With the imminent closing of Borders in the Time Warner Center less than a year after the shuttering of the huge Barnes & Noble on 66th Street, the Upper West Side has lost about half of the square feet in the neighborhood devoted to books.
But longtime Upper West Siders know that the end of the era of the local bookstore already happened. In 1996, Shakespeare & Co. on 81st Street closed its doors, and that time the culprit was Barnes & Noble and the other big chain stores. Shortly before that, Endicott Booksellers on 81st and Eeyore’s Books for Children on 79th had closed. I’ve read that Eeyore’s was Nora Ephron’s inspiration for The Shop Around the Corner, the small kids’ bookstore run by Meg Ryan in “You’ve Got Mail.” Barnes & Noble, clearly, was the inspiration for the evil Fox Books in the movie, run by the evil yet benign yuppie Tom Hanks (Damn you, Tom Hanks!).
Bookstores served a different purpose then. Shakespeare & Co. in particular, styled itself as a haven for intellectuals. If you were looking for mass-market fiction or a beach read, it was best to go elsewhere — buying Sue Grafton there would have been a humiliating experience. That somewhat haughty air, of course, drove some people away, and into the arms of Barnes & Noble. But it also gave Shakespeare & Co., and the neighborhood, a certain cache. It said: intellectuals live here; being smart is more important than being rich; and, of course, nerds are welcome!
In the last few years, other cherished bookshops have also closed their doors. Both Murder Ink and Ivy’s Books and Curiosities, which each closed their locations on Broadway in the 90′s a few years ago, had their own unique persona. Westsider Books on 81st and Broadway still offers some of that mystique of disappearing into stacks filled with great books. But the loss of so many smaller bookstores has clearly taken its toll.
Barnes & Noble doesn’t have that sort of cache, and it doesn’t want it. The owners figured that people will eventually choose lower prices over knowledgeable (or snobbish) service. Borders had even more of a supermarket feel than Barnes & Noble. Both stores ended up as places to buy media-related merchandise, be it CD’s, books, magazines, DVD’s or games inspired by books that had been inspired by musicals. That said, they were great places to go to browse, people-watch and sit in a cafe and read a magazine. And they both offered free events that brought all sorts of interesting writers and performers into the neighborhood. People could also disappear into the stacks, grab a book and read a chapter on the floor by themselves. Try to disappear at the Apple store. Someone will come up to you and shove an iPod in your face. Then they’ll swipe you with a handheld scanner and send you on your way.
Yes, Upper West Siders, many of us came to enjoy, or at least tolerate, Barnes & Noble and even Borders. But a new demon has forced them out of our lives. A demon with better customer service than any retailer out there, with a phenomenal return policy, endless supply, and even cheaper prices. And yes, one day we may even come to miss that demon, Amazon.
Photos by Avi.