Indie Bookstores of New York City

A blog about Independent Bookstores in NYC and how they are surviving in the digital age

Category: Uncategorized

Book Culture on Columbus

Name: Book Culture on Columbus

Location: 450 Columbus Avenue, New York, NY

Website: http://www.bookculture.com

Description: As a re-introduction to my blog, I thought it would be fitting to start with the third Book Culture location referenced in my first post. Book Culture on Columbus is the largest and most different stylistically from the other two locations that I visited previously (albeit that was almost two years ago, so perhaps they have since changed). As with the location on West 114th Street, the front of the store is brightly lit by large windows. However, Book Culture on Columbus’ size provides for a more spacious entryway. A unique layout allows for two different browsing experiences depending on where in the store you choose to walk. On the left, large tables filled with books run from one end of the store to the other. On the right, a series of narrow, dimly lit passages provide a more intimate way to browse some of the store’s other wares such as teapots, hourglasses, bowls, and lotions. Venture far enough, and you will find an uncluttered writing desk with a sign inviting visitors to sit down and write a letter. The sign says, “ Please use our stationary and desk to write a letter. It’s time well spent in an art worth keeping. As you take pen in hand, you may feel your heart open as you prepare to set yourself to paper.” The sign also kindly notes that Book Culture will pay for the stamp and post your letter if you leave it in the letter holder located on top of the desk.

What I Liked: There are two features of this store that stand out from the other Book Culture locations I have visited. The first is the writing desk tucked away for only the most dedicated bibliophiles and lovers of words. The second feature can be found on a relatively small table in the center of the store’s main room and located almost directly in front of the cash registers. Mysterious packages wrapped in plain, brown paper sit unassumingly on display. Upon closer examination, book browsers will find hand written messages taped to the front of these packages, which say “Read Me if you liked,” followed by a list of four books similar to the one hidden underneath the wrapping. I liked this concept so much that I purchased one for myself. I was not at all disappointed with the result. While, I would love to go into further detail about this particular element, I hesitate for fear of giving away any possible surprises.

How they are combatting the Pressures of the Digital Age: As mentioned in my prior post about the Book Culture locations, the store’s strong digital presence enhances the in-store shopping experience, and Book Culture’s numerous events encourage patrons to visit the stores in person. In revisiting the page, the store has added two features, which appear to be keeping pace with some of the contemporary trends of the Internet Age. The first of these additions is the offering of a subscription service called Book Culture Selects. By signing up for Book Culture Selects, subscribers can choose from several categories including “Queer Voices,” “Picture Books,” “Poetry,” “Literature in Translation,” “Forever Young (Adult)”, “Around the World,” and “New and Noteworthy” for both fiction and non-fiction. Books will be shipped depending on reader preference, ranging in frequency from one to three months, and come with a handwritten letter and bookmark that doubles as a feedback card. When clicking on the “Learn More” link below each category, shoppers are directed to a page that introduces the Book Culture staff member responsible for choosing the books you will receive as part of your subscription, giving the service a personal and neighborly feel.

The second feature that Book Culture has added is the option to join as a one-year member. For $49 a year, membership to Book Culture provides access to exclusive members-only events and sales, as well as a 10% discount on all purchases, and free shipping should you choose to make use of the selection of books available online. The store also offers a student membership at a reduced rate and in partnership with select universities and colleges. This membership provides students with a 10% discount on in-store purchases (112th and 114th only) as well as on all coursebooks.

The Bookstore as a Sacred Space

I recently read an article entitled, “A Thousand Hands Will Grasp You with Warm Desire: On the Persistence of Physical Books” written by Alix Christie. In this article Christie addresses the question of why physical books are so important to humans. She discusses the idea that, even in the age of the e-book, people are still drawn to physical books and publishers are beginning to engage in creating volumes that are aesthetically pleasing, visually stimulating, and therefore worth printing. She also discusses the idea of the book as a physical space. She says:

a book we crack with our two hands creates an actual physical space for reverie that functions as an oasis outside daily life, a cocoon in space and time. An e-book can perform this function too, although I wonder if it takes us quite as far away. After all, these tactile qualities are part and parcel of the world the book creates. In the end, refusal of the e-book comes down to a refusal of sensory impoverishment. With all the senses we possess, why settle only for the eyes?

This statement got me thinking. If books create a physical space for us to engage in the act of reading and imagination because of its content and the sensory stimulation it provides, what about the bookstore itself? Bookstores are indeed physical spaces, and I’ve found that often the atmosphere of a bookstore can create a similar cocoon-like feeling.The often solitary acts of browsing through stacks of books, occasionally opening one, leafing through its pages, maybe reading a chapter or two, create a liminal experience set within the realm of the bookstore. How is it liminal and how does the bookstore contribute to this feeling of liminality? The act of perusing a book in a bookstore places the reader on the threshold of purchasing or not purchasing. At the same time the bookstore is a real world location that seemingly disappears while the customer is engaged in reading. The reader is physically present in the store, but mentally present in the book, thus they are caught between two places creating a sense of liminality. While it is true that this could be said of any place in which a person chooses to read, I think there is something special about the atmosphere created by a bookstore in particular. A bookstore is, in essence, a sacred space. In this context, I do not mean sacred with a religious connotation, but instead I am defining sacred as “reverently dedicated to some purpose, person, or object” (dictionary.com). In this instance, that object is the book and in some ways the reader as well. Bookstores sell books, they are dedicated to and reliant upon the customer who visits them, searching for the next good read. So what about online stores like Amazon? Despite being a digital store, Amazon still sells physical copies of books, and ordering a book off of Amazon is easier and often cheaper then purchasing from the actual store. However, similar to the argument Christie made in her article about the persistence of physical books, I would argue that physical bookstores persist for the same reason. They provide a dedicated space for sensory experiences that stimulate and engage people in ways that a digital presence cannot. The atmosphere provided by a bookshop enhances the browsing experience by creating sensory stimulation and allowing room for imagination. Visiting a bookstore intensifies the feelings of exploration and discovery in ways that are impossible to feel while sitting at home with a laptop.

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If you are interested in Alix Christie’s full article click here.

Gif Source: Giphy.com

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