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UWS Bookseller Makes the Case for Independent Shops Making Bold Moves

By Emily Frost | March 24, 2015 10:30am | Updated on March 27, 2015 6:13pm
 Doeblin opened his third store this past year. He also operates two stores in Morningside Heights — on West 112th Street, which is pictured here, and on Broadway at West 114th Street. 
Podcast: Chris Doeblin of Book Culture
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UPPER WEST SIDE — Book Culture owner Chris Doeblin has lived in the neighborhood for more than three decades, and during that time he's seen many independent book shops pushed out by larger chains and the advent of e-books, he said.

But by opening his newest outpost on an expensive stretch of Columbus Avenue, Doeblin believes he's changing the narrative.

"We wanted to blow it out and say, 'We can do this...We have to take risks. That’s what we do,'" Doeblin said. 

Read DNAinfo's conversation with Doeblin, or listen to the podcast below or on iTunes. 

Emily Frost: You started your career by selling books at Papyrus on 114th Street and Broadway in the early 1980s. What was the neighborhood like back then?

Chris Doeblin: It was much more remote and disconnected from the rest of Manhattan. The population of this area, because it was much more weighted towards participation in the university in some ways, especially obviously the student body, there was summer that was basically dead. There was nobody here. When the neighborhood emptied out it was just completely gone.

Emily: Were there restaurants?

Chris: Very little. There was a bunch of older business that had been here a long time and a few of which still are here. The Mill Luncheonette was over, where it is ­— it’s now the Mill Korean Restaurant. In a strange twist the university asked that they keep, for some reason, on the menu an egg cream and a lime rickey. There were a lot of guys who had grown up in the neighborhood, and there was much more of an old-fashioned neighborhood feel to the place.

Over the last 30 years there's been big buildings coming in, a lot of people have moved up here because so many other areas of Manhattan are just unaffordable, and people have recognized it's a great neighborhood to live in. It's got Riverside Park on one side, Central Park on the other, the train is accessible, there's lots of grocery stores, it's relatively easy to get your kid in a decent school. There was a hiatus in civilization from 110th down to 86th Street, which is filling in.

Emily: So just a lot of vacancies?

Chris: Vacancies and less desirable housing. The businesses were not as productive, and I think the income levels were much lower. But it's just changed. More people have moved up and made this part of Manhattan a permanent and a desirable destination.

We now have, when you come down on a warm day, all the sidewalks just covered with cafés, it's almost like Paris now all over the place, both sides of the street. Everybody's doing well, there's people eating outside all the time.

The Columbia student used to be a hard scrabble kid and it was not that desirable a school in 1980. It was an Ivy League school but it was a place where you had to go into what was considered to many people, especially outside of New York, a dangerous location, a location strewn with pet waste and where your car could get broken into. It was a place where a Lou Reed-type of Ivy League kid might want to go. That changed. Now they're very wealthy kids. You can see kids, undergraduates, having lunch in the café with great regularity and sitting outside drinking. That used to be more like they could hardly afford to go to Tom's and get a grilled cheese.

Emily: Going back to your history, you've been on the Upper West Side for how many years now?

Chris: 30-ish. I live on 110th.

Emily: Are you nostalgic for the old days?

Chris: No.

Emily: Are you happy with the way things have shifted?

Chris: Yes. I really am. I think clearly there are some things that are less pleasant. Nobody was pleased to see the large number of corporate outlets, which have been deployed into our streetscapes, the banks and drugstores.

This was a community that had a lot more crime; it was a lot dirtier. You couldn't park your car and expect that it wasn't going to be broken into.

I'm a believer that this gentrification that we've had and the rising rents of both homes and businesses is in the end it's very good. I think we're on the right track and obviously there are some extremes. Some of the valuations of the properties, some of the rents that are being charged along Columbus Avenue, especially further down, are just outrageous.

Emily: Would you have raised your children here had the neighborhood not changed?

