Book Culture Owner Says He’s ‘In Danger of Closing Soon,’ Asks Government Leaders for Help

Independent book shop Book Culture is on the ropes, and it wants the government to help it stay afloat, owner Chris Doeblin wrote in an open letter sent to customers on Monday.

“If you run the city or the state or if you have the means to assist, or even if it simply means calling and emailing and writing to the local city council member where you live and the mayor and governor, please do so,” Doeblin wrote.

Doeblin says the store is successful by most measures, bringing in substantial revenue and paying out $1.7 million in payroll last year. But it’s still too tough to make it in New York these days. The letter also makes political points, criticizing the wealth and power that Walmart and Amazon have amassed.

Book Culture has been expanding in recent years, opening a shop at 450 Columbus Avenue between 81st and 82nd street in 2014. It now has four stores in the city — three in Manhattan and one in Long Island City.

Read the full letter below:

A Letter to the Community
To all our members and patrons, to Mayor De Blasio, Governor Cuomo, Speaker Johnson, Gale Brewer, all City Council members, fellow citizens of New York, neighbors;
My name is Chris Doeblin and I am the owner and operator of Book Culture. We run 4 storefront bookstores in New York City, 3 in Manhattan and 1 in LIC Queens. We have been in business for over 22 years.
There is a situation that I need help with and I want to address as large a group as possible in the hopes of finding a solution. I hope to also make a statement about the future of our city.
Our 4 stores are in danger of closing soon and we need financial assistance or investment on an interim basis to help us find our footing. This is true in spite of the fact that business has been good and we are widely supported and appreciated.
Book Culture’s stores generate over $650,000 in sales tax revenue each year for the city and state. We employ over 75 people at peak season and had a payroll over $1.7M last year. Book Culture has always been committed to paying our employees above minimum wage, both before and after the increase. All of that payroll along with the $700,000 a year that we pay in rent goes right back into the New York economy, which is why I address our government here. Many large development plans, Amazon’s HQ2 in LIC for example, included a cost to taxpayers of $48,000 per job. There is a history here of local government aiding business when it produces a return for the locality.
Every one of our employees, including my family, spends virtually all our income in the city. We shop here, eat here, pay our rent, use the MTA, and all those expenses roll right back into the community economy, to the benefit of all of us. It’s the multiplier effect of storefront businesses. It isn’t a huge sum of our economy taken by itself, but it is integral to the fabric of our city.
The jobs we create aren’t tech jobs but our jobs offer a toehold to young people coming to New York, often times trained in the humanities and heading for careers in the arts or other cultural industries; to students, artists, dancers and writers. We have been employing young native New Yorkers forever too, often as a first job. Publishing and bookselling have long been a significant part of New York City’s cultural and economic foundation.
Book Culture does a lot more for our communities than act as an economic engine.  As an organization, we can take an empty storefront and spin it into a wonderful community asset that transforms a neighborhood. That takes vision, creativity, courage and entrepreneurial talent. This is a set of qualities that a city, any city or community, ought to reward and empower.
This combination of talent and industry, so common in smaller businesses is too often overlooked and not given the support and nurture that it deserves. The capital pools that allow projects like Amazon’s near entree into New York or building projects like Hudson Yards aren’t available for small businesses like ours. But they ought to be. We have been financed by credit card, by 30% a year interest loans and by remortgaging our home.
For too long we have accepted that businesses need only serve their profit orientation as though it were an obvious fact, a natural law of the 21st century. As someone dedicated to our city and nation, as a leader building a company, and its culture, as a parent and citizen, I know we can do better. Book Culture as a business is dedicated to serving the community it inhabits. This orientation to the common good rather than extracting wealth is the crucial distinction.
We do not reject large business, or internet commerce, but we know that we can’t build a future by accepting that businesses simply extract and accumulate. We need to support a culture of businesses that serve our communities holistically. And we need to move to a greater diversity of ownership not towards more consolidation.
The families that own America’s 2 largest retailers, Amazon and Walmart, just 2 families, have accumulated over $250 Billion in privately held wealth. That is a 1⁄4 of a $1 trillion!
This grotesque inequity is one of the gravest dangers posed to our democracy,the civil society and the communities we hope to build for our children.
As a parent who has served as treasurer of our schools PA I have grown to see everything as a teachable moment; what are we teaching our children? What are our values here?
If each of those families had only, ONLY, $1 billion, we could have spent $2 million for every single public school in America.
But what really sets off the distinction for our future America is that these 2 companies, like so many others, still arrive in our communities with their hands out asking for more. And they arrive in our governments by way of lobbyists asking them not to represent our children and the best future we hope to create for them. They arrive to continue to pile on to the wealth of the shareholders.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Companies like Book Culture, that are entwined with and dedicated to their communities, offer a better way forward.
Lastly, Book Culture contributes simply by being what we are, storefront businesses active in a community. We add to the street life and Jane Jacobs’s ideal of a neighborhood where people interact, face to face with each other in the simple conduct of our lives.
Our shops light up the evening streets with a welcoming inviting space. We provide a place for parents and children to visit together and engage in books. We are a place for quiet, or conversation, discovery and reflection.
We need financial help to continue our transition.
If you run the city or the state or if you have the means to assist, or even if it simply means calling and emailing and writing to the local city council member where you live and the mayor and governor, please do so.
The price of doing business doesn’t have to be incurred by the people. The price of doing business should be more about serving our common welfare.
Sincerely,
Chris Doeblin
NEWS | 118 comments | permalink
    1. Lauren says:

      Beautiful letter about a brutal reality for so many of our Mom/Pop shops – and I don’t think there’s a weekend I don’t wander into a Book Culture!? Unfortunately, the UWS has over 200 empty store fronts. Where is the MAYOR on this!? I hope our council members will act b/c we need to be encouraging small business not deterring it – unless we want to live in a wasteland of big banks and drugstores.

      • Woody says:

        How many times do you buy anything there vs. just wandering in?

      • Jen says:

        200 empty storefronts are a good indication of a serious issue. I don’t know if it takes just a mayor though. Most likely it is a national issue; that being said, the mayor at least should venture some ideas on how to solve this.

        We bailed banks who made crazy and dirty money without any accountability several years ago. And who still use pretty much the same practices and getting richer, again without any accountability. What about businesses that are not banks and not huge corporations? How we give them same or comparable breaks to keep thriving?

