Like dive bars and movie theaters, bookstores are becoming an endangered species in this city, as massive rents push out independent and national book sellers alike. There are still fantastic institutions in Manhattan, but their numbers have been seriously decimated—not just in the past decade or so, but going back to a time when the borough boasted nearly 400. Now, there are a decidedly diminished 106 remaining on the island.
In his latest mine of city data, Steven Melendez examined the last 60+ years of Manhattan's bookstore landscape, uncovering an unsurprisingly dismal trend. Where we begin our tale in 1950, the borough boasted 386 bookstores, including a great many along historic "book row" on 4th Avenue and a large congregation in the Financial District. The first big blow to bookstores came in early '80s, which saw a nearly 31% decrease from the previous decade. In 1981, there were 249 bookstores in Manhattan; followed by 243 in 1990; 204 in 2000; and a dismal 135 by 2010, a 33.8% decline in 10 years. Last year, there were just 106 bookstores in Manhattan, a whopping 21.4% decline in just four years.
Some of the greatest upheaval in the past came from chain stores like Marboro Books, Womrath Books and Double Day, and Barnes & Noble, Borders and Posman in contemporary Gotham. But where the big boys have floundered, there's more optimism in niche outlets, including a bump in science fiction and fantasy shops, plus comic book shops and the like. The data also shows the "changing face of foreign-language bookstores," according to Melendez. "German, French and Hebrew giving way to Spanish, Japanese and Korean."
Click through decade by decade for an intimate look at what shops have stood the test of time, or press play to watch shops twinkle and die through the past 60 years.
Hopefully, reports of the Death of the Bookstore have been exaggerated. Nancy Bass Wyden, co-owner of Strand Book Store thinks so. "New York has always been a literary city, and it's been sad to see some stores closing," Wyden says. "But then I watch the new independent bookstores rise in the city."
"Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn opened just a few years ago, BookCulture and Posman's Books have both expanded and established new stores, and Molasses Books started a used-book operation in Bushwick just this past year. Many new young readers are coming in as we are surrounded by schools. The times are encouraging to be a bookseller. We hope to be here to provide a treasure trove of books that provide inspiration for readers and artists for years to come."
Wyden also credits a "revived public interest in print books" for bestowing her bookstore with a very strong holiday season.
There's certainly cause for hope, not only with the stores mentioned above—and the enduring legacy of Strand Book Store, of course—but with what will hopefully be a trend in new landlords recognizing that a great bookstore makes all their other properties in the neighborhood more desirable. Last November, beloved cookbook store Bonnie Slotnick was ousted from its West Village home; now, it's been given a new lease on life (literally) over in the East Village. It's but one example, but the hope is still alive that greed and e-books won't kill the paperback. After all, look what we did for vinyl.