Books of Wonder turns 35, cautiously


Evan Wung, far left, and Ezen Wang browse through Books of Wonder's store-wide book sale, hosted during the week of Labor Day for its 35th anniversary.

Evan Wung, far left, and Ezen Wang browse through Books of Wonder’s store-wide book sale, hosted during the week of Labor Day for its 35th anniversary. Photo: Wendy Lu

On Sept. 8, Books of Wonder celebrated its 35th anniversary as the oldest independent children’s bookstore in New York City. As businesses continue to feel the pressure of gentrification, Books of Wonder has managed to stay afloat for decades amid rising rents.

Located at 18 West 18th Street, Books of Wonder is just one of many stores in Chelsea that has been affected by hefty leasing costs. Peter Glassman, owner and founder of the bookstore, said he attributes its success to the ongoing support of the community, including parents, artists and writers who don’t want to see the store suffer the fate of other businesses that could no longer afford to remain in the area.

“I’ve watched so many new authors’ careers take off and blossom,” said Glassman. “We hope we took part in that. And I try to repay their time by keeping their books alive, keep people reading them. From the beginning, they helped us establish a reputation.”

In 2012, the bookstore faced the prospect of closing down because its subtenant, Cupcake Café, did not pay its share of the rent and utilities for many months – more than $300,000. Glassman launched an online fundraiser to raise at least $100,000 to keep the business running, and they made it. A few months later, Birdbath Neighborhood Green Bakery opened a pop-up shop in Cupcake Café’s former space and has been paying 40 percent of the rent.

The bookstore’s lease remains a challenge. The average leasing price for retailers on West 18th Street is $150 per square foot per year, which is 30 percent more than last year, said Gabe Whitman, vice president of leasing at Moinian Group and commercial real estate broker for property listings on that street.

“Lease terms are typically five to 10 years, and they’re pretty constant,” Whitman said. “They don’t change necessarily when the prices in the market change.” Successful businesses can still find long-term leases on West 18th Street, provided they can afford the rent, he added.

Books of Wonder sells a wide selection of children’s literature, including collectible items such as first edition books, signed copies and original artwork by illustrators. Wong said the bookstores sells at least 200 books a day and relies on its nostalgic atmosphere – complete with cotton ball clouds and tree stump stools – to bring back loyal customers who are passing on their love for books to their children.

“We used to come here in addition to other bookstores, but now we’d rather just have a one-stop shop. You can cover a lot of ground without having to relocate,” said Melanie Longenbach, who regularly brings her sons Pharell, 10, and Matiuss, 4, to Books of Wonder.

During the week of Labor Day, the store hosted a sidewalk book sale as part of their anniversary celebration, during which they saw a significant increase in foot traffic and higher sales numbers than usual, said store manager Scott Wong. Regular book prices range from a few dollars to thousands, such as the first edition of ‘Where the Wild Things Are,’ which is priced at $17,500.

With only a couple of years left on the store’s lease, Glassman said the next hurdle for Books of Wonder will be finding a new home. The store’s rent is about half the market average, but that doesn’t include real estate taxes.

“It’s not as cheap as it sounds,” Glassman said. “The real estate taxes we have to pay have tripled in the last four years.”

Where the bookstore will be celebrating its future anniversaries depends on the lease it will be able to afford. For now, Glassman remains hopeful, noting that 2014 saw an increase in sales, although he declined to name a specific amount.

“From the beginning, the bookstore has been an attempt to build a community that’s inclusive. We emphasize great customer service and a great atmosphere, and we have a staff of people who love children’s books,” Glassman said. “People seem to respond to that.”