      • Darwin Bearhead says:

        His Ornery is in Iowa & South Carolina on his quixotic quest for higher office, the homes of big box stores . . . He doesn’t give a damn about us. Gail Brewer does, though, & I hope she can do something to help Book Culture.

      • UWSGal says:

        Our Mayor is busy at the moment campaigning for POTUS. “Please leave a message after the beep an d someone will try to get back to you”.

      • GG says:

        Instead of just wandering in maybe you should, you know, BUY something.:)

        Personally I think it’s a lot more simple than all of that….supply and demand…everyone knows people don’t read anymore, at least old fashioned paper books.

      • NYC via Believeland says:

        Our erstwhile mayor is running for POTUS. Seems like an Onion post

      • Brian says:

        The Mayor is in Iowa talking to 3 or 4 people.

    2. UWS Drew says:

      I understand how people feel sad to see a bookstore close. I understand many people still like to read physical books too. I on the other hand only read digital on my Kindle. To me books are a communication from the author to the reader and the way those words reach your brain is unimportant.

      The reality is business has changed and there will never been a need for all the store fronts that are available in NYC again. It’s time to stop blaming landlords and Amazon and start thinking of new uses for this space. I don’t know what it will be, but shops just won’t work.
      This has happened numerous times through history, some examples are milkmen, Kodak, etc. I’m sure you guys can think of hundreds of other examples. The reality is this has not been caused by Landlords or Amazon… it’s been caused by us the consumers and I for one don’t want to go back to walking to a store and buying a physical book. Downloading a book in seconds and having hundreds on one small device that is back-lit and stays powered for a month is way, way better IMO.

      • RF says:

        Agreed! I love to read, but these days 90% of my reading is done via iPad. The only time I still read paper books is at the beach/pool or sometimes while traveling. I do shop at Book Culture occasionally, but it’s usually to buy a greeting card or gift item rather than a book. And I agree about finding new uses for storefront space, too. It’s time for potential business owners to think about experiences–climbing gyms, sip n’ paint studios, etc., rather than physical products. The crowd here likes to complain about nail salons and coffee shops, but it’s much smarter to open something like that than a retail store. After all, you can’t get a manicure via the internet.

      • patty says:

        UWS Drew … There is room for both. I read both physical books and books on kindle. The world works in many ways. Have some imagination and vision, don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

      • TY says:

        There is no comparison between shopping online for a book or downloading one from an e-bookstore and browsing in a bricks and mortar shop. I have discovered countless authors I never would have found otherwise that were suggested by a bookstore employee or thoughtfully curated and displayed. Online shopping just doesn’t expose you to alternative views and expand your reading in the same way. I also browse at Book Culture on Columbus Ave most weekends. And I’m incapable of walking out of that store without at least one or two books. That’s what a good book shop does best.

    3. Jan Opalach says:

      Mom/Pop stores are the personalities of neighborhoods.

    4. Christine Kealy says:

      This store is of such value to our community. I will join any effort to keep it open.

      • Nathan says:

        Maybe you should sponsor an employee. Maybe Book Culture needs an endowment fund.

        • UWSHebrew says:

          endowment fund? for a book store? don’t you people care about the homeless? have any of you seen a dirty man or woman and gave that person a $20 bill, not some dimes and quarters? goodbye Book Culture, I never stepped foot in any of your stores, and I never will.

          • NYYgirl says:

            I sincerely hope that you are giving your $20 bills to reputable organizations which shelter, feed, and help find jobs for the ‘dirty’ people to whom you refer.

            • UWSHebrew says:

              Nope. I like seeing my whole donation go directly to someone who needs it, and not a fraction of it reaching the homeless “administrative costs”, etc.

    5. stu says:

      Its an unfortunate product of our times. Independent book sales is not a good business to be in these days. And, frankly, our government (and our tax dollars) supports this benefit to the community already — its called the NY Public Library. Our tax dollars should be supporting that, not this private individual’s commercial businesses.

      Ultimately, we live in a free-market country. If landlords are unfairly reaping subsidies that are harming the local economy, then, yes, our government needs to respond. The problem on the UWS (and other neighborhoods in the city) is that it is a mixed-income neighborhood. Unlike, say, certain areas in London – such as Mayfair or Knighsbridge — where it is almost exclusively made up of wealthier residents who can afford to patronize high-end stores (who can in turn afford high rents), the UWS community cannot, as a whole, afford to patronize a high number of high-end stores that can afford the higher rents landlords demand. That is why we have so many empty storefronts. Only those stores that can charge higher prices or are super successful can afford the rents (or have deep pockets such as banks, Verizon, etc), and we just dont have enough residents who can afford to patronize upscale stores.

      • aqw says:

        The library on Amsterdam & 66th is a virtual homeless shelter.

        • stu says:

          Hyperbole. I use it all the time and its a typical city library — first floor you have seniors and “others” sitting at the tables reading newspapers or sleeping. They actively kick out anyone that is a vagabond. Upstairs is all nannys.

    6. tailfins says:

      Ridiculous letter.

      He’s not wrong in many of his points, but why is he asking for a government hand-out?

      First, he says “business has been good”. Then what’s wrong? Is he just asking for extra money to go into his pocket? Or is it really that business hasn’t been good? Could it be residual fall-out from his opposition to his employees’ attempt to unionize back in 2014? Or could it be, as he said in an interview at the time, that “I think I’m probably not a very good manager.”

      Second, what support is he looking for. Much of the support to Amazon and others are tax breaks, not direct subsidies. That implies he’d generate a profit that had created a material tax burden. Is that the hand-out he’s looking for? It’s rare that a failing business can be saved by tax breaks, so I’m dubious.

      I’m not anti his quest. And if enough people decide they want to support their tax dollars going into his pocket, so be it. But, this letter is contains unnecessary bravado (“business has been good”), false equivalencies (“cost per job” does not equal “subsidy”) and has clear omissions (no mention of his getting investors, driving customers away with “P for Palestine” or fighting the unions, or the declining sales in his Morningside Heights location).

      Good for him if he succeeds, but it’ll be without me.

      • UWSMaven says:

        I am upset about the loss of small stores, but I have to agree wholeheartedly with tailfins on this.

        What’s the “ask” here? This owner chose to expand his business rapidly — including to LIC — and so what is he looking for? My cynical side thinks he’s looking for somebody to start a “gofundme” campaign and give him cash, which I object to.

