The empty lots left in Morningside Heights when a beloved local business shuts its doors are shocking at first. As the months go by, while students and residents await the announcement of which national chain may fill the storefront gap, the emptiness becomes familiar.
When Book Culture owner Chris Doeblin announced last week that locations of the popular book store would close this summer unless they are able to garner at least $500,000 in funding, the community reacted to what it would mean to inherit not one, but two new empty storefronts previously decorated with striking book covers.
Though the local chain has not confirmed its closure and remains hopeful about its fundraising goals, the possibility alone has students and local residents alike reflecting on the impact that online retailers have had on independent bookstores like Book Culture--as well as the impact that the store has had on them.
“There’s always more than just book talk here.”
When Spectator arrived at Book Culture to interview patrons about their reaction to the book store's financial difficulties, employees immediately called Cece Molloy. The Morningside Heights resident has been frequenting the store's various locations for over 20 years, and was proclaimed by one employee as its "number one customer."
Though Molloy had just left her daily drop-in at the store, she immediately returned for a chance to share her reactions to Book Culture’s letter to the community published last week. The feeling that a place she calls home may soon be gone was one of "profound disappointment."
"I have seen the reaction. Every day people are coming in here, saying 'What's going on? What's happening?' Believe me, I'm not alone here. I love and support this store," she said.
Molloy can most frequently be found browsing the children's section of the bookstore's location on the corner of 114th Street and Broadway, sometimes with children that she cares for or simply to check in with employees she knows on a first-name basis. It is the possibility of stumbling across new reading material or meeting a new neighbor that makes the brick and mortar retail experience about so much more than just books.
"There was one kid I used to take care of that was on the spectrum," Molloy said. "I would take him there because I feel like it was a very comfortable and safe environment for him to get adjusted to being around people. He played there, and [the employees] were all very understanding about that. They just let the kids be, play."
Molloy says that she will never switch over to online retailers, noting that it's just as easy to walk into a bookstore to pick up items or find new ones. Even if Book Culture were to close, Molloy would rather travel outside of Morningside Heights to another independent bookstore before ever browsing online for her literary needs.
“Books are like my oxygen.”
Upon receiving the email from Book Culture owner Chris Doeblin last week, Michael Veal said he was “dismayed” by the news. Veal, a Professor of Music, American Studies, and African American Studies at Yale University and a resident of Manhattan, describes himself as an avid reader and frequent customer of Book Culture.
Veal stopped to speak with Spectator just after making a purchase at Book Culture’s 112th St. location. He says he can often be found browsing the shelves of the remainders and discounted paperbacks adorning Book Culture’s shelves.
“I’m a writer and a voracious reader, and books are like my oxygen, so I come here several times a week for an oxygen pit stop,” he said. “Sometimes I come in with a specific book in mind, but most of the time I just come in and allow myself to be surprised, and that’s how I’ve found some of my best stuff.”
Veal noted that in his frequent visits, he did not see many Columbia students habitually at Book Culture, except to buy and then resell their textbooks at the beginning and end of the school year. In contrast, he describes bookstores around campuses as bustling with students when he was in college.
Now as a professor, Veal said he often encourages the students in his courses to look for textbooks on Amazon, where they can often find less expensive or used copies.
“Which I feel guilty about, but money is tight,” he explained.
Still, he feels that spaces like Book Culture are integral to the academic and cultural heart of a college campus, as they provide a social and communal dimension to the pursuit of knowledge.
“There’s a social angle to the pursuit of knowledge,” he said. “Life is not just a series of digital bits. It’s people being around other people. When you come to a place like a bookstore, a record store, a restaurant...it’s an opportunity for people to come together to pursue their passions and interests. And that’s also a form of knowledge.”
“A place that I really consider a community.”
After initially buying textbooks exclusively from Amazon her first semester freshman year, Paige Moskowitz, BC/JTS ‘20, said she was urged by her mother to support a local bookstore instead. For the past two and a half years, she has turned to Book Culture to supply all of her textbooks, as well as non-academic reading.
“When it comes to price and textbook affordability, you should always go for the option that is most viable for you, whether that is Amazon, borrowing from the library, or buying from Book Culture,” she said. “But when we can afford to be more intentional about the use of our dollars and where and who we’re buying from we should always be trying to support local businesses.”
For Moskowitz, her loyalty to Book Culture stems in part from the welcoming nature of Book Culture employees and the sense of community they provide, as well as their knowledge about Columbia and Barnard courses—which can’t be found shopping online.
“The booksellers and the people working there who make it...a place that I really consider a community,” she said. “They’re always so welcoming and so helpful, and they always know exactly what you need, especially if it’s a big continuing class like a First Year Writing or a Core [Curriculum] class. I always leave happier than when I came, because I got books and I had a great friendly conversation.”
Moskowitz further stated that the news of Book Culture’s financial troubles and potential closing was saddening, as the loss of the well-loved chain would hurt the already dwindling unique culture of small businesses in Morningside Heights. In the past year, a number of local businesses and familiar fixtures near Columbia’s campus—including Amir’s Grill, M2M, and Nussbaum and Wu—have all closed.
For her, it’s another incentive to shop local.
“We see what happens when local businesses [close]...you lose the uniqueness of the neighborhood,” she said. “I walk down Broadway and I see the empty storefronts, and to me that’s sad because I know the businesses that used to be there. That’s a piece of the community that’s left and [we] may not get back...and I really think that Book Culture is an integral part of that community.”
Deputy editor Isabela Espadas Barros Leal can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Staff writer Heather Loepere can be contacted at email@example.com.
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