A few weeks back, the owners of Left Bank Books took to social media to announce that after “nearly 24 years in business” they’d be closing shop. “It’s a familiar story by now: the costs of maintaining a brick-and-mortar used and rare bookshop in Greenwich Village are simply no longer tenable,” read the post. It was signed “the Freaks of LBB.”
Considering that when the owners vacated the storefront on 8th avenue yesterday, they were joining St. Mark’s Bookshop, Shakespeare & Co, and other bygone literary landmarks RIP’ing it up in independent bookstore heaven, the Left Bank’s sign-off was actually something of an understatement. It’s no secret that book purveyors are struggling for a similar set of reasons not only in Greenwich or East Village, but across the downtown area, and all over the country.
And yet the end of Left Bank was especially disappointing in part because of the shop’s unusual resilience to closure. Over the years, a series of owners would simply not let the shop die, refusing to let the “neighborhood institution”– as Margarita Danielian, the shop’s bookkeeper and administrative head, called it– disappear.
As recounted by the Times in a 2009 article, Kim Herzinger– a New York newbie who’d just moved to the city after retiring from his position teaching literature at a Mississippi college– first got into the book business just a few years prior in 2005 when he’d stumbled into a struggling, but longstanding (since 1992) neighborhood book shop called Bookleaves on West 4th street. The place was in disarray, and guessing he could do a better job of running it, Herzinger gave the shop a makeover and rechristened it Left Bank Books.
Herzinger restocked the store, jamming it with a large selection of first editions, signed copies, and rare books. While Left Bank definitely catered to the refined book collector, the shop had something for broke students, and everyone between the two. As Left Bank noted on their Facebook page, “Our books range in price from $5 to $5000+.” For a time, business was booming and the $1,200 a month rent was affordable.
In 2009, after that rent had gone up precipitously, Herzinger was told by his landlord that he wouldn’t even be given the opportunity to submit to price gauging– there would be no renewal of his lease at the shop’s original West 4th street location, which New York mag described as a place so crammed with thousands upon thousands of books, that it was almost as if they were “crawling up the walls,” where “someone could enjoy being lost and find the stories of a likewise truant mind.”
Left Bank announced that it would close by the end of January. But then, Herzinger landed a much higher but doable lease at a nearby space where 8th Avenue meets Hudson– around one of those charming street-corner triangles that rebel against the city’s otherwise fairly uniform grid layout and make Greenwich Village exceedingly adorable/real estate gold. Things were going to be difficult, but it seemed to everyone that Left Bank had a new lease on life, and a lease that wasn’t too far away, either.
The publishing industry’s own struggle is no secret, but since 2009 when Left Bank moved, tablets have become wildly popular, something that dealt an even greater blow to the printed word. Devices like Amazon Kindle and the iPad are ubiquitous, and seem to be a more common sight on the train now than magazines and books combined. “The business has been ailing for some time, because the demand for used books has been diminishing and the expenses have been increasing,” Margarita explained. “The slide had been ongoing for a number of years.”
By 2014, Herzinger was out and a West Village couple, Rudy and Florence Kindel had taken over. “It was about a year and a half ago when they heard the bookstore was going out of business,” Margarita recalled. “They’re not booksellers, they just happened to love the institution and love having a bookstore in the West Village.” But this wasn’t a case of benevolent billionaires swooping in to save a beloved shop with a wave of their hands– the couple were beholden to the same ups-and-downs experienced by any small business owner. “It’s not like they have deep pockets,” Margarita admitted. “They’re just ordinary Village residents who wanted to keep Left Bank alive. Sadly, the business was in much more trouble than they had anticipated.”
While visitors were numerous at Left Bank, when it came to the number of actual customers, the numbers were pretty bleak. “The percentage of people who stop in and actually buy something is extremely small– we get a lot of people who come in and say, ‘Wow, what a wonderful place this is!’ and ‘I’m so glad you’re making it,'” Margarita explained. “And, frankly, toward the end I wanted to charge admission because we were being treated as a museum.” But a museum, as she pointed out, at least gets some kind of support.
As someone who was often at the shop, Margarita admitted that she became “really angry” with people who would ask Left Bank to lower their prices, and frustrated with the oglers. “While there was an appreciation for the type of establishment we offered, somehow the connection between that and, ‘Oh, let me buy something because that’s what’s going to keep this business in business,’ never clicked.”
The bookkeeper said it was hard to imagine that Left Bank’s “varied and diverse literary stock” had anything to do with their struggle. As a devoted Instagram follower and sometimes visitor to the shop, this writer can attest to Left Bank’s excellent selection of weird titles, original taste, and their great eye for book design. A recent display featured: “Hard Pulp: illustrated pulp-fiction dust jackets form the 1940s – 1980s” with titles like John Keane’s Sherlock Bones. And with its floor lamps and old-school Village vibes, LBB also had a distinctly homey and approachable feel. The focus wasn’t some trendy design scheme, it was actually the books. Still, Margarita admitted that “there’s no one thing” that led to the closure, and instead it was an array of factors.
While she acknowledged that rent in the Village is “extremely high,” that wasn’t necessarily cause for closure. “Are the landlords being greedy? Yes, but they’re not the bad guys we’d like them to be,” she said. “Everyone bears some responsibility. Could the business have been better managed? I don’t know. That’s what happens with many small businesses that become a part of the fabric of a neighborhood, we forget that the business is not there just for the social aspect of it, but also to make money, there are expenses to pay.”
After Left Bank announced it would close for good, Jeremiah of Vanishing New York wrote: “This entire block of small businesses is being emptied out. Chocolate Bar got the boot. And then the House of Cards & Curiosities shuttered. You simply cannot survive for long as a small business in this city anymore. And now we have to lose yet another bookshop? Manhattan is getting stupider and shallower every day.”
Margarita, however, had some words of advice for people who lamented the loss of Left Bank Books. “It’s a communal responsibility to keep small businesses in-business,” she said. “If you want to have these businesses around, patronize them.”