Saturday, January 31, 2015

Manhattan's Dwindling Bookstore Landscape

Shortly after moving to New York in the late 1990s, I began to discover the city's bookstores, starting in the borough of Manhattan. I soon found my favorites.

The much-missed Coliseum Books at its original 57th Street location.
Image via www2.ljworld.com

I hung out south of 14th Street quite a bit, which meant I could often be found browsing in Spring Street Books and Rizzoli on West Broadway, both in SoHo. Farther up, in Greenwich Village, I'd poke around Posman Books on University Place, just off of Washington Square Park. North of 14th Street and walking westward, I would cross into the Chelsea neighborhood, which then was largely populated by gay men. I'd pass by The Gauntlet, a body piercing salon that was at the corner of 5th Avenue and 19th Street and was hugely popular with gay men in the S&M community, and turn the corner and go inside Revolution Books, a leftist bookstore on 19th Street between 5th and 6th Avenues. Leaving Revolution Books and walking farther west on 19th Street, I would come upon A Different Light, a multistory gay bookstore and event space. At A Different Light, a man in female drag would sometimes be working at the cash register, which - in my young eyes - was pretty radical and made the bookstore an even more special place to visit. But by far my most favorite bookstore at that time was Coliseum Books, a huge independent bookstore on the corner of 57th Street and Broadway, just south of Central Park. It took up much of the city block. You could spend hours in there, and each visit, you would come upon something new and interesting to read, and it was often priced affordably. (It was at Coliseum where I first discovered Bust.)
 
My bookmark from Coliseum Books.
Image via the author of this blog

With the exception of Revolution Books, which in recent years has relocated to a smaller space on West 26th Street, none of these Manhattan bookstores are still in business. And far more have disappeared as well, including prime locations of the corporate behemoth Barnes & Noble, which closed a store on Astor Place in the East Village, two stores on 6th Avenue (in Greenwich Village and in Chelsea), and a store on upper Broadway by Lincoln Center in the years that I was in New York. The disappearance of so many bookstores in Manhattan is incredible to think about when you consider that the borough was once home to nearly 400 bookstores, many of them clustered along "Book Row" on 4th Avenue, just south of 14th Street. Last year, there were only 106 bookstores left in Manhattan, a decline of 21.4 percent over the course of the previous four years, according to Steven Melendez. Melendez mined city data to chronicle the last 60 years of Manhattan's bookstore landscape, and in doing so, he created a map illustrating the disheartening changes from 1950 to 2014. 

You could blame the dwindling number of Manhattan bookstores on skyrocketing rents that have succeeded in pushing out even the big bookstores. You could also chalk it up to a change in people's reading habits and to changes in technology. Still, the steady decimation of the city's bookstore landscape is a shame when you think that, not that long ago, Manhattan was a book lover's mecca.

To read more about Steven Melendez charting the changing Manhattan bookstore landscape, see THIS LINK. For the map chronicling his findings, go to THIS LINK.

Addendum: Searching online for photos of long-disappeared Manhattan bookstores to use in this blog post, I was amazed at the difficulty of finding such photos and, as a result, was saddened by the realization that these bookstores can now only be seen in the mind's eye of people who were there.

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