MIDTOWN — A nearly 200-year-old nonprofit fiction library, which once hosted prominent writers such as Mark Twain and Frederick Douglass, is poised to sell its Midtown headquarters, leaving many young novelists worried about being displaced.
The Center for Fiction, which has drawn more recent visits from celebrities including actor B.J. Novak and Pulitzer Prize-winning authors, including Michael Cunningham and Richard Ford, plans to sell its eight-story townhouse at 17 E. 47th St. to a North Carolina company for $18 million, according to a petition filed with New York State Supreme Court last week.
"We want to move because we want to be in a more residential neighborhood, with more nightlife to accommodate our programming," said Noreen Tomassi, executive director of the Center for Fiction. "This is very much a business neighborhood and everything shuts down at about 5 o' clock. Right now, we're in a very narrow building and some of the space is lost because of the stairways.
"We're hoping to find a more horizontal space that will give us a ground-floor presence and more foot traffic," she added.
But Tomassi said the center has not yet found a new location, raising the question of what will happen to its 107,000-volume fiction library — as well as the many programs the center currently hosts — when its longtime home is sold. The 18,200-square-foot building on East 47th Street also contains workspace for members, an independent bookshop and offices and regularly offers classes, reading groups, lectures and programs for children.
The center will have to move out of its building 180 days after the sale is finalized, according to the petition filed in court.
"It will be too bad," said Victoria Chan, a novelist and artist from Long Island City who has commuted to the center for the past five years to work on her writing. "This is the last oasis for fiction writers. Where else can go to get peace and quiet and the convenience?"
Writer Tiya Habachy said she is grateful to the Center for Fiction for offering a cheap space for her to work, with basic memberships costing $110 per month and allowing writers to access the building from 9 a.m. to midnight daily.
"It's better than going to Starbucks," Habachy said, "because you can leave your things when you go to the bathroom or hop out to grab food and not worry someone will take your things."
The Clinton Hall Association of the City of New York, which owns the East 47th Street building on behalf of the Center for Fiction, plans to sell it to Sun Acre's LLC, a North Carolina-based company that also owns the Met Foods supermarket at 486 Henry St. in Cobble Hill.
Sun Acre's has not announced its plans for the space. The company did not respond to requests for comment.
The sale requires a judge's approval because a nonprofit is involved.
The Center for Fiction will use the $18 million from the sale to fund an endowment for the Clinton Hall Association, which will help the nonprofit buy a new building Downtown, Tomassi said.
The Clinton Hall Association, which manages real estate and maintenance issues for the Center for Fiction, had a deficit of nearly $300,000 in 2011, according to the nonprofit organization's tax records.
The Mercantile Library Association, a separate nonprofit that runs the Center for Fiction's library, saw a surplus of $10,000 in 2011, according to tax records.
Tomassi said the decision to sell the East 47th Street building was not based on financial considerations.
"We're growing so much," Tomassi said. "Every year we have more members and we have more programming. There's just not enough rooms for all of it. We need a different configuration."
The Center for Fiction, founded in 1820, built the East 47th Street townhouse in 1932, demolishing the home of 20th Centrury novelist/artist/engineer F. Hopkinson Smith that was previously on the site.
The white marble building was designed to house 230,000 volumes, and today it offers a range of English fiction as well as translated international works and copies of 75 literary journals.
"It's a very important place for fiction writers — for all writers," Chan said.