The Riddle of the Indie Bookstore: A Rookie and a Veteran Tell All

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The independents, it turns out, are doing OK. A veteran tells how it’s done and a newcomer describes her dream store

 

New Year’s Eve is the last day Cobble Hill’s BookCourt will be open for business. The 35-year-old establishment announced it would close in early December. But Brooklyn’s independent bookstore scene isn’t shrinking—in fact, it’s thriving, as it is across the country. The Association of Independent Booksellers reports that the number of bookstores nationally has grown by 27% since 2009.

In Cobble Hill, Emma Straub, a 36-year-old novelist (Modern Lovers, Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures, and other titles) announced just after BookCourt said it would close that she and her husband, Michael Fusco-Straub, a graphic designer, plan to open a bookstore called Books Are Magic to fill the hole. Straub says it’s always been her dream to open a bookstore, and she’s dedicated to keeping one in the neighborhood.

Adam Tobin, 42, opened Unnameable Books in Prospect Heights ten years ago. He found himself on the cusp of a new wave of independent bookstores at the time, and says he has seen the business grow since. But significant challenges still face the small bookstore scene as rents across Brooklyn skyrocket.

So The Brooklyn Ink’s Jill Bosserman spoke with both Straub and Tobin about this small industry that adds so much to city life. Here is what they told us:

Emma Straub—future owner of Books Are Magic in Cobble Hill

Emma Straub reads to her son at an installation of the Uni, a portable reading room, in Cobble Hill in November 2014.

Emma Straub reads to her son at an installation of the Uni, a portable reading room, in Cobble Hill in November 2014 (Photo courtesy of Emma Straub)

Q: Why did you decide to open a bookstore?

A: Right now, we’re in BookCourt four times a week. The driving force behind this whole thing is we really, really refuse to live in a neighborhood that doesn’t have an independent bookstore.

Q: Small bookstores are doing well right now—why do you think that is?

A: In Brooklyn, we are particularly lucky to have such a rich literary community and so many devoted book writers and readers, people who show up with their wallets as well as their time. If you were to throw a dart, you would probably hit one of us here.

Q: What kind of store will Books Are Magic be?

A: We want it to be a general interest store—fiction, nonfiction, kids, cookbooks, everything. But because of the demographic of the neighborhood and our family, we do want a first-rate kids section. Because I’m a fiction writer, I do have a particular interest in that as well.

Q: What kind of audience do you hope to attract?

A: People who’ve shopped loyally at BookCourt for the last 35 years, and all the new faces that have come since then.

Q: What details have you settled on for the store?

A: We’re hoping to open in the spring. We have a space that we will hopefully have a lease on, but right now we just have fingers crossed. Right now, we’re hoping it will be about 1,500 square feet, with 10 employees.

Q: How do you hope to make the finances work?

A: The commercial real estate in Cobble Hill is—this is going to be shocking!—hugely expensive. The space that BookCourt has is about $40,000 per month. We can’t afford that. So we’re going to have to go a bit further down to Court Street. Our initial funding came from family and friends, but we’ve been talking to lots of investors about structuring finance. In the last week or so, it’s been really wonderful how many people have come out of the woodwork and said they want to give us money.

Q: What are your concerns for opening the store?

A: I think I’m most excited about working with my husband to make this idea come true. What scares me is we don’t actually know how to run a bookstore yet. But luckily we know a lot of people who do.

Q: What do you hope your store will mean for the neighborhood and for Brooklyn?

A: A comfortable, friendly, welcoming place in the neighborhood where anyone can browse and lose themselves for awhile—in a bookstore, which is one of life’s great, great pleasures.

 

Adam Tobin—owner of Unnameable Books in Prospect Heights

Adam Tobin with a customer, Gary Wong, who lives in Flushing but says he comes to Unnameable Books because they have the cheapest books around. (Jill Bosserman/The Brooklyn Ink)

Q: How long has Unnamable Books been in business?

A: 10 and a half years.

Q: Why did you go into business?

A: Sorry, I’ve been doing it too long, and I don’t really have a spiel anymore. I thought the world needed a bookstore like this one, and I was the man to do it. It’s a neighborhood store—a mix of new and used books, with books that I like, or think are important. Philosophy, novels, art, rare books. Our focus tends to be on the things that are less usual or ubiquitous.

Q: Give me an example.

A: All of ‘em. Right now, I’m holding The Kondratieff Wave: The Future of America Until 1984 and Beyond (James B. Rosenau and David Shuman, 1982). I’m sitting next to Steven Jay Gould’s Structure of Evolutionary Theory, next to some art books, next to a 150-year-old history of mankind, next to a history of America’s communal utopias.

Q: How has the book industry changed over the last few years?

A: I sort of came into a niche where things had cleared out already—not so much by Amazon as by Barnes & Noble—they cleared out a lot of stores and took over the city in the 90s. Then Amazon came along, and the conventional wisdom 10 years was bookstores were a thing of the past.

But in last 10 years, more and more bookstores have opened around the city. I think I was one of the beginning of the new wave of bookstores in New York, maybe the first of the new wave who were fitting into the niches. I think I did it and somebody saw that it worked, and somebody saw that, and somebody saw them and also did it—and times 1,000. I guess I would classify it more as prolonged resistance than as a rebellion. Nobody is trying to be Barnes & Noble. Everybody is very neighborhood-focused.

Q: What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced trying to make it as an independent bookstore?

A: Trying to make enough money to pay the rent. The big challenge in New York, for everybody, is the real estate problem. The rent is too damn high.

Q: How much would a building like yours go for today?

A: This neighborhood is in the middle of a bubble that I’m hoping will burst sometime soon. My landlord has been talking about selling the building. I think somebody offered him $1.8 million. He turned it down—he wanted over $2 million.

Q: If you could go back 10 years to when you opened the shop, would you do anything differently?

A: I maybe would have borrowed a lot of money and bought a building ten years ago. Then I wouldn’t have to worry about real estate. But I really didn’t have that kind of money ten years ago.

Q: As rents are going up what are you noticing about the neighborhood?

A: I have a ten-year lease. Before that, I had a three-year lease on Burgin Street. The whole block was owned by the hardware store on the block. There were lots of offices. Now, it’s kind of “Disneyland retail.’” It’s all kind of high-end, Park Slope-y kind of stuff. It’s very striking to me that what had been a nonprofit that provided services to people of color and people with AIDS became a high-end vibrator shop and a maternity boutique. There’s something emblematic about that.

Q: Where do you see this trend going?

A: I think, in the long run, if nothing is done to ameliorate it, Brooklyn will become like Soho, where it’s all chain stores and kind of has the feel of a mall. I think even as this neighborhood transforms from one that has a lot of artists and academics and people in the culture industry, journalists and grad students—in 10 years, none of those people will be able to afford to live in this neighborhood. We’ll all be people who work in finance and tech—and people who read those kinds of books. I don’t know. I’m gonna sweat it out and keeping selling books and pay the rent. But somebody might sell out and do something that caters to the new Brooklyn, which is people who work in finance and tech.

Q: How does your store engage with the neighborhood?

A: We’re part of the neighborhood in the very local sense of Prospect Heights and also part of the larger New York City literary culture. We have a couple regular meeting series organized by people from a couple different literary communities in New York. The events we have aren’t big moneymakers, but I think of them more as part and parcel of what we do in the neighborhood: Do the types of events people in our community are making happen.

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