New York Bookstore Saved from the Brink

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December 20, 2021

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(NEW YORK CITY)The days of strolling into a rare and used local bookstore could become a thing of the past for New Yorkers. The locals on the Upper West Side of Manhattan came close when Westsider Rare & Used Books Inc., also known as Westsider Books, almost closed their doors for good back in January  2019. 

The pressure of paying the rent was on because nobody was coming in. “We didn’t have any money to pay the rent,” Westsider Books owner Dorian Thornley said. Once the company announced their closing, Bobby Panza, a Westsider Books regular, came up with the idea of starting a $50,000 GoFundMe page in order to save the store, according to West Side Rag.  The plan worked in the short term but the Upper West Side bookstore continues to face headwinds in the battle against online booksellers and digital readers and the competition for readers’ time. 

Without rare and used bookstores like Westsider Books, the world comes a little closer to giving technology and online booksellers like Amazon the power to be the primary source of not just books, but everything. 

Westsider Books carries approximately 40,000 books, according to the owner. [Credit: Esmeralda Baez]

Westsider Books carries approximately 40,000 books, according to the owner. [Credit: Esmeralda Baez]

Some blamed the impending demise of Westsider Books on online competitors like Amazon and the prevalence of  Kindles and smartphones which allow people to read without printed books. Others say it had to do with the fact that Americans weren’t reading as much as they used to.

The convenience of online shopping or the competitive prices online weren’t going to keep Westsiders’ loyal customers from patronizing their neighborhood store. They took action as soon as the news broke. “In response, loyal customers flooded the shop with orders, and someone organized a crowdfunding campaign that has raised more than $50,000,” wrote The Guardian

Panza, the mastermind behind “Save Westsider Rare & Used Books, Please” GoFundMe page told The Click how he got the idea.  

“…[The store] was getting a lot of coverage [about the closing] and I was depressed…and kept reading everything about it,” Panza said. “Then on January 15 the West Side Rag…wrote about it and in the story, the interviewer asked the owner something nobody else did.” 

Thornley was asked if there was anything that could keep the store from being closed. Then “…Thornley made an off-the-cuff remark that $50,000 would save it, but he didn’t think anyone would do it. I made the GoFundMe that very night, ” Panza explained.

Thornley was overwhelmed by the response. “It was amazing. It was really surprising and incredible, it made me feel good,” he said.

38 U.S. Bookstores Closing in New York City

The leading area of New York City closing book stores is in East Midtown (zip code: 10022) with seven bookstores businesses closed. The East Village (zip code: 10003), Lower Westside of Manhattan (zip code: 10011), and the Upper Westside (zip code: 10024) each closed six stores. Leaving areas known as Hell’s Kitchen (zip code: 10019), another area near Hudson’s Yard (zip code: 10001), and the Lower Eastside (zip code: 10016) with the least amount of stores closing in the city. [Credit: ReferenceUSA]

Signs throughout the store urge customers to read more and talk less. [Credit: Esmeralda Baez]

Signs throughout the store urge customers to read more and talk less. [Credit: Esmeralda Baez]

Facing Closure

It was the end to a stressful few months for the store.   In  Jan. 2019, Thornley announced that he was closing the doors to Westsider Books.

“The store is selling everything for 30% off starting on Tuesday. ‘Thanks so much to all our loyal customers!’ the store said on its website,” The West Side Rag  reported. 

The story prompted a deep sense of loss from loyal customers. Commenter RobRoy wrote, “I was a customer at the original location in the ’80s off of Broadway and then became an employee at the current location (when it was Gryphon)…This closing is very sad but not a surprise.” 

User Edith wrote, “This is really heartbreaking. Nothing else to say.”

Another user expressed what they thought the issue was, “With everyone buying e-books in their own homes, we lose the chance to gather around books and discuss them.”

