New York Bookstores Turn To Loyal Communities To Survive

For small businesses, New York can be a city of unique challenges and opportunities. For bookstores, those challenges can be overwhelming. In the 50s, there were almost 400 bookstores in Manhattan. Now, less than quarter of that number remain. Stores are hoping to leverage the loyalty of their communities to survive.

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GIACOBONE: Book Culture is a cozy store on the Upper West Side. Customers sit reading on chairs between the stacks. Chris Doeblin started it more than 20 years ago and says running it has always been a struggle.

DOEBLIN Every day is difficult in your gut wrench, you can't sleep and, and tons of businesses go out of business. Ours is always been really, to some extent on the verge of doing that.

GIACOBONE:. Online retailers like Amazon have cut into sales and rising rent is a major problem.

Javier Molea is a manager at McNally Jackson, one of the most popular independent bookstore in Manhattan. He says that they almost had to close the store when the the new lease had half a million dollars rent increase on it.

MOLEA But the rent now that we had to renew the lease it was a huge rent, (terrible), e and we don't know.

Now many bookstores are discovering one of their greatest assets: the loyalty of their customers.

Westsider Books is a store on the Upper West Side. Early this year it was behind on rent. Business was slow. The owner, Dorian Thornley, finally decided to close down the shop. Last month he put up a going out of business sign.

THORNLEY And then, uh, woke up one morning, don't know what day of the week it was. And somebody had started a go fund me campaign.

A regular customer Bobby Panza had seen the sign and decided to do something about it. In the less than 5 days the campaign raised more than 50’000$.

PANZA 
And what warms my heart even more is that, um, people were actually coming into the bookstore and giving Dorian checks straight up, like sliding them under the the door.

Other bookstores are also turning to crowdfunding. An indiegogo campaign saved the children store Books of Wonders by bringing in 50’000$. A new bookstore in the Bronx raised almost 150’000$. Lit Bar will feature a wine bar and is set to open any day now.

Paco Underhill is the CEO of consulting company Envirosell and has spent years studying bookstores and consumers’ habits. He says bookstores today need to offer consumers more than just books.

UNDERHILL If you're selling a broader cross section, uh, products to that literary customer, some of the margin is significantly higher. 
For example, at the Strand Bookstore there is a section for literary socks.

But even with these strategies, it is still rent costs that determine whether a bookstore will survive or not.
Javier Molea at McNally Jackson, says the store renegotiated a new more affordable lease for 10 years. After that, the future is uncertain.

Westsider Books customer Bobby Panza says the value of a bookstore can’t be measured in profits.

PANZA I think part of the surprise of coming to a great bookshop is the adventure of what you come for and the adventure of who you find and what you find and where that takes you.

And this might well be what will keep bookstores around in the long run.

Bianca Giacobone, Columbia Radio News.

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