All Commentary
Thursday, December 1, 1988

The Decline of Secondhand Bookstores

Dr. London is Dean of the Gallatin Division at New York University. This article is excerpted from the April 1988 issue of his monthly newsletter, The London Letter.

Jacques Maritain once said that what distinguished New York from the other great cities of the world is that it is in constant flux. New York does not treasure its past as is the case in Paris; it treasures the future. There is much in the recent history of this city that supports that claim.

Nevertheless, there are New Yorkers who continually lament the loss of the past. One of the most vocal groups is comprised of bookstore owners and shoppers on Bookstore Row (the area on Fourth Avenue between Ninth and Fourteenth Streets). According to these people the used bookstore is gone forever, a casualty of bottom-line economics. The culprit in this scenario is rising rentals and, as one might guess, the proffered solutions are government subsidies, the use of government-owned space, and commercial rent control.

However, the analysis of the problem as well as the much-discussed answers leave much to be desired. The actual decline in used bookstores did indeed occur for economic reasons. But these reasons are related to the value or lack thereof in used books far more than to the obvious rises in rent. The fact is paperback books and discounted hardbacks have virtually eliminated a general interest in used books. It’s hard to be in the business of selling a commodity that has limited or nonexistent value.

Yet antiquarian bookselling manages to survive and in some places thrive. The Gotham Book Mart, the Strand Book Store, the Pageant Book and Print Shop and the Academy Book Store are examples of stores that are prospering. Fred Bass, the owner of the Strand Book Store, the nation’s largest used bookstore, said, “My rent tripled . . . but I think it’s a healthy business.” The reason why these stores prosper is that they provide a service to their clients that cannot be offered in the bookstore chain outlets.

As is often the case when economic conditions change, businessmen adapt. Many of those stores that were fixtures on Fourth Avenue have been converted into off-street mail-order and catalogue sales outfits serving an established clientele. Several of the used book dealers have convertible fold-away street stands that can be taken to the parks or a book fair. Surely the glory days of row after row of used bookstores below Union Square is gone or going. But it would be an error to conclude that used bookselling is on its way to extinction.

Efforts to stop or curtail economic trends—in this case through rent subsidy or rent control—are doomed to failure, as are virtually all efforts to impose the will of a command economy on markets. The tale of used bookstores in New York is, in a sense, the story of this city. What is fashionable changes. What is affordable changes as well. The low rent district of today may be the high rent district of tomorrow. Were it not this way, New York would be a static town.

Interest groups like bookstore owners, community boards, and the rent control lobby would like to see a city in which their concerns are protected through government intervention. To an extraordinary degree these groups have flexed their political muscle and found responsive city politicians. But that is no way to run a city, especially a city as dynamic as New York City. Markets may not be the perfect adjudicator of competing interests, but they are far more efficient over the long term than the “visible foot” of government interference. The disappearance of Bookstore Row and the survival of used bookstores would seem to prove this point.