By Olivia Lucas
On Saturday, January 26th, family, friends, and donors gathered to celebrate the revival of Westsider Books. Guests sipped rosé champagne, ate bacon-wrapped parmesan-stuffed dates, and commiserated over the Upper West Side’s changing landscape.
Over 20 people convened in a colorfully decorated Upper West Side apartment that reflected the aura of the evening. Bright pinks, purples, and blues surrounded elated guests, giddy with the promise of a continued community. Strangers huddled close, exchanged memories of visits to the bookstore on Broadway between 80th and 81st Streets, and shared their favorite novels. Dorian Thornley, co-owner of Westsider Books, recounted his start at Westsider in March of 1995. Thornley and friends toasted Bobby Panza, the creator of the “Save Westsider Rare & Used Books, Please” GoFundMe page. Panza’s parents were there and expressed pride in their son. He saved a landmark, a place of joy and exploration for so many.
Less than a week earlier, Westsider Books had met the $50,000 GoFundMe goal that would allow the bookstore to remain in business. The number of donations (873 and counting) spoke to the community’s desire to preserve a piece of the old Upper West Side. Donors at the party noted a love for books as a motivation for their donation, but, more importantly, a love for their neighborhood. Over the past few years, Broadway has become home to empty storefronts. Small businesses and landmarks of the UWS have been disappearing and affecting the identity of the neighborhood. Westsider Books is an emblem of the past. As West Side residents walk through the door, the distinct smell of used books reminds them of why they first moved to the area. The quaint store acts as an escape for literary lovers and as a portal to the past—to a New York from 25 years ago.
Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer attended the party. She arrived with a wide smile, shaking her head in disbelief and delight. In an interview with West Side Rag, Brewer explained her reaction to the news and interest in Westsider Books. “As somebody who has been fighting for owner-operated, mom-and-pop stores — book stores, pizza shops, bodegas — when you have a win like this you feel really happy,” she said. “And it was neighborhood-based, grassroots-based. People love the store, but not many people pull it off.”
Brewer smiled, “My husband shops there all the time, he loves that store. And he was devastated. The fact that you all came together and supported the store, I think it’s unique. I don’t think that’s ever happened. I was very proud that it happened on the Upper West Side, very proud that it was a bookstore. It’s a big deal in New York. It’s a big deal.” Brewer posed for a picture with Panza, and Sally Martell who made a generous donation of $10,000 early on in the campaign.
The evening closed on an auction to benefit the store’s collection of rare books. Bidding started anywhere from $5 to $1,200. Guests snatched up first editions, and signed copies, including a rare, red leather-bound Jane Austen collection. The money raised from the auction and the GoFundMe page will allow Thornley to improve the store’s inventory. The GoFundMe page will remain open until the end of February.
Olivia Lucas is a senior at Fordham University and a bookseller at Westsider Books.