        That’s why the whole “empty stores” thing is so complicated; it’s not any one thing… it’s greedy landlords (sometimes), changing demographics (sometimes) bad business decisions (sometimes) and hanging over all of those is the fundamental change in the way people shop. Sad but true!

    7. Attend the rally tomorrow at City Hall at 3pm! Join the Chambers of Commerce of New York City to protest additional business and job killing regulation. Mr. Doeblin may not recognize that many of this city’s regulations are what’s killing his business. Spending tens of thousands of dollars on mandated training, mandated leave and vacation policies, and commercial rent taxes could be part of the problem. What about nuisance violation tickets and write-ups often called/sent in by competitors? Not sure if this is an issue for his business, but I know of plenty of business owners dealing with these issues.

      Separately, I take issue with Mr. Doeblin’s assertion that large businesses “extract and accumulate”. Do they not provide a value to their communities, as Book Culture does? In terms of growth, how did Mr. Doeblin get from idea to four stores? If his model continues to be successful, would he think of taking it to other cities and growing it bigger? At what point would he consider himself an extractor and accumulator?

      As for a diversity of ownership, how many businesses does he believe there are in this city? I own a business, but employ no one, yet am hoping to get to a point where it makes financial sense to do so. I meet small business owners every day who are scratching and clawing to grow, yet are not interested in government assistance, despite SBS, SBA and other city, state, and federal agencies who offer services. Government isn’t the answer.

    8. Sherman says:

      This is ridiculous.

      Small independent bookstores (and most small and independent stores for that matter) simply can’t compete with online merchants and big box stores.

      While Book Culture might be a quirky and charming place to shop it has an obsolete business model.

      The government should not be propping up and giving financial assistance to weak and obsolete businesses.

      There are many small businesses around the city that can’t compete due to changing times. The city can’t bail out all of them.

      Incidentally, the owner of Book Culture boasts in his letter that he’s always paid his employees above minimum wage. This might be admirable, but maybe if his employees’ wages were a bit lower his store might survive.

      There’s a price to pay for “progressive” business practices. Nothing is free. Many small businesses -and their consumers – will be hurt by the $15 minimum wage.

    9. Bruce E. Bernstein says:

      thank you Chris Doeblin. You hit the nail right on the head in so many ways.

      “For too long we have accepted that businesses need only serve their profit orientation as though it were an obvious fact, a natural law of the 21st century. As someone dedicated to our city and nation, as a leader building a company, and its culture, as a parent and citizen, I know we can do better. Book Culture as a business is dedicated to serving the community it inhabits. This orientation to the common good rather than extracting wealth is the crucial distinction.”

      THIS is why we need “Mom and Pop” businesses. they are a crucial backbone of our community.

      And than you for bringing up Jane Jacobs!

    10. Jeremy Shapiro says:

      It would be awful to lose Book Culture. Good bookstores, of which Book Culture is one of the few remaining, are cultural institutions as essential as libraries, museums, and orchestrated. Because they serve the community, they deserve community support through our government as representative of the community.

      • sam says:

        Yes, making available literature and ideas to the community is a noble, important endeavor. That is why we have libraries. Physical book stores operate as for-profit businesses, and will soon be a relic of history.

    11. Susan says:

      This is distressing but I’m not sure what it is that the owner of Book Culture would like the government to do or what more specifically is making his business survival so tenuous right now. Is it a problem of it’s own making by expanding? (Although I love the newer store on Columbus Ave). Should the City provide certain kinds of tax breaks or credits for small business owners? Create a bond issue to finance low-interest loans for so-called Mom and Pop stores? I am both a patron and “member” of Book Culture and would be very upset if they closed but in order to do something meaningful we need to know what it is that specifically imperils this business. Simply complaining to our elected officials about this trend among small business owners in Manhattan will not help this particular business — we need to offer possible solutions and then get the ear of Gail Brewer, the Mayor, City Council etc., lobby for implementing them and give them a chance to make a difference. Ideas anyone?

    12. LKLA says:

      Was there this past weekend with my wife and son and my wife said “This place looks like it is going out of business.” The downstairs kids sections was depleted – in a sad state. The ground floor had people, but like I noticed a while back – looking, not buying. There could have easily been 20-30 people there, yet not more than one or two were actually buying anything.

    13. UWSHebrew says:

      “I is for Intifada”.

      • GG says:

        and “C” is for chickens coming home to roost.

        Here’s an idea…maybe don’t alienate and insult a large group in the neighborhood when you are trying to run a successful business??

        • UWSHebrew says:

          Sadly, most in our area have “forgiven” Book Culture for giving funds for the publication of the book “P is for Palestine” (which includes the lovely page “I is for Intifada”), and their unwavering support for the book and it’s author (they STILL carry the book in their store). Anyone who is against violence and spends one penny in their store should be ashamed of themselves, regardless of how you feel politically.

          • Adam says:

            I, for one, haven’t been back to the store since I learned of their funding the publication of “P is for Palestine” (which includes the lovely page “I is for Intifada”). I think the store lost a lot of goodwill after that one.

          • Jo says:

            Same. I have not gotten past that. Though I do feel badly for the employees that would lose jobs if they close. They had no say in that terrible book being sold there or arranging the author to speak there.

        • UWSreader says:

          I’m sure it’s that and not the fact that physical bookstores – and even the once mighty giant Barnes and Noble – have been a dying breed across the developed world for the last decade. I am an avid book reader and haven’t bought a physical book in years. How can you ever compete with a device that holds dozens of books that fits in a pocket, regardless of your politics?

    14. Marian says:

      I love BookCulture and try to support it as much as I can. But what about other issues that need government support: parks and recreation, police and fire, transportation services, homelessness. And of course, all the other storefronts. If Book Culture chose to overextend and open 4 stores, is it our problem? I do not think so. Are we prepared to pay higher taxes to keep Book Culture open? I really don’t think so. This letter is written with more than a bit of hubris. I am sad because this store is a favorite – I would have expected more from its management.

    15. drg says:

      This direct part of the letter was not included above: “In the last 30 months the payroll costs for Book Culture have risen by 50% and it has been difficult to adapt quickly enough. We have now made the structural changes to our company and the cuts that will allow us to move ahead profitably once we find the financial resources we need.” according to https://gothamist.com/2019/06/24/owner_says_book_culture_stores_are.php

      In addition, in that article, the following was also quoted: Doeblin blamed payroll cost increases on the city’s minimum wage raise, which he says increased hourly wages for his employees “from $10 to $15.25 since December 2016” and forced him to initiate layoffs and reorganizing.

