Adventures in Retailing
Part III: Manhattan Bookstores
Ross M. Miller
Miller Risk Advisors
January 6, 2005
There was a time when going into a bookstore gave me a
thrill. I would go out of my way to visit them. One by one, however, my
favorite bookstores have either gone out of business or were co-opted by
My earliest bookstore expeditions were as a high-school
student in the 1960s. Although downtown Elizabeth, New Jersey still had
something to offer the bibliophile—an independent bookstore, the book
sections of the big department stores, and two substantial used bookstores
(none of these have survived to the present, nor have replacements for
them appeared)—Manhattan ("The City") was where the real books
Yes, Virginia, there once were bookstores on the main
shopping drag of Fifth Avenue. Lots of them. To me, the Doubleday
bookstore was the focal point, but it was difficult to go more than a
block or two in the heart of midtown without running into a bookstore. And
downtown, where rents were lower and it was hip to be an intellectual back
then, had an even higher density of bookstores. The largest of them was
the flagship Barnes & Noble with its sales annex across the street.
Manhattan's bookstores served as valuable function aside
from being a place to buy books and related items. At a single glance one
could get a feel for what was hot (or, more correctly, what was hot a few
years ago given the long publication lag) in a given field. Such insights
were even more valuable when tracked over time. For example, my favorite
bookstore for books in math, statistics, computers, economics, and finance
was the McGraw-Hill Bookstore, located underneath the McGraw-Hill Building
on the southwest corner of Rockefeller Center. I can remember a time when
I could stuff every book from a major publisher on options and derivatives
securities inside my briefcase and have room for lunch. Over time, I saw
options and derivatives sprout their own section within the finance books
that would grow longer every time I visited the store.
The McGraw-Hill Bookstore, like so many of Manhattan's
great bookstores, is no more, having bit the dust in 2002. On my last few
visits there, I wondered how it managed to stay in business so long. In a
world of rabid discounting, virtually every book in the store sold at the
publisher's list price. The service in the store, such as it was, crossed
the border into rudeness (I have one particular employee in mind).
Increasingly, I saw my fellow customers furtively scribbling down titles
and ISBNs and the lines at the checkout counter vanished. By its own
admission, the bookstore had fallen victim to the Internet.
Another of my favorite Manhattan bookstores, the
Coliseum, also vanished in 2002, but it managed to resurrect itself in
Eisnerland on 42nd street the following year. I have not visited the new
store, but reviews on the web indicate that it has lost a bit of its charm
and square footage in transit. The Coliseum was an excellent marker of the
state of Manhattan "culture." The front table was a ten-second
guide to which books were currently hot with the "media people."
And if you were really lucky (or unlucky), you could end up on the
Letterman Show. While many celebs frequented the store, Dave's theatre was
a few block down and when he showed up, he brought cameras with him.
All told, it seems like Manhattan has at most a quarter
of the bookstores that it had during the great literacy boom of the 1960s.
The bookstores that remain tend to be larger and most of them were built
during the great chain bookstore explosion of the 1990s. Sadly, the copies
are not nearly as good as the originals. Take Barnes & Noble, for
example. The original downtown store was notably for its comprehensive
collection of textbooks. When I worked at GE, I would drag my interns down
to the store and buy them the books that they needed to fill the holes in
their technical backgrounds. (We stopped letting GE's top executives visit
my office because when they saw all my books they would say "Have you
read all of those?" and think to themselves "Am I paying for
those?") I can now get several varieties of Tarot cards at my local
Barnes & Noble, but almost no textbooks. The name of the store is the
same, but the contents are vastly different.
Manhattan and other large cities are lucky that they
still have physical bookstores. I noticed that several years ago,
bookstores began to disappear completed from suburban malls. Two
bookstores used to be standard issue for malls (one B. Dalton and one
Waldenbooks). Now, many smaller malls (as well as some larger ones) have
no bookstores at all.
Of course, two things are happening. People are buying
fewer books, especially books that are not linked to the world of
entertainment, and what books are being bought are not being purchased in
bookstores—the Internet and the discount retailers have taken big bites
out of the book market. But something deeper is going on.
"Books" are moving from the physical realm to the digital realm.
Browsing through a bookstore is becoming like searching for radio stations
by turning a dial.
Before I take another whack at Google, I will bring my adventures in
retailing series to an end with a visit about 50 miles north of Manhattan
to Woodbury Common. This upscale outlet mall has thrived at a time when
many traditional Upstate New York malls have been bulldozed and replaced
with big-box retailers. What's more, Woodbury Common may just underline
the illusory nature of America's merchandise trade deficit.
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