This month marks the online launch of New York Bound Books, an interactive site that resurrects the spirit and resources of the late, lamented New York Bound Bookshop, the last independent shop in the city dedicated solely to all things Gotham, out-of-print and new. It lost its lease in 1997.
As the proprietor of a Brooklyn bookshop that tries to approximate one-tenth of what New York Bound achieved, I was eager to sit down with founder Barbara Cohen to talk about those years behind the counter and her new incarnation on the web
--Peter Miller, Freebird Books
How did your store begin?
About 1974, I got interested in New York history and did research at the New York Historical Society thinking I would write a book about Dutch New York. I looked for used books locally, but no one, not even the Fourth Avenue shops, had much of a New York City section.
About the same time my husband and I bought a weekend house in Columbia County. I found a wonderful book barn near us and I went there all the time and became friendly with Maureen Rodger, the owner. I always loved books, history and bookshops, so I thought about starting one devoted to New York. From the beginning I carried out-of-print and rare books, old maps, photos, prints, and ephemera. Then I made book-buying trips to shops up the New England coast, New Jersey, and even California, as well as buying individual collections. I bought a lot of books at book fairs. I was lucky that in these years books about New York weren’t as coveted as they are now, and other book dealers would save their New York books for me.
In 1976, neighbors of ours who were city planners told me that I should look down at the South Street Seaport in the old Fulton Market. This would have been in the pre-Rouse days. It was just stalls and different shops, I think only $300 a month. There was a lot of traffic, I didn’t have to worry about anything. The stall was 10 x 10. I set up there thinking I didn’t have anything to lose.
How did you build the business in those days?
Publicity was key. I got reviewed in the New York Times and New York Magazine early on and they brought in a lot of curious people. The Seaport also brought in a lot of people before Battery Park City and the west side was developed, so I would get government workers, city planners, people interested in the city, plus Wall Street people, all guys, who wanted old books. I built a very nice business there. It was great. I lived on the Upper West Side on 96th and I drove down every day to a whole other world. I met Joseph Mitchell, who really went there. Sloppy Louie’s was still there.
How long did you occupy that space?
About 3 1/2 years. I left in 1980 because the Seaport was going to be developed. I knew I couldn’t afford to stay there. So I went looking for space. The real estate market must have been becoming more valuable because I would look at a space and agree to take it, but then it became a game of “Well, the price just went up.”
Eventually, you moved to the lobby of the AP building at Rockefeller Center and partnered with Judith Stonehill. There was a lot that was affordable in your store. You seemed to want these books to go to the right people. These were not just investments.
That’s how a real bookseller thinks rather than just moving merchandise. Interacting with the customers, educating them on the best books in their interest, not just moving merchandise, which is why I didn’t want an online business for just selling books.
Tell me about the last couple of years.
Rockefeller Center wanted us out and cut short our lease by a year. When we moved out, the shop was sealed by a wall, and we were replaced by a faux art deco glass panel.
It never became another shop?
No, just decorative. We were lucky because when we moved in there it was still owned by the Rockefellers and the atmosphere was genteel. It felt like an earlier time. The shops in the basement were little businesses. Now it’s all chains.
What did you do after the bookstore closed in 1997?
I decided to write a bibliography and reference to books about New York. I knew there was nothing like it. Because I specialized in New York, I know the literature very well, and I’ve handled a vast amount of books. Over the years I collected dealers’ catalogs from the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s, newspapers articles that were unusual and relevant, and illustrations and ephemera that I found especially interesting and informative. I applied and received a grant for the publication. The book turned out to be problematic and, at the same time, the word “bibliography” made publishers and agents roll their eyes.
Is that when you came up with the website?
The idea to make it much more than a vehicle for selling came about a year or so ago. I want to be relevant, to offer things that people don’t generally know about. Even people who do research about New York. For example, I was looking in one book and saw a credit for HarpWeek. This man came into the bookstore about 15 years ago and bought a complete run of Harper’s Weekly and ended up having it digitized and, with the help of scholars, creating an updated index. So if you wanted to know women’s rights or issues in 1860 you could find it in an index which you couldn’t do in the original Harper’s Weekly. So I thought Wow! I asked a lot of people and nine out of ten who know New York material didn’t know about HarpWeek. And I said, Great, this is the kind of thing I want to put in there.
You point out something that is really important, which is that I’m quite often amazed what resources are not available on the internet when I research New York-related titles.
Absolutely. You can Google and engine search all you want, but some more obscure material will never turn up. That’s the point of the bibliography. I have spent all of these years telling people what were good books on certain areas. I had all this knowledge and I was frustrated after the bookstore closed. I knew I didn’t want to just sell online. I enjoy talking with customers, sharing my information and learning what they offered.
Then in 2010 I went to a bookselling course in Colorado taught by leading book dealers whom I started out with 40 years ago. I realized people remembered me, that I still had a reputation. It made me think about what dealers who specialized in one area and had all this expertise do today? It’s a shame to let it be lost.
I’m glad the print version of the bibliography never worked out. If it had been published on schedule it would have been out of date today. The website is organic and slowly evolving.
Was the greatest pleasure about being a bookseller the interaction with customers?
Yes, talking about the books. That’s what I have in mind on my website. To make more of a dialogue, we'll eventually have a forum, and interview people, sponsor an occasional event and publish some books. I published four books in the 1980s and that was very satisfying. I didn’t go into online to move merchandise.