Just 23 minutes away from Westsider Books in East Midtown (zip code: 10022), seven book stores have closed down just this year alone. Westsider Books has been able to overcome so much more. This includes their close call in 2019,  and the 13 weeks they were closed because of the pandemic. Nonetheless, they still are open today.

As soon as you walk into the store, on the left hand side you can see the bookshelves almost touching the ceiling. [Credit: Esmeralda Baez]

As soon as you walk into the store, on the left-hand side you can see the bookshelves almost touching the ceiling. [Credit: Esmeralda Baez]

Psychology books take up three shelves in Westsider Books. It used to be a larger section according to the owner. [Credit: Esmeralda Baez]

Psychology books take up three shelves in Westsider Books. It used to be a larger section according to the owner. [Credit: Esmeralda Baez]

History of Westsider Books

Westsider Books, currently located on Broadway between 80th and 81st St., has been open in the Upper Westside since 1984. It was founded by Bob Haney and Henry Holman in 1970 as the Barqu Bookstore. The store continued to move several times, changing locations and names over the years. In all those years,  the clientele changed little comprised mostly of locals and tourists.

One exception is Westsiders’ psychology section. In 1995, it carried a larger psychology section than they do today. Today, its psychology section (see photo) fills only around three shelves. 

Thornley first got into the business in 1995, when he started working for the store. In 2018,  he became the sole proprietor. Today, you’ll find him working in his beloved bookstore, restocking books and helping customers find their next read.

The second floor contains first editions and collections like the Twins of The World series by Lucy Finch Perkins.. [Credit: Esmeralda Baez]

The second floor contains first editions and collections like the Twins of The World series by Lucy Fitch Perkins. [Credit: Esmeralda Baez]

The threat to small bookstores

Amazon, founded in 1996, now controls 80% of ebooks sales in 2007, according to The Guardian. More than one person held online businesses like Amazon, responsible for Westsider’s impending demise.. “…Do you like all your belongings fresh from the factory and shipped by Amazon robots, or just your books?” wrote a user identified as Read Paper on The West Side Rag. But due to the success of the GoFundMe campaign, Westsider was able to survive the downturn of 2019.

According to the West Side Rag, on Jan 26, 2019, “friends, family and donors” got together to commemorate the saving of the bookstore. Some attendees of the party included Manhattan Borough President, Gale Brewer, Panza’s parents and donor, Sally Martell. Martell actually contributed “a generous donation of $10,000 early on in the campaign,” according to the West Side Rag. Aside from the GoFundMe donations Thornley received, he was also able to collect more from the auction used from the store’s collection of rare books to “improve the store’s inventory” according to the West Side Rag.

You can catch Thornley at the bookstore on most days. [Credit Esmeralda Baez]

You can catch Thornley at the bookstore on most days. [Credit Esmeralda Baez]

What’s to Come for Westsider Books 

Thornley said the store is doing well since more businesses in the area have shut down. This has led to “fewer places to step into,” Thornley says. As far as to rent, it hasn’t changed much for Westsider Books since then.

Although they struggled with being shut down for 13 weeks due to the pandemic, Westsider was one of the fortunate businesses to come back. Nevertheless, to make it through the pandemic Westsider Books had “to get a loan and negotiate with the landlords,” according to Thornley. 

Thornley isn’t too sure what the future had in store for Westsider Books. “I don’t know. It depends if there’s still an interest in physical books. It’s hard to say, things are changing so quickly.” 

Thornley now sells about 15-20% of Westside books online. But, most customers are coming into the store as foot traffic. 

Carly Fuller, a Westsider regular,  says she stumbled across it while on the Upper West Side one day. “It stood out. It had a ladder going up to a second floor. So, so, so many books, from the ceiling to piles on the floor. It had a very old vibe like it had been around way longer than my time,” said Fuller. 

As for survival, Thornley advises any future bookstore owner to “Start with a lot more money than you already have. Be willing to adapt, pay attention to what [customers] want and what they don’t want.”

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