Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Book Culture


Book Culture has been on the Upper West Side since 1997, when it was founded as Labyrinth Books. Since then, it has expanded from one to four shops. It's a great local business and much beloved. But now, owner Chris Doeblin has announced in a letter (below) that Book Culture is in danger of closing--but it's unclear why.

UPDATE: I spoke with Doeblin about the situation. He told me that his landlords have been "terrific." Columbia University is one of them and "they're trying to keep us open and have made adjustments over the years." Amazon, however, "has just been devastating. A huge number of people shop there without being reminded enough of the value of having storefronts in the neighborhood."

The biggest bite, right now, says Doeblin is the 50% increase in wages. "We've not been able to grow fast enough to deal with the increase," he told me, "and we've had to lay people off. But I think we can make it, if we have more financing."

To that end, he's hoping for an angel. Either a wealthy investor or the city. "I'm hoping that the city will underwrite a loan for us. What would really help us is a significant loan from a local bank that's subsidized." He noted that the city and state "pulled a lot of strings for Amazon and every luxury building in New York City," so why not small businesses like Book Culture?

Doeblin also says he wrote the letter to get the word out. "I want people to hear from me about what it's really like" to run a small business in the city. "I want to direct people's attention to a better idea of the future."

Doeblin sent out the following letter and accompanying video on Facebook:

To all our members and patrons, to Mayor De Blasio, Governor Cuomo, Speaker Johnson, Gale Brewer, all City Council members, fellow citizens of New York, neighbors;

My name is Chris Doeblin and I am the owner and operator of Book Culture. We run 4 storefront bookstores in New York City, 3 in Manhattan and 1 in LIC Queens. We have been in business for over 22 years.

There is a situation that I need help with and I want to address as large a group as possible in the hopes of finding a solution. I hope to also make a statement about the future of our city.

Our 4 stores are in danger of closing soon and we need financial assistance or investment on an interim basis to help us find our footing. This is true in spite of the fact that business has been good and we are widely supported and appreciated.

Book Culture's stores generate over $650,000 in sales tax revenue each year for the city and state. We employ over 75 people at peak season and had a payroll over $1.7M last year. Book Culture has always been committed to paying our employees above minimum wage, both before and after the increase. All of that payroll along with the $700,000 a year that we pay in rent goes right back into the New York economy, which is why I address our government here. Many large development plans, Amazon’s HQ2 in LIC for example, included a cost to taxpayers of $48,000 per job. There is a history here of local government aiding business when it produces a return for the locality.

Every one of our employees, including my family, spends virtually all our income in the city. We shop here, eat here, pay our rent, use the MTA, and all those expenses roll right back into the community economy, to the benefit of all of us. It’s the multiplier effect of storefront businesses. It isn’t a huge sum of our economy taken by itself, but it is integral to the fabric of our city.

The jobs we create aren’t tech jobs but our jobs offer a toehold to young people coming to New York, often times trained in the humanities and heading for careers in the arts or other cultural industries; to students, artists, dancers and writers. We have been employing young native New Yorkers forever too, often as a first job. Publishing and bookselling have long been a significant part of New York City’s cultural and economic foundation.

Book Culture does a lot more for our communities than act as an economic engine. As an organization, we can take an empty storefront and spin it into a wonderful community asset that transforms a neighborhood. That takes vision, creativity, courage and entrepreneurial talent. This is a set of qualities that a city, any city or community, ought to reward and empower.

This combination of talent and industry, so common in smaller businesses is too often overlooked and not given the support and nurture that it deserves. The capital pools that allow projects like Amazon’s near entree into New York or building projects like Hudson Yards aren’t available for small businesses like ours. But they ought to be. We have been financed by credit card, by 30% a year interest loans and by remortgaging our home.

For too long we have accepted that businesses need only serve their profit orientation as though it were an obvious fact, a natural law of the 21st century. As someone dedicated to our city and nation, as