      Hmmmmm… unintended consequences here at work.

      • UWSreader says:

        If all of his competitors also have to pay a $15 minimum wage, how is that putting him at a disadvantage? This is simply a change in both the way people shop and consume books. Any other explanation (support for palestine, regulations, minimum wage) seems like a marginal contributor at best. He is the proverbial buggy-whip seller in a post-Ford world. I think most of us, myself included, love the IDEA of a local bookstore, but also aren’t willing to regularly pay the kind of mark-up over amazon to compensate for the lack of economies of scale and costs of a brick and mortar in a prime location. Not to mention carrying around a 10lb book everywhere rather than an ereader. I am all for government focusing on incentives to small businesses rather than large ones, but physical bookstores (and many other types of physical goods) may be somewhat of a lost cause given changing technology and consumer habits.

    16. Sarah says:

      Book Culture closing would be a devastating blow to the UWS.

    17. James Franco says:

      Our 4 stores are in danger of closing — Close the ones that are not working. Or close them all and open another business.

      We need financial assistance or investment on an interim basis to help us find our footing — as for a bank loan, seek out private/individual investors, mortgage your apartment…that is what EVERYONE has does.

      Companies like Book Culture, that are entwined with and dedicated to their communities, offer a better way forward — How exactly to they offer a better way and what exactly do you mean by “way”? I think Amazon offers superb selection, extremely fair prices, great customer service…

      Business has been good and we are widely supported and appreciated — how can that be if you are closing / asking for help? Perhaps you don’t know how to run the business. Are you not charging enough, are your cost perhaps too high, do you now have the inventory that people want…?

      Many large development plans, Amazon’s HQ2 in LIC for example, included a cost to taxpayers of $48,000 per job. There is a history here of local government aiding business when it produces a return for the locality — So you rage against a supposed cost that Amazon would bring but then ask for help yourself?

      Book Culture does a lot more for our communities than act as an economic engine — most businesses can say that. Restaurants feed people, provide a place to socialize, attract tourists…You are certainly not feeding the poor or saving people’s lives!

      We have been financed by credit card, by 30% a year interest loans and by remortgaging our home — Is there a reason why a bank would not offer you credit/a loan? Seems rather “irresponsible” to be financing a business in this way. Rather naive to the least to think that the risks would not outweigh the rewards.

      This orientation to the common good rather than extracting wealth is the crucial distinction — No business extracts wealth without giving anything in return. People are not that stupid. Restaurants, bars, clothing stores, hotels, pet shops, pharmacies, toy stores, private schools, accountants,…are constantly closing their businesses. What makes a bookstore any different, any more special?

      Amazon and Walmart, just 2 families, have accumulated over $250 Billion in privately held wealth — And? Taking what others lawfully gained is not the answer. If not lawfully gained then why are they not in jail? No one gave Amazon or Walmart anything more or less than they gave Joe’s Coffee or Resy or Away or Union Square Hospitality (all NYC-based companies) anything that Book Culture can not get.

    18. James says:

      I love this letter. It’s a very detail and fact driven account of why it’s important for government to create conditions for small businesses to succeed, that states why it’s good for the City and the City’s population and more than the usual arguments that are more emotion driven.

      I hope that Book Culture survives because NY is more interesting with a store like this.

    19. HH says:

      This is a great store and if it closes it would be a meaningful loss to the uws. Chris, can you be more specific about what you are asking for? Do you need help obtaining a small business loan to pay down the store’s credit card debt? Is there a tax-abatement that would make sense for a business like yours which the city should consider? Good luck.

    20. Noma says:

      This letter is heart breaking on so many fronts. Just the other night I walked by Book Culture on Columbus at around 9:30pm and I was surprised that it was still open. I stepped inside and really appreciated the calm beauty of a neighborhood bookstore in the evening. It was an experience that reminds me why I love the UWS. Hearing about their struggles after trying to support them the best I could for years is a harsh reminder of what headwinds small businesses face.

      To our community, city, and state leaders: this is a worthwhile cause that I am passionate about. Please help.

    21. UWS Craig says:

      My recommendation is that a 1 penny per book tax be assessed for any online purchases and the proceeds be used to support Book Culture and other store-based or sidewalk-based book retailers. I would also recommend that a ten cent per shoe tax be assessed on Zappos, and the proceeds used to support our local shoe stores. I find it much better to be able to try on the shoe at the store so I know that it fits, and returning things, even if free, is cumbersome. I would also like a ten cent per month fee on Netflix and the proceeds be used to bring back Lincoln Plaza Cinema. These are modest changes, with little or no cost, but would enrich our community immeasurably.

      • Sarcastic Sam says:

        Great plan.

        While your at it, why don’t we tax every sale at Home Depot so that I can buy a bigger apartment?

        Seems only fair since I enrich the community just as much.

    22. E says:

      I like Book Culture and enjoy having it in our neighborhood, but don’t really understand what he’s advocating for here.
      Amazon wasn’t allowed into LIC and Walmart doesn’t have a headquarters in NY, so NYC and NY don’t have any authority to fine/tax them to fund small businesses. If he wants a grant from our local government, it would be helpful if he outlined how much he asking for and how he could use that to grow out of needing grants.

    23. Sean says:

      It is a well thought out response but the fact remains that we are in a different retail environment that we have not seen before. The US has more retail space per citizen than anywhere else in the world. We have capitalism. How goods and services are distributed and sold is very different today and it is the direct result of technology which means internet sales. And people do not live like the generations before. They can’t afford to. They don’t have the real estate to pack a house with stuff like in post WW2 America. So it’s a bigger problem. I think we have all these empty store fronts because we don’t need them. The people of the UWS by in large look forward to spending less and convenience and they order online. Also the demographics here have changed. There are less creatives. Amazon pays nothing in taxes because they can.

    24. Jim says:

      Ugh no! We love Book Culture, it’s my favorite store to visit in UWS. they cannot close 🙁

    25. Joan says:

      If Helen and Linda Rosenthal want to do something great for this city they will work to save local businesses like Book Culture.
      Wonderful, insightful letter.