Chris: I'm not in an income bracket to really be able to make a lot of choices but I certainly chose not to commute. I didn't have to answer that question so … My children are only nine.

Emily: What's it been like raising them here?

Chris: We have no real liberty to give our children in the sense that we don't have a backyard for them, they don't have a place where they can be liberated to go hang out or run around. That's difficult. They have to be with us almost all the time. Their outdoor time in the city is limited to Riverside Park, Central Park. In order to get into the dirt, go hiking around, check out the forest, you really have to leave where we live.

But if you go to a playground in Rochester or in Chicago, probably in a lot of places in Boston, there's nobody there. If you go to a playground in New York there's 100 kids and there's 50 moms and dads that live in your neighborhood. It's a vibrant, wonderful place to go. That's part of what we benefit from in New York. Not only that we have a massively wonderful, on the Upper West Side, series of playgrounds all up and down both Central Park and Riverside Park. It's pretty cool.

Emily: Let's talk about your expansion to Columbus Avenue. A lot of people were so surprised and shocked that a bookstore was coming to the neighborhood. It was this frenzy of excitement that that could happen in a time when so many bookstores are closing in other neighborhoods and across the country. Why did you open the bookstore and what made that possible?

Chris: The impetus for it was primarily because we have to grow to survive. The core business we have here at our main location is diminishing because it's closely related with Columbia University's course book market and academic books, which are two segments of the book business which are not doing very well. Anyways, we constructed a new kind of bookstore which …

We expanded to that space [at 114 and Broadway], we had a model in mind that was to serve the community in a different way, to produce a different bookstore which was largely books but also offered a big children's section that included more than just books for kids but included toys and games and some gear. This neighborhood is now swelled with all kinds of families. We decided to put that in the basement and that's been a huge hit.

We augmented the upstairs, which was primarily books, with lots of stuff which isn't books, including stuffed animals and scarves and games for adults and backpacks and things like that. We made the upstairs space much more spacious, much more well lit. We removed most of the shelving aisles that were there and just made it open and more easy to look around, a better experience for people who weren't just interested in books. This was our model and it worked. It's been growing very nicely.

We decided a little over a year ago, in the winter of 2013, that if we were going to sustain ourselves we had to do more of that kind of bookstore. Whatever was going to happen to this place was going to happen in terms of this segment of the marketplace.

We went out looking for space. Happily, we found a good one. It was a little bit ahead of schedule because the place was available before we had raised the money to get in there. But it was an act of will. My wife pushed me and we believed in it and we just made it happen. We risked everything and we were very fortunate to pull it off.

Emily: It's a really pricey stretch of Columbus Avenue. How did you finance it and afford it?

Chris: The nature of our situation was such that we were put into a corner. We don't have a safe, ordinary option. Entrepreneurially we're not resting on a profession where we can continue to do the same thing and our clients will come to us. We have to take risks. That's what we do. Big risks offer big rewards.

I found that you can't get into a really profitable situation without getting into a very competitive situation. Without paying a big rent you're not going to find a return. We would not have made the statement we made by doing that store in a very easy to sustain place, very low rent, very low profile.

Emily: Like a small corner.

Chris: That's not what we were aiming for. We wanted to blow it out and say we can do this. It's still very real is the publishing world is in turmoil. They've been primarily pushed into a corner by a single vendor, Amazon, and they have been walking down this path for a long time. First with Barnes and Noble, which has a very strong impact on the Upper West Side, and plays a role in this story too.

Barnes and Noble had a very strong effect on the book selling and the publishing industry when it started to open its superstores. It targeted the Upper West Side and put a huge store on 82nd Street. That store, when it opened, transformed the book selling neighborhood by knocking out every single independent bookstore that was there. They also tried to preclude the other major chain that was in the world at that time, Borders, from taking any place. They opened another huge store at Lincoln Center. Within a couple of years there were no independents left. There were many, including the one that had been open for over 15 years in the exact same space that we're in, Endicott Books.

