Despite a deeply struggling industry that has locally left behind a graveyard of fallen independent stores, Chris Doeblin is asking Columbia University to let him bring more books to Morningside Heights. Doeblin, the owner of Book Culture on 112th street—formerly Labyrinth—is currently in extensive negotiations with Columbia University to expand his independent establishment into the vacant gem of a location on 114th and Broadway, which for five years was home to Morningside Bookshop until it closed in June in a sea of unpaid bills and debt. Columbia University—the landlord for the site, which also includes a separate downstairs vacancy—declined to comment on the deal, citing its policy of remaining silent on ongoing negotiations, but according to Doeblin, the negotiations are "very advanced" and potentially less than a month away from being finalized. Back in June, Peter Soter, owner of Morningside Bookshop who said he was "completely broke," informed Spectator of a potential deal with Book Culture at the time, which he added truly broke his heart to consider. But Doeblin said recently in an interview that these discussions were halted hastily in the spring when Columbia University—which has lost two bookstores on 114th street in the last decade—decided it needed time to step back and evaluate its desires for the retail space. "I think they are really traumatized by these bookstores going out of business," Doeblin said. University spokesperson Victoria Benitez said of the efforts to fill the vacancy, that the "University continues to maintain its long-standing policy of favoring local entrepreneurs serving local consumer needs." Labyrinth was modeled after an independent bookstore cooperation near the University of Chicago, which has one store saturated with scholarly work and textbooks and another more traditional trade store nearby. Following that business plan, Doeblin said he wants to make the 114th Street the companion trade shop to his current 113th Street textbook haven. One block north, along with a potential downstairs café, he said that they would be stocked with mainstream products, such as science fiction, children's books, and bestsellers. In a way, he said, he would be directly filling the void left behind by Morningside Bookshop. And just as Soter said that the University, which allowed him to fall months behind on rent, was extremely supportive of his operation, Doeblin said that the University brokers now are doing all that they can to make this expansion a reality. On the expansion, Doeblin said that though he is confident the model will work, he has his fears of investing so much upfront during such uncertain times for his industry. "This is not just a change, it is a groundswell," he said of bookselling, a trade in which many large chains like Borders are deeply suffering. "But this could be good for us," he said in hopes that troubled chains would help resilient independents stay open. "I think bookstores still have a place in this city. I hope it is going to work," he said. He does not expect it to be a repeat of Morningside Bookshop's failure, mostly because he would not be opening under conditions of immediate debt. "We are not making as much as we used to, but we are sound," he said. Doeblin added, "Ultimately though, the market will rule. If the neighborhood can't support it, then it won't."
Courtney Raterman for Spectator