Porcino added that he had just gotten word of a death in MacArthur’s family, "so that might set things back," as he wasn't able to discuss these matters with his client currently.)
A representative of Quinlan, the landlord, told Gothamist, "He can’t really comment on the negotiations between Mr. Doeblin and Mr. MacArthur save for we hoped they could come to an understanding. We had nothing to do with that situation."
When Quinlan spoke to Gothamist two weeks ago, he said that he still had "a soft spot" for Doeblin, but that he has had issues paying rent since 2016. (The store’s monthly rent is currently just shy of $38,000.) “Our intention is to keep that space as a bookstore and we're working hard to do that,” Quinlan said at the time. “It just won’t be Chris at the helm.”
Doeblin had raised more than a half a million dollars from sympathetic residents since last summer through a “community lending program,” after he went public with his money woes. In a lawsuit, MacArthur has argued that Upper West Side residents were misled about where their loans went, alleging that Doeblin was taking out loans on the Columbus Avenue store and using it to pay off the debts of the other three Book Culture locations (two in the Morningside Heights area, one in Long Island City), maxing out the Columbus Avenue location’s credit.
Even if Doeblin loses ownership of the Columbus location, he still will keep full ownership of the other three locations. He also has exclusive rights to the name, so if MacArthur or someone else opens a new bookstore at that space, without an agreement with Doeblin, it won't be called Book Culture.
"The Book Culture on Columbus store won't open again," Doeblin reiterated in an email. "The landlord is the one in charge of leasing the space of course so they get to decide its use with the next tenant. We have the right to our property inside and that will be the kind of legal battle where most of the winnings go to attorneys and to dust and to the landlord."