Midtown Bookstores Keep Their Doors Open Amid the Pandemic



Barnes & Noble flagship store on 5th Avenue. Photo by Marta Campabadal

The number of bookstores in Manhattan has been declining for years, but the pandemic has added another layer of stress to booksellers. In Midtown alone, several bookstores have closed in the last five years.

“We have had to close stores because they were so extraordinarily expensive and heavily loss-making,” said James Daunt, CEO of Barnes & Noble, in an interview with the Midtown Gazette.

Owners of Midtown bookstores are coming up with unique ways to keep their doors open, from adding cafes to offering employees better benefits. But that might not be enough to combat dwindling book sales, decreased foot traffic and disagreements over wages. 

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, bookstores in Midtown decreased from 91 to 72 between 2015 and 2020. That number continues to drop since the shut down in March 2020. St. Vartan on West 34th Street was one of the bookstores that closed its physical location. 

“Because of COVID-19, we are just taking orders on the website now, and for the time being this is how we will continue to operate,” said Michele Bergerac, director at St. Vartan Cathedral where the bookstore is located.

ReferenceUSA shows that ​in 2020, 96% of book retailers and dealers in Midtown were small independent bookstores, with less than 20 workers. And these establishments rely on customers who want to shop in person. 

“I like buying books in bookstores, because a lot of it is about browsing, going from one book to another and then you see something that interests you,” said Tim Wilks, a Midtown resident. “When you are buying online it is not as easy to do that.”

Bryan Lei, an engineer who likes architecture books, agrees. “Coming to bookstores is a nice feeling of being in the presence of a lot of books and this will never change.”

But even one of the most popular independent bookstores in New York City, the Strand, has struggled. Andrea Klinker, the store’s senior communications associate, said the Strand has 90 employees but is only generating half of the business it had pre-pandemic. Last fall, the Strand launched a social media campaign that brought it over 50,000 book orders in just a few days. “People came and would wait in line for 40 minutes. That was incredible,” said Kinkler.

Strand bookstore on Broadway, near Union Square. Photo by Marta Campabadal

But recovery hasn’t been entirely smooth at the Strand. Brett Bates, who has worked there for five years, was laid off in March 2020 and rehired a few months later in June.  As a member of a union, Bates said the Strand has internal issues to resolve, including laying off senior workers and reducing book stock.

Independent bookstores aren’t the only booksellers with challenges.  Since the start of the pandemic, Barnes & Noble has had a 25% loss in sales, said Daunt, who added that it’s even worse for some specific locations, like the flagship store on 5th Avenue, which reflects a trend in the company’s performance nationwide. Barnes & Noble, with 21,000 employees and 627 stores across the country, laid off 40% of their employees during the pandemic, but Daunt is not planning on those staffers returning.

“We have not rehired those employees, because it is better to have many fewer people working, but they need to be much better and be much better paid,” he said. 

Right now, B&N has four stores in Manhattan, two of which are in Midtown. Despite the fact that 20% of B&N sales are currently online, Daunt said that “Covid does not change what makes a good bookstore and neither has it changed how we need to concentrate on running our stores.” 

Smaller independent bookstores are relying on in-person experiences too.

The Drama Book Shop in the theater district closed in January 2019 but opened its doors again in June. The reopening was possible thanks to the contribution of Lin-Manuel Miranda and some of his friends from the Broadway play “Hamilton.” With the reopening, the store moved from West 40th Street to a new spot on 39th Street and 8th Avenue.

The Drama Book Shop. Photo by Marta Campabadal

Kiyoka Son is a customer at The Drama Book Shop. “Physical bookstores make me think it is worth spending my money. We need bookstores and it is sad that they are closing down,” said Son.

Despite the belief that online retailers like Amazon are hurting smaller booksellers, that doesn’t seem to be the reality, according to the booksellers themselves. Both the Strand and B&N said they don’t see Amazon as a direct competitor.

Daunt said in-person experiences help bookstores. “I think that it is much more difficult for Amazon to compete against physical bookstores that are able to hold events, to have book clubs, where people like to meet.”

Klinker agrees. “Customers also want an experience when they visit a bookstore,” she said, “providing people with what they want while enjoying a book, a cup of tea, a sweatshirt or a bag.”