    26. VoR says:

      The letter conflates a lot of things. It asks the city, or the state, to push money to the business because of the greater value it provides. It takes a swing at WalMart and that family as well. I think what might be interesting here is a look at Book Culture’s cost structure. Specifically, what city/state taxes is Book Culture absorbing, and do they need to be that high? City spending is up enormously over the last five years. Should the city be in the business or providing money to businesses or providing lines of credit to them, or should it instead be doing all it can to keep taxes low for local businesses given the value businesses such as these undoubtedly provide? The idea of high taxes coupled with then providing back money to businesses is strange to me. I really don’t know – what is the climate for local businesses in terms of taxes?

    27. Marci says:

      I’m right there with you on the 200 empty storefronts, Lauren. I LOVE the UWS, but it’s becoming a very inconvenient place to live.

      • stu says:

        Whaaaat??!!! Move to the suburbs and then tell me of inconvenience. I f I wanted to, I could stay home in my apartment 24/7/365 and have everything sent to me directly from either Amazon/Google Express or local shops that deliver.

    28. rs says:

      I get really mad at people who claim that a higher minimum wage is a bad thing, responsible for store closings, etc. If a business can’t afford to pay a decent wage to its workers it deserves to go out of business. That includes bookstores.

      • Jose Habib says:

        Ok – then it goes out of business and none of those employees have jobs anymore at all. How is that better?

        Let the market decide the wages.

    29. Bflat says:

      Great letter. These no denying the contribution small businesses make to the life and ” feel”of a neighborhood. When I was growing up here, store owners were neighbors, I was friends with or babysat their kids. People weren’t so closely identified to their job or credentials, which makes things lively and interesting. Of course, it was truly affordable as well. In many ways, I think that is the old New York people still seek out when they come here to live or visit.

      So Chris’ letter resonates with me — just wish he had been more clear about what policy changes he would like to see. I gather he wants some version of the tax incentives and protections granted to Amazon et al to be extended to small businesses. To me, it’s not sufficient to shrug and say well, “that’s capitalism, huck huck huck. That’s all folks!” I don’t want to live in an ugly megacity or bland strip-mall-ia.

    30. Josh says:

      Small businesses are great for the neighborhood, which is why we need more of them. Unfortunately, we force them all to crowd onto the avenues and a handful of side streets. We should allow small businesses on side streets, with proper regulation to minimize noise and other nuisances. The problems facing our small businesses are systemic and can’t be addressed by bailing out individual businesses one by one. We need to give small businesses more leverage in negotiating with their landlords by giving them more choice in where to locate. Increase the power of small businesses to negotiate their rent and bring bring businesses closer to where people live!

    31. soldier says:

      A new trend is emerging: a business asks (or requests) direct financial help, even from the government (!)
      This is how the city government can help:
      STOP suffocating commerce with astronomical property taxes;
      foresee that $15/hour, mandatory employees’ requirements will kill a small business;
      get rid of rabid *progressives* that are so public-good minded that common sense and commerce sense do not apply to them.

      • Leon says:

        I agree – the irrational progressives give us normal, pragmatic liberals a bad name.

        The main reason the city budget is going up and thus property taxes are going up is unions. I am generally strongly in favor of unions and their right to exist. But they have to be reasonable – the cost to get anything done around here (i.e. major public work projects) is obscene because the unions strong-arm the city, the MTA and others.

        And city employees (through their unions) get ridiculous pensions and OPEB benefits that are taking up a rapidly increasing portion of the city budget. City employees are entitled to be fairly paid but their current benefit levels are out of line with the rest of America.

        Lower these costs and the city can slow the growth rate of property taxes and it would be a lot more affordable to operate a store here.

    32. B.B. says:

      While one does have sympathy for any small business owner trying to make a living in NYC/NYS, at some point people have to face facts. Either your business model is working, or not.

      Mr. Doeblin is looking for a “loan” of $500k to one million. That is what banks, investors and or increasingly GoFundMe (or similar) are there to do.

      https://gothamist.com/2019/06/24/owner_says_book_culture_stores_are.php

      Over past six years or so under current mayor and city council NYC’s budget has increased astronomically. Much of it to fund a vast and bewildering array of social service spending. So now Mr. Doeblin wants to add private industry on top of these sums? Where is all this money going to come from? People are already leaving both this city and state from having their pockets picked by government, where does it end?

      In keeping with that theme NYS and NYC were warned there would be consequences and repercussions by raising minimum wage. That has happened and will continue to do so as businesses find ways of adapting to changes in their costs.

      Most small or even larger businesses in this city are dealing with goods or services that are not inelastic. As such there simply is a natural limit to what customers will pay.

      As have said repeatedly in these sort of threads, online is killing many of these small businesses. They simply cannot sell their goods or services at prices competitive with someone who does not have to deal with having a physical space in this city/state.

      There is a reason why nearly everything you see opening nowadays is a food/drink related, health or grooming, and a few others. People have to eat, drink, go to the gym, do Pilate’s, yoga and whatever else. These are things that in whole or part aren’t easily affected by online presence.

      The rest is something anyone paying attention knows; NYC real estate is red hot, with land values exploding. When price of land goes up, so does its value which translates into higher property tax assessments.

      People moan about “greedy” and or “evil” landlords/property owners. No one mentions that thanks to NYC/NYS byzantine and complex property tax laws commercial property owners (who pay the largest share of all RE taxes) are getting hit with higher tax bills.

      Those increased taxes are passed along to commercial/retail tenants in whole or part. That is just how the market operates, and has done so for ages.

    33. Christine E says:

      Book Culture is not asking for a handout. Just reminding us that small businesses are precious and integral to the community.

      The author is kindly transparent about costs. By my calculations, $650,000 in sales tax implies about $7.2 million in sales, of which 24% was payroll, 10% was rent, and 60% may be cost of goods sold (the average for independent booksellers, whereas the Amazons and Barnes & Nobles may pay 40% of list price; ignoring the fact that Book Culture sells many items beyond books). These total 97% and are not all the costs of running a business. So they had profit of 3% at most. With the minimum wage increase, and assuming 75% of the staff is hourly, payroll will rise to 33% of sales, causing costs to rise to at least 103% of sales. The increase in minimum wage was the breaking point that tipped operations to the negative. But they already had slim margins.

      On the revenue side, I wonder if they can build side businesses that utilize existing staff and infrastructure (online sales? book of the month club? writing workshops? rent space for events?). More events (author talks, etc.) would drive traffic too (these seem to have tapered off; perhaps require tickets with book purchase included, as Strand does).