Knowing about that and seeing the collision course that in my mind publishing is on and getting down to one vendor, I felt, as a resident of the Upper West Side, independent bookstores are really a great asset to any community. Having them pushed out by discounters, by non-local people, by corporate boards whose invasive and pernicious methods of doing business are not so beneficial to the community, gave me an appetite to stand in their way. Or to at least get back into the fray and to make a statement that look, we're still here, we haven't knocked us out, and we've come full circle.

The place that was closed becomes available and it became possible for this story to have terrific resonance in my mind because of that.

Emily: You mean the underdog story?

Chris: Yeah, the full circle of our stepping back into this exact same space had been knocked out by Barnes and Noble. Barnes and Noble now being a little bit on the ropes from someone who's doing exactly what they did, which is to use their market power to destructively attack the market that another business had had but through discounting largely.

Again our opening a store was, in my mind, our producing a solution to the problem. We wanted to offer that very much. We wanted to do it right where we were, saying to Barnes and Noble, to these corporate discounters, to the publishing world, and to the public, this is the way forward for publishing. You open independent bookstores, you sell books at full price.

All of those things gave what we were doing a poignancy and a meaning, and I think to some extent some marketing legs. A great thing to talk about, a great thing to get people involved with, a great thing for people to be emotional about.

Emily: It's almost like a cause.

Chris: It is a cause.

Emily: It is a cause.

Chris: Exactly, a good one, profoundly good. Small business, publishing, authors getting paid, ideas being distributed, democratic ideals being upheld, all of these things.

Emily: Are Upper West Siders more willing to pay full price because they're getting behind the cause? Are they less prone to the sway of Amazon?

Chris: From what I hear no, they're not more prone. I think everybody in our country, around the world, is starting to recognize the value of small business in everything we do. In food, in how employees are paid and cared for, I think people are starting to ask where was this garment made and how are the workers treated. Who owns this company and what do the owners of this company do, how do they treat the world and the environment. I think that everyone's becoming more and more aware of local businesses having a strong value for their own communities where they are and for them being more participating, and for them having families and stuff. This is not just the Upper West Side, this is worldwide. It's a movement which is honest and true and I think loads of people are getting behind it.

Emily: Why do people want independent bookstores?

Chris: First of all I think they'll take any bookstore. I think another small Barnes and Noble is great, but the fact is, and I don't want to besmirch Barnes and Noble per say, but they're one of the only games in town, they're not that attractive. I think their model of a bookstore, the superstore, is unattractive for a lot of reasons. They're aging and they have not been investing in their structure, they haven't been evolving.

They created what seemed like a great idea for a long time which was the great big store with lots of everything with a café, music, and they want a different kind of experience. They want a smaller store, they want a more beautiful store, they want a store that has more unique items that are picked out in a different way. The national purchasing monotony of Barnes and Noble's feel, it's having the exact same signage, cheaply made and stuff is just too obvious for people.

People do tend to want an independent kind of place. It feels different, it feels unique, and it makes them feel as though they are special. But the main thing is having a bookstore to go look at books in is fantastic. People want to browse around books, it's just a great experience, so they'll take anything.

Emily: There are a lot of other objects for sale in your bookstores at Columbus and 82nd Street.

Chris: Yes, there are.

Emily: There's a lot of mugs and scarves and things that you could buy for gifts. How important is that to your business?

Chris: I think it's huge. It's exactly what we've been aiming to construct. I think that while the experience of having a bookstore is unique and it's hugely important in so many ways, and I think the fundamental values of what we're trying to produce, at top of those is giving people a place to interact with books. Very high in that value set is getting families and children reading. We think it's such a important way to set a cultural norm for thinking about how we relate to each other, to ourselves, to our education, to our community. That's really important.

