The Death of a Bookstore in Manhattan

Not every David and Goliath story ends with the smaller, underdog David’s victory. The reality of late capitalism is actually just the opposite: the smaller David usually is swallowed up by the Goliath or obliterated. Moreover, the modern day version of Goliath does not achieve victory by brute strength, but with billions of dollars and his team of lawyers. On Friday April 11, 2014 Rizzoli Bookstore on West 57th in Manhattan was forced to close its doors forever at that location. The fact that the bookstore is losing its lease is bad enough, but the building itself and the two adjoining it will be demolished so that a new condominium can built (according to rumor) on its site.

Rizzoli has occupied the space on West 57th since 1985. The site was once home to the Sohmer Piano Company, and the building’s exterior and interior constitute works of art. Everything from the interior woodwork and glass chandeliers to the outside windows gives the building an old world charm that is rarely replicated in contemporary buildings. The building is one hundred and nine years old and is considered a gem in a canyon of steel and glass. Rizzoli Bookstore has three floors of books, many of them foreign language, as well as a massive, enviable selection of art books. It is truly one of the greatest experiences to walk into that store and lose oneself for hours in its quiet paradise.

If Rizzoli is the David of this sad story, then the LeFrak real estate family and the Vornado Realty Trust play the part of Goliath. These two companies are two giants of contemporary real estate. According to Forbes Magazine, Richard LeFrak, the current patriarch of the business, is worth somewhere around $6.1 billion dollars, most of which was amassed in real estate. The Vornado stock currently sells for $98.15 a share, and the company’s portfolio boasts of holdings that include twenty-eight million square feet in over fifty properties in Manhattan. Both companies also have significant real estate investments on the west coast as well. Given this information it’s no wonder that local preservation societies and groups of concerned citizens have little chance in their fight to save historic and beautiful buildings.2014-03-20 16.07.15

Three weeks ago I was in Manhattan for a literary conference and made time to stop by Rizzoli. I spoke with the cashier and she seemed to take the fate of the bookstore in stride. Rizzoli plans to open at a new location, but that location has yet to be determined. Rizzoli is one of the best independent bookstores left in Manhattan. One of the tragedies of this story is that it continues a long narrative of smaller, independent bookstores being forced out of Manhattan for various reasons. Certainly the leviathan that is Barnes & Noble had a lot to do with what I can only think of as a scorched earth policy toward independent bookstores. But more damaging than that is the fact that real estate companies with billions of dollars in their coffers have the power to form a new reality in Manhattan. Gone are the bookstores with character and history, and in their place we see cafeteria-like stores that sell everything from toys to greeting cards. Moreover, the historic buildings are being torn down to make way for glass-faced high rises that only the ultra-rich can afford. West 57th is quickly becoming an address that only billionaires can afford to occupy. What happened to Rizzoli last Friday is what worst about late capitalism. Money always wins out and the very small percentages of those with billions of dollars have the power to make over the world in their own image.

I cannot help but think that Manhattan got a little darker on Friday with the closing of Rizzoli on West 57th. I am grateful that I had the chance to visit the store on a number of occasions and in the last month of its life. Still, I feel as if we are selling our sense of aesthetics for buildings with no character and sacrificing our heritage for the whims of a few so that they may make even more money and live even more comfortably at the cost of the many.

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