      On the cost side, there are a few potential government levers that may address small business challenges and vacant storefronts in general: (1) reduce NYS employer payroll tax for small businesses, (2) increase the threshold for Metropolitan Commuter Transportation Mobility Tax (currently applies to businesses with annual payroll of $1.25 million or more, so theoretically exempts small businesses; the limit seems too low if it ensnares companies like Book Culture and also was not adjusted commensurate with the minimum wage increase), and (3) reduce property taxes for properties renting to qualified/designated small businesses (since the tax is usually a pass-through in the commercial lease). Property tax abatements already exist for other supported groups, such as designated affordable housing; there is no reason why something similar could not be set up to help small businesses as well. In the meantime, buildings of the type rented by UWS mom & pop businesses (residential properties with a few storefronts) saw property tax rates increase 22% from 2017 to 2019. Increases are passed through to the commercial leaseholders, many of whom are (or were, now vacant) small businesses. So the government is partly to blame for the death of small businesses and also can be part of the solution should they chose.

      • B.B. says:

        Barnes & Nobel was just purchased by a hedge fund group of investors.

        https://www.forbes.com/sites/lawrencelight/2019/06/24/the-barnes-noble-buyout-a-godsend-for-book-readers-and-investors/

        As we’ve seen in the past this can either be a good thing, or bad. American corporate cemetery is filled however with the corpses of companies hedge funds raided, looted and otherwise picked clean of assets, then left the rotting corpses to die a slow death.

        Eastern Airlines, TWA, Sears, Toys R Us are a few that come to mind.

        This being said any business asking for/taking on debt needs to do their homework very carefully. Debt is usually what hedge funds pile on to businesses they are supposed to be “saving”, only to have them crushed by it and die.

      • Rus says:

        If payroll is 24 percent of revenue, that strongly suggests that revenue is much much too low relative to their cost structure. The problem with the store is that it isn’t selling very much. Their book selection is not well thought out in my opinion and the other things they sell, such as home decor and kid’s bike helmets do not seem to sell well and occupy lots of space. I like small business as much as the next person, but the reality is, people are choosing not to buy what they offer.

    34. Big Earl says:

      As much as I love mom and pop shops and hate to see them close, not sure on this one. Book Culture brings a lot to the neighborhood in many ways, but at the same time it’s asking for a lifeline when it’s in an industry that is in a death spiral, as sad as that may be. It sucks, just ask taxi drivers and print media. As the world evolves, some things become obsolete. Fighting a losing battle at this point.

    35. Susan Gutterman says:

      I think UWSDrew’s letter is one of the saddest things I’ve ever read.
      Lets all live in our separate pods & read on our Kindles & never, never have any interaction with our neighbors.

      • UWSDrew says:

        I think your comment is sad. If you want to meet people go to a park, or bar. Or join a club or some other kind of group. Again this is my point. To me reading is reading, not some fake ruse to try to talk to people in a book store. Creepy.

        • RF says:

          Agreed, Drew. And I fail to see how the method of delivery (e-book vs. paper) has anything to do with WHERE I’m reading. If anything, e-books have made it easier for me to be more social, by allowing me read in places other than my apartment—much easier to throw my iPad mini in my bag and take it to a cafe, coffee shop, or park rather than lugging around a physical copy. I never finished reading The Power Broker for this very reason! It’s not available for Kindle and weighs too much to read anywhere other than my apartment.

    36. ModernWorld says:

      Wow yes let’s have the government bail this place out! And right after that let’s have the government fund a Blockbuster, Tower Records, One Hour Photo, RadioShack,Post Office, watch store, haberdashery, to and Sears in the empty places around it.

      • SU says:

        Exactly. What makes book culture special? Because the owner had the lack of business sense to use credit cards to fund his business?

    37. Peter says:

      The store will need around $3 million in yearly sales to break even, Mr. Doeblin said. “That’s not a huge amount of books.”

      Besides, he said, the Upper West side “is a great demographic for any retailer. It’s a wealthy group of people with all kinds of jobs in the culture industry … What’s not to like? It’s one of the greatest neighborhoods to sell stuff in the world.”

    38. Warren says:

      As touched on in some letters, the fact is that you can’t buy everything on line and then expect there to be stores. And stores can’t survive on browsing, they need you to actually buy something. Shopping patterns are an individual choice, the business owner and the government can’t fix it if you choose not to shop locally.

    39. J says:

      While high rent is impacting bookstores and whatever remains of traditional “mom and pop” stores, nail and waxing businesses are – sadly – multiplying like tribbles.

      On several blocks/block areas there are nail salons – sometimes two – on every block.

      Manhattan has become a chain store mall plus nail salons….High rent is the main factor.

      (BTW if you go to the Bronx, local retail seems to be managing. There are no vacancies though these stores are in lower income neighborhoods and often fewer customers. This further suggests that excessive commercial rent is the key issue in Manhattan)

      It says something when there are no bookstores – bookstores which also serve as a retail anchor for the community – but plenty of nail salons.

    40. Mark Moore says:

      Labor costs. He built a business on a model where the employees got paid X. Then the gov’t said you have to pay them X+50% and that just doesn’t work.

      • UWSreader says:

        Why couldn’t he just increase prices X? Other bookstores also saw their wages increase and should also be increasing prices X, so he shouldn’t be losing any market share. Unless his competitors are running on wider profit margins and can absorb some of the wage increase without increasing prices. But if so, that just means he isn’t running his business very well and is about to get thinned by the capitalist herd. The competitor who had the ability to absorb the increase in wage costs should be able to capture his market share and make up for margin squeeze, and create a few new jobs to replace the ones that were lost.

        • Christine E says:

          The publisher sets the price, printed on the book. BC already charges MSRP. So BC can’t raise prices. Except perhaps for (some) non-book items, those that are truly unique and have no/little other distribution so people cannot compare prices.

          • UWSreader says:

            So prices of books are completely fixed? That seems like a bigger problem in the business model for a Manhattan-based bookseller than a minimum wage.

            I think many people view policy entirely through the lens of “does this create more jobs or help businesses?” Look, businesses would be booming right now if we suddenly allowed them to hire children, work people 18 hour shifts, not have fire protections in place, dump waste in the Hudson or straight up have slaves. But we decided these things aren’t good for society, and may benefit economic output and productivity in the long-run, even if we take some short-term growing pains.

