Manhattan is Losing its Bookstores, But Not its Sense of Delusion

I haven’t posted in a while, but the current hysteria in the New York Times about the loss of brick and mortar bookstores in Manhattan is so unintentionally comical and just plain awkward that I had to comment.  The article, “Literary City, Bookstore Desert,” by Julie Bosman, illustrates almost everything that has gone wrong with New York’s “literary culture”:  misplaced nostalgia bolstering a no longer warranted sense of cultural importance, stunning entitlement, understandable reluctance to separate idealism from reality, pretentious whining.   This piece showcases it all.

Brick and mortar bookstores, like lots of other retailers, are leaving Manhattan in droves because, to cop a line from James “Jimmy” McMillan III, “the rent is too damn high.”  One Manhattan bookseller, who, like most retailers, couldn’t afford the $40,000 per month rent for store space on the upper west side, eventually decided to open a second store in (shudders!) Brooklyn!  Although this bookseller “fell in love with the neighborhood” (Williamsburg) and enthuses over the “magnificent” space she found, Bosman manages to make this sensible decision sound quasi-tragic.  “After spending years scouring Manhattan for a second location, Ms. McNally . . . abandoned her search . . . and settled on Brooklyn.”  The horrors!  Cue the organ music!  McNally Jackson only has one Manhattan location.  (Check it out, it’s on Prince Street, and it looks like it’s worth a visit.)

I don’t know about you, but if I lived in Manhattan and there was an enticing bookstore across the bridge, I wouldn’t have any problem paying it a visit.  Or three.  Or five.   Or simply ordering its books online, as McNally Jackson conveniently allows.  I would hope most serious readers would feel the same way.

But apparently I’m missing something.   That’s where the misplaced nostalgia bolstering a no longer warranted sense of cultural importance makes an entrance.

According to Bosman, the loss of bookstores in Manhattan is “threatening the city’s sense of self as the center of the literary universe.”  Really?  I thought the corporate insistence on publishing books based on popular websites, twitter accounts, and Klout scores rather than actual writing quality did that a long time ago.

What’s rich is, writers who write for a small audience are very much supposed to denigrate their work as a “hobby” because it doesn’t bring in the money a cute cat book might.  But bookstores that can’t draw enough folks to keep their doors open in Manhattan – now that’s a cultural crisis and something really needs to be done!!  Like what?   Well, here’s where the stunning sense of entitlement comes in. According to Bosman:

The closings have alarmed preservationists, publishers and authors, who said the fading away of bookstores amounted to a crisis that called for intervention from the newly minted mayor of New York City, Bill de Blasio, who has vowed to offer greater support for small businesses.

A crisis.  Robert Caro, a twice Pulitzer Prize winner for Biography, sums it up:

“How can Manhattan be a cultural or literary center of the world when the number of bookstores has become so insignificant?” he asked. “You really say, has nobody in city government ever considered this and what can be done about it?”

Uh, Mr. Caro.  I respect your work.  I really do.  Anybody who reads my blog knows what high esteem I have for the humanities, and for people who do serious historical research.  But Manhattan hasn’t been the “literary center of the world” – except in its own mind – in a really long time.  That’s because in our 21st century, technology saturated, post-culture way of distracting ourselves through life, there is no “literary center of the world.”  You can’t have a literary center without a meaningful literary culture.  The city government is hardly in a position to recreate one.  Your own work on political power dynamics in The Power Broker should point the way to the futility of thinking government is going to do jack on that score.

Manhattan is not special.  Brick and mortar bookstores have been dying throughout the rest of the country for at least twenty years, and I don’t recall anybody in the New York literary establishment handwringing about that devastating loss.  Maybe that’s because bluestockings like me aren’t supposed to exist outside of Manhattan, so when our bookstores disappeared nobody in your neighborhood considered it a “crisis” or really even considered it at all.  Or maybe that’s because New York really is so insular it doesn’t get the fact that if bookstores die everywhere else in the country, they’re not going to enjoy a vibrant existence in Manhattan simply because there used to be a viable literary culture there.

I’ve been lonely for a literary culture for a long time. Then I finally came to realize that literary reading and writing is a 19th century activity, the industry (publishers and booksellers) needs to be much smaller to service the small number of serious readers in the population (which would result in higher quality product), and those few people in the population who truly are children of the word are so busy knifing each other in the back to get whatever fast-fading recognition they can that it’s better to take the veil.

It isn’t (just) the high rents in Manhattan.  It’s the right wing, higher education, artists themselves, a public who hates humanities majors, and writers and artists who view public success at their craft as such a zero sum game that they can’t bring themselves to tolerate another’s success.  Disappearing bookstores are regrettable, but they are way down the list.

Bosman writes, “[w]ith the closing of several Barnes & Noble and Borders stores, it is difficult to shop for new books in Midtown . . . .”  No, Ms. Bosman, it isn’t difficult at all.  It’s called Amazon.  Besides, as I’ve argued at length in this blog, Barnes & Noble really ought to close, because it isn’t doing its job.

Bookstores are only a meaningful marker of high culture if serious readers actually visit them.  Outside of  New York, that’s no longer the case.  And inside of New York, that’s increasingly less the case.

And then there’s the understandable reluctance to separate idealism from reality.  Bosman reports that there is talk of publishers opening bookstores.  I like the idealism of publishers owning bookstores – I’m Victorian enough to seriously get into that.  But I’m enough of a realist to know that the corporations who own the publishing houses will ruin that lovely ideal.  It won’t be anything like the past.  It will be like the present – corporate driven hodgepodges with godawful cafes and toy and trinket sections trying to be all things to all people, while, because it’s New York, pretending to be cultural centers to the rest of the world.  And, because it’s New York, getting a handful of strivers to admire the emperor’s clothes.

Speaking of clothes, there’s this:

David Rosenthal, the president and publisher of Blue Rider Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House, predicted that stores like Urban Outfitters and Anthropologie would become more important in the publishing ecosystem as stand-alone bookstores decrease.

“The serendipity of hanging out in a bookstore is just diminishing,” Mr. Rosenthal said. “We’ll become more dependent on stores that are not primarily bookstores, but have some degrees of books. It’s better than nothing.”

No, it’s not.  When you now have to sell books based on how well they synergize with hipster uniforms at Urban Outfitters it’s time to call it a day.   How about we stop trying to reach literary readers through nonliterary means?  That is in large part why Barnes & Noble is failing.  How about we admit that most physical bookstores are economically unsustainable, and treat the book “business” as the small business it is, for the small number of literary people that still exist.  How about we readers and writers become an exclusive, cool, semi-secret (by default because nobody else cares) edgy intellectual club again?

Because there’s no money in it?  You mean like now?

Yes, the rent is too damn  high.  Also, let’s stop decrying the loss of physical bookstores without acknowledging the loss of what used to make those bookstores valuable.

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