But there are loads of times in a person's life where we want to enjoy our lives as consumers in a successful democracy. That means going out and experiencing things and shopping and buying things for ourselves and for our friends and making our homes beautiful. Then going into a beautiful space just to be allowed to wander and to discover things that are nifty that others have made. Since time immemorial it's been a great experience for a human being to walk into a marketplace and discover and look at wares that have been created, some for useful function and some just to adorn ourselves and be beautiful. It's just basic and fundamental to what a person is in a society. It's just fun. It's great and it gives people more of a reason to come into our shop. It makes the shop become a destination for loads of reasons besides 'I just want to go look at the books now.'

Emily: I read your newsletter and I kept seeing that you were offering copies of Charlie Hebdo and it kept selling out. Why were you doing that?

Chris: When the shootings occurred in Paris I was, as everybody was, dumbfounded and shocked that this was just so ruthless and so brutal. But what immediately struck me was these people were writers and cartoonists, they were people basically involved in free expression of their own ideas. There was immediately some sense of liberal people who normally would be very strongly on the side of free expression pulling back because the magazine itself that these victims published was in their minds slightly, I would say, destructive or racist perhaps in its own way.

But to me, almost instantaneously, it harkened back to an event that occurred early on in my book selling career which was the publication of Salman Rushdie's book "Satanic Verses." He was not killed, he's still alive, but there was a call for his death by the Ayatollah in Iran. The book was nearly not published in the United States. One of its publishers almost dropped the book, I think it was Penguin, and major chain stores such as Barnes and Noble, decided they wouldn't carry the book.

There was a bunch of people through corporate decision-making deciding 'we can't touch this, it's too hot.' But I was at a bookstore that was independent at the time up at 116th Street called Book Forum and we decided to sell the book. We bought as many as we could get. The publisher, by this time, had capitulated to the idea that they have to sell it, they have to stand up for … We were one of a number of bookstores which decided to sell the book and we got huge piles, we stacked it up in a pile taller than I am and I'm over six feet tall.

People came from all over to buy a copy of the book. They wanted more than anything to have a chance to say 'nobody's going to tell me what I can and can't read.' They didn't know anything about Islamic culture, they didn't know anything about the fatwa, they didn't know anything about Iran. But they didn't want somebody telling them what they could and couldn't read. That's basically what freedom of expression comes down to. It was palpable. The people came in and basically just bought a copy or a half dozen copies and shook their fist.

My sense was that the trepidation with some of the far, I wouldn't say far left, but the liberal population had about expressing sympathy for Charlie Hebdo because it was viewed sometimes as racist, was a lost way of thinking.

Anyway, we committed ourselves right away to try and get some copies. I reached out to our investor who's half French, his mother is French, and I said do you know anybody. He's in publishing — Rick MacArthur, he's the publisher of Harper. I said, "Rick, you got to find us a way to get some of this magazine over here, do you know anybody?" Because the people I reached out to immediately didn't. We found the person who arranged to have a very small copies come up.

There was no question we were going to do it. In fact right away I sent out and I found a fantastic image on the internet that someone had done with a raised fist and a bloody pencil and I printed out a huge five-foot-by-five-foot poster and put it in both our windows. Interestingly, on Columbus Avenue, there was no doubt about its being there expressed to us at all. No question of its being inoffensive.

But up at Columbia I had the same poster on Broadway, 114th Street, I received several comments from very well-educated people in the academy that suggested it was not the right thing to do because Charlie Hebdo was not a magazine that was worth supporting. Which is almost to me to say you have to accept that these people were killed. But there was never any doubt in my mind, nor in our partner's mind, who was in fact a publisher. People have to stand up for these things.

Emily: They sold out immediately.

Chris: Yeah.

Emily: Are you going to continue selling copies?

Chris: Interestingly, because so many copies came into the United States, our distributor of foreign magazines has continued to send it to us in small quantity. I haven't looked at the figures but I don't think it's continuing to sell. It was a one-off thing. It's a very unusual magazine, it's a National Lampoon for the French. It's not in good taste, it's grotesque and offensive, and it tries to be. It's hard to understand if you're not …

Emily: Yeah. There may be a lot lost in translation.