            The minimum wage is similar in my mind. I think very few people are arguing that it will immediately boost the number of jobs, or won’t make it difficult for some who built a business on assumptions of cheap labor and razor thin margins. Some businesses may fail, but if there is unmet demand, someone will eventually rise up to fill it with a business model built on new assumptions for labor costs. And in the longer-run, I would argue that living wages and a more financially secure middle/lower class will actually end up in higher economic output and productivity.
            During other periods that saw huge income disparity in the US, even some business titans such as Ford, realized that higher wages, and a strong middles class, could actually benefit the bottom line at some point. Plus it also helps to keep you from being dragged out of your mansion by an angry mob at some point, so that’s a bonus.

            The way I see it, higher wages are just part of the exogenous costs of doing business. If you can’t make a business work given the cost structure, maybe someone else can. And if they can’t maybe the public’s demand for what you are offering isn’t really there.

    41. UWS_lifer says:

      We already went through this with record stores about 10 or 15 years ago. They tried to keep it going but where is the Virgin Megastore today or Tower Records, etc.??

      You know what you don’t see anymore? 24 hour film developing places. Remember those? Why did they all disappear? I have some film I need to get developed…/s

      • Sean says:

        Search online for where to send that roll of film. Photography is digital today.

        • UWS_lifer says:

          Hi Sean. Thanks! A lot of here are being sarcastic when we talk about film for cameras or independent movie theaters or record stores because they are all basically obsolete today and therefore obviously shouldn’t receive government subsidies to survive.

          I read your (very thoughtful and 100% accurate) statement below and see that you really get this issue and just how complicated it has become. Time marches on or as they say in the sports world…Father Time is undefeated.

          As an older UWSider myself (not a Boomer but late Gen X), I recently learned that the “kids” today use this symbol, /s as a shorthand for when sarcasm is being used. Sort of a text version of rolling one’s eyes. Anyway, just FYI.

          Also this is supposed to be a friendly smile….:)

    42. Ikemp says:

      I walked in book culture and saw a great book that I did not know existed. The next week I went back and bought it. So what book culture means to me is to be exposed to authors and books I did not know existed. Where else would you have this exposure?

      • Mark Moore says:

        The library?

        • RF says:

          Libraries are a great resource! I also find lots of new things to add to my “must read” list via podcasts (so many feature book reviews and/or interviews with authors I didn’t know existed), online articles, friends, Amazon recommendations, and even the “Bill’s Books” segment on NBC. It’s silly to think that a brick-and-mortar bookstore is the only way to discover new reading material.

    43. Magda Bogin says:

      Chris, as a long-time customer I am distraught at the thought that you are having to face the possibility of closiing any of your stores. Maybe a petition from your customers?

    44. Barbara Litt says:

      Powerful explanation of why helping Book Culture and small businesses makes sense. However, FOUR STORES’ RENT IS $700,000 A YEAR????? Crazy!

      • Pat says:

        What happens to Kindle (and all internet commerce and business) when the electrical grid goes out for an extended period, say by sabatage, foreign or domestic? We are now completely dependent on a magical system in the Cloud, and it has only taken twenty years for the globe to accommodate.

        • UWSreader says:

          Don’t worry, I replaced all the bottled water in my go-bag with hardcover books.

    45. SA_NYC says:

      Book Culture, please adopt an idea I’ve suggested to your staff a few times: A toy/book purchase-donation bin. Here’s why: My wife (and sometimes I) fairly often bring one or two of our little kids to the store basement as they love it there. When I do I always buy a toy or book, just to contribute financially to the store. But my wife correctly points out that we have no more room in our small apartment, so I’d really appreciate the option to buy something to put in a donation bin for needy folks, I’d even volunteer to deliver it. We want to see you stick around!

    46. Diana Campuzano says:

      Fantastic letter I think owners should NOT be able to get a write off when thy leave their store fronts empty. This would hopefully have them think twice about raising the rents to an all time ridiculous amount. It would give small businesses a better chance of survival. Isn’t this what the GOP is always trying to advertise?

    47. Ira says:

      We love Book Culture and the passion in Chris’s letter. Unfortunately the younger generations don’t shop the we we do or had. Their gratification comes from downloading a book or getting a pair of shoes delivered overnight.
      That said, Chris, what should government do?

    48. There are lots of vacant storefront space in that part of Columbus Avenue now. Book Culture is a great store, but I usually head up to their 2 Columbia U. area stores. I’m also a pro-mom-and-pop-store advocate. Yet, @BookCilture, I say don’t begrudge closing, consolidate your resources (3 other stores) and keep moving forward with good practices.

    49. Jo Ann says:

      Oh, no!!! I’ll do my part and send /call those who might be able to help you out. We care!

    50. Lewis Sternberg says:

      My condolences on your woes. When my L.I.C. factory (which employed 150 people & had a $10million turnover) was rezoned for residential use and my landlord sold the property for development neither Queens Borough, N.Y. City, N.Y. State, or the Federal government offered any help of any kind save ‘make sure all your taxes are paid before you close the business’. We paid the taxes and a 100 year old business is no more.

    51. M says:

      Start a Go Fund Me, or something like it? Could raise substantial funds!

    52. Judith Norell says:

      Book Culture has 2 WS branches right next door to each other, one on Broadway, one on the side street; they don’t talk to each other. If you buy at one location, the other doesn’t give you “points” which can add up to credit for books. In my experience, the people working there are generally unfriendly and unhelpful. I agree that rents are exorbitant, but I only shop there as a last resort because of the attitude of their employees, and the craziness of not benefiting from cooperation among the 2 adjacent stores. All us small business owners are suffering about rent increases. Chris should work with his City Council & Manhattan Borough Pres directly!

    53. cma says:

      How about a ?% tax on all the big movie theaters to support the temporary New Lincoln Plaza Cinema?
      That said, I like browsing Book Culture. I like the ambiance.I am in general agreement with Chris’s Lament. However, I get and read books in print and electronic formats from the NYPL, and decide what I want to buy after. I was disappointed that BookC chose a location so neat to B&N on 82 & Bway. Did that location NEED another bookstore, while there is NO such adult focused retail store anywhere between 86th and 110th sts.The Columbus mall area (96-100 sts.) still could use a bookstore that could even share programming with the Bloomingdale library on 100th st. (Currently closed for renovations).

