Bookstore Boom at Penn Station



Commuters in Penn Station on a Saturday afternoon: Still a busy time on the main concourse. Photo: Kate Racovolis

A holiday miracle has arrived early for local bookstores in Penn Station. Borders, the big nationwide chain that threatened the future of Penn Books’ 40 year-old family business when it opened in 2006, decided to close 51 stores across the country in June 2011 after filing for bankruptcy in February, sending book buyers in the area back to this independent store.

“Customers like us because they get recommended by others, and we have a lot of regulars,” said Samantha Newman, who owns Penn Books with her husband Craig.

Craig and Samantha Newman have managed to stay in business underground in Penn Station’s main concourse by relying on a steady flow of traffic, the sale of lottery tickets and customers making last-minute purchases before their train departures. “For the holidays it’s business as usual, and the discounts on the New York Times bestsellers sold at a discount of 20%. But what we find down here are customers who are rushing to buy gifts in the last week of Christmas,” Samantha Newman said. “The big titles are usually the best-selling items in our store.”

The humbly-sized store in two locations in Penn Station houses hundreds of books, ranging in category from crime to classics and non-fiction to biographies. Hoping to cater to as many of the millions of potential customers who pass through the station annually as possible, the Newmans try to be as well-read as possible. “I read about a book each week. I read the New York Times Bestsellers and my husband often reads the true crime and non-fiction,” Samantha Newman said.

With 2010 annual ridership of almost 45 million passengers, according to the MTA, heavy and guaranteed foot traffic is a unique promise for businesses in the underground realms of the city, that many areas of New York may not enjoy. Samantha Newman said that one of the reasons that Penn Books has remained an underground store for so long is because of the large volumes of traffic every day, even if not every passerby turns into a customer.

Small bookstores like Penn Books may not have experienced the same volume of sales as Borders, but the Newmans have ultimately proved that big may not necessarily be better. Craig Newman says with optimism that his store has been offered a small glimmer of hope for a return to the better sales figures that the store experienced in the pre-Borders era at Penn Station.

But Newman is also incredibly protective of his business, and believes he must keep his guard up when talking numbers, which he declined to give for this article due to the ever-impending threat of new competition in the book industry.

In the self-contained world of Penn Station, invisible to street-level dwellers, trends in book sales are shifting. Both Penn Books and Hudson News are noticing more books being sold since the closure of Borders on Penn Plaza, Seventh Avenue which would normally capture the attention of people on the street before they could even reach the station to spend their money at the smaller stores.

For book businesses in Penn Station motivation comes from giving people what they want and need when they are in transit from one place to another. “For Hudson News, the decision for landlords is to place newsstands in locations where the most people are walking by in order to meet their basic travel needs – reading materials, snacks, bottled water, health and beauty aids, gifts and other convenience items,” said Laura Samuels, Vice President of Corporate Communications at the Hudson Group.

Samuels also said of Hudson News in Penn Station that, “Books as a category have indeed seen an increase in Penn Station, which can surely be attributed to the Borders store closing.” However, Samuels said the exact figure of sales is proprietary and could be shared for this article.

But times are still tough. “The Kindles are killing us,” Newman added, noting that it’s not only competition on the book business that poses a threat, but impending threat of the rapid evolution of technology.

And the space required to run a successful retail business in Penn Station does not come cheaply, making any increase in sales a welcome respite from the difficult economic climate in which local businesses like Penn Books have learnt to survive. Samuels from the Hudson Group said of Hudson News at their retail outlets, “Space is usually at a premium. So our strategy is to work with our landlords in airports and rail terminals, to serve customers. Newsstands are typically the hub of any travel retail program.”

The closure of Borders has done little for other print media in Penn Station. Across the corridor from Penn Books at Hudson News, “Magazines are tracking with last years sales,” Samuels said.  And on street-level, Alex Blasioli, Manager at Fashion Design Books, the closest bookstore to Penn Station on street level on West 27th Street, said that they hadn’t noticed much change in book sales since Borders’ exit from the area. However, Blasioli also said, “Our industry is different to the regular trade,” being a specialty bookstore that mostly caters to FIT students; he attributes its niche customer base to the store’s steady sales.

As it stands, New Yorkers looking for their next novel or holiday read will have to go underground to Penn Books and Hudson News: the only two bookstores in Penn Station and in the immediate vicinity on street level.