Chris: Yeah. It's a very French thing that most people don't get in the United States.

Emily: Your investor, Rick MacArthur, was it difficult to convince him to invest and become your partner?

Chris: It wasn't difficult for Rick. He and I had exactly the same idea… It was just a question of our meeting. But I can say that I spent a lot of time writing to people and so the effort to find somebody to come in was difficult. There was no access to us to get money. Which is interesting in terms of the struggle for small businesses to grow and to find access to capital. We couldn't borrow anything from the bank, not a penny. We tried mightily. That was unfortunate. But I understood that might be an issue so while we tried and we went through the process and all the paperwork we, at the same time, sought out or I sought out other avenues.

I wrote to all kinds of executives and people who wrote about the book industry. Rick was one of those guys who has written about the value of publishing, the value of books. I mean the value in the sense that he was against discounting. He was for getting writers paid. He's been for a paywall behind which writers can earn a living. I had no idea when I wrote to him to express solidarity and share my plans that he himself would have the means or the desire to support us. But after a couple of meetings it was clear that he was.

Emily: That's great.

Chris: It was great.

Emily: Yeah.

Chris: It is great.

Emily: It is, yes. In all of your now running three stores, do you get any time to read?

Chris: Very little. It's ironic. Especially because I don't have a commute, I walk over here. Sometimes I dash down to the other store and usually that's in a minivan pulling down boxes of stuff. I don't have much time.

Emily: Are there any books that are flying off the shelves right now?

Chris: People that are huge here are Elena Ferrante, a writer who has just been huge and everybody seems to be reading.

Emily: I'm reading one of her books right now.

Chris: Are you? Yeah. She's written I think now five or six books and the biggest one is the trilogy she's written about life. This is one of our best-sellers.

Emily: Those are just flying off the shelves?

Chris: Huge on the Upper West Side. Absolutely. Another kind of interesting fellow who has been on the cover of the New York Times Magazine so he's not unknown is Knausgaard, who's written this mysteriously amorphous series of books called "My Struggle." It's just his writing about his life which people find very difficult to describe but which is also huge and a lot of our staff is very big into it. Yeah.

Emily: Yeah. Was there any book in your 30 years here that changed the way you viewed the neighborhood?

Chris: There was the book that was huge for me, "Just Kids," which is a pretty recent book but which played into an era that I also lived through. Because concurrent with my first job in Papyrus I also had … I worked at the very first Dean & DeLuca on Prince Street just before the AIDS crisis. During the first eruption of the AIDS crisis. It was a time when there was absolutely open rampant sex going on all over the place downtown. I remember the guys coming back to work the next day saying, "Oh my God it was just unbelievable in the bath last night." Then within a couple of months AIDS had become on everybody's lips. It was just shocking and devastating and people were dying that you knew. Just so all around.

Robert Mapplethorpe's photographs, his struggle with freedom of expression, that going into becoming a political issue, and Patti Smith's music and her writings, and her advocations at that period were I think a wonderful … Again it wasn't just this neighborhood it was more of a downtown story but … She was also a bookseller. Her very first … One of her very first jobs was selling books in bookstores so that's interesting.

Emily: So that resonated with you?

Chris: Absolutely. It's a great book.

Emily: Yeah.

Chris: In fact I would give that book above almost any other to people who just moved to New York, young people who moved to New York.

Emily: Just to get them acquainted with the history?

Chris: It's also a survival story and it gives you some insight into the grit and the difficulty that is New York but also the possibilities that are … And one person's path through it.

Emily: Yeah. This was a great conversation. Thank you so much.

Chris: You're welcome.

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Can the local economy support new independent bookstores? And what are your thoughts on gentrification throughout the neighborhood and more recently in the northern section? Also, what are you reading? Let us know in the comments below and on our Facebook page.  

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