      • Sean says:

        You have got to be kidding. A surcharge to support a movie theater that has a very limited fan base?

    54. Sean says:

      Who is the owner of this website? Who publishes this blog? I would like to know because that would give me an idea of who this blog is aimed at demographically. It seems to me that a great many of the comments are coming from baby boomers like myself and older people. There is a great disconnect here between what the reality is of how we are living today and how things used to be. Technology has profoundly affected our lives. This is a worldwide problem. We have more retail space for everyone of us than anywhere else in the world. The chronically unused spaces need to be repurposed. There are more empty storefronts in areas of Manhattan because the rents are high. They always were. The demographic on the UWS is different today and spends differently. Many older doorman buildings lament that their lobbies and package rooms were not designed to accommodate all the deliveries they get today. There are less creatives living on the UWS than 40 years ago. People shop differently. Things and needs change. A bookstore is not the only source for books. It’s sad that a business has to close but that is what happens when a business fails for whatever reason. A smart businessman would be the one who figures out the UWS will support to keep a business viable. But please understand that the UWS is not a working class neighborhood. It is wealthy and finicky. There has never been a restaurant scene here for instance. You had a ton of cafes here when the creatives were here. That’s it. Most of your neighbors do not cook at home and they use electronic devices. That isn’t going to change at this moment. This neighborhood does not support small businesses like the commentators would have us do. And you have nail salons because that is something we do support. We also like dry cleaners.

      • Marcia says:

        There’s a culture in a bookshop, especially one that’s boutique size. It brings a community together, connects readers who otherwise would pass each other in the street and not think to
        turn to another pedestrian and ask, “Have you read that? What did you think of it?” One of the greatest losses to Manhattan has been the loss of community….a sense of belonging to a like group of people. Plus, a book on a shelf can be listed off and thumbed thru, to examine an author’s style … much as in a library. One can see the investment of the author/editor and publisher and creating the whole. A bricks and mortar book isn’t just a bag of electronic words one can speed through on a subway platform or a long ride home. Some devotees on either side feel deeply. Why join the existential divisiveness; why not let both side win?

        • Sean says:

          Because they can’t. NYC lost the sense of community in some industries like publishing because you don’t have to live here to write or publish. Technology changed that. You can collaborate and compose music online and share ideas via the Internet. Things have changed.

      • RF says:

        Sean, your question regarding the readership of this blog is an excellent one! I’ve always wished that West Side Rag might do a demographics survey and publish the results, because like you I am curious about the typical WSR reader/commenter. I’m in my 30s and rarely find myself reflected in the comments; it seems most of the views expressed here are more in line with my parents’ and grandparents’ opinions than my own. Not that those points of view aren’t valid, but I know there are lots of us in the 25 – 50ish age range living in the neighborhood, and I always find it curious that the comments section doesn’t really reflect this. If anything, a comment from someone expressing excitement about, say, a trendy new bar or coffee shop, is often met with bitterness. Perhaps that’s why people my age are less inclined to comment, but I’m really not sure.

        WSR, is that something you might consider? Just a few simple (anonymous) questions, like age, occupation, number of years living in the neighborhood, etc? I love this blog and I’m sure I’m not the only one curious about the demographics of your readership!

    55. Anna says:

      Dear Book Culture,

      When you first opened your Columbus Ave. store, your staff were friendly and welcoming. It was a pleasure to shop there and I often ended up getting something when I stopped in.

      Then you hired the usual set of snotty, rude English lit student types who act like they’re too good to work at a bookstore and help customers, and whose faces would probably break if they tried to smile (which they never do except at fellow hipsters). The service went down noticably and it stopped being a pleasure to shop there.

      I once attended an author reading at Book Culture during which one of your staff stood in the background audibly putting down the speaker because his politics weren’t radical enough for her. You hire too many 20-somethings who are only there until they get their first book deal and have no investment in keeping your store afloat. They also, from what I can see, mostly don’t represent the customer base who lean middle aged. How about hiring some older people who have no hipster cred but sinply love books and enjoy interacting with customers? Or some friendly non-New Yorkers who have retained the good manners of their home state?

      To be fair, you still have some really nice, helpful staff there, but far too many of the others. People usually don’t complain online about rude service, they simply stop shopping at those stores. Who wants to repay rudeness with business?

      I hope you get your assistance and stay in business. You’re basically a wonderful store and an asset to the neighborhoods you’re in. Please just remember that people don’t support stores where they’re not treated well and don’t feel welcome. Online shopping is easier and less stressful.

    56. Mary Blake says:

      I’m on your side, but right now don’t have anything extra in my budget. Help to promote my book: Bye Bye Bad Karma, and I’ll donate 10% of the profits from Book Culture back to you! In final proofing stage. Call me at 212 724-4081 Mary

    57. Mike says:

      What is the operative issue here; it’s unclear; are the landlords squeezing them? Good luck if thats the case; all nyc representatives take $$$ from them and MSM media corporations.

    58. Katie says:

      This is really really sad and I am so upset.

      http://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/19/opinion/nyc-empty-stores.amp.html

      I like the idea of “vacancy tax”
      Please call the mayor, local representatives and push this bill. It’s one way to put an order on crazy rent and landlords’ greed.

    59. NYYgirl says:

      @UWSHebrew- please feel free to google ‘Ansche Chesed homeless shelter’ to learn more about a wonderful organization to donate to in case you change your mind. The services they offer are real and necessary. They also welcome volunteers btw.

      • UWSHebrew says:

        nope. you have not had a good day in this city until you have given some poor soul rifling through a garbage can some cash in their hand.

        • Dissident says:

          How do you know that cash isn’t simply feeding a drug addiction or the like? Or even merely enabling the individual to continue in his squalor and begging rather than seeking one or more forms of help that could perhaps aid him toward a more wholesome and independent existence?

          Have you considered giving food instead? (Or taking the indigent individual to a store or restaurant and paying for his selection.) Another idea would be to try to provide the wretched soul appealing to your graces with info on resources for obtaining the kind of help I mentioned above.

          • UWSHebrew says:

            I tend to give to women, especially older women. The ones I see look to me as if they do not do drugs, but are mentally ill.

    60. Sean says:

      Five years ago this guy fired several employees who tried to unionize. He likes to think of his store as a college bookstore for Columbia University but he’s independent of the school. The bottom line is he doesn’t want to pay a living wage. He’d be content with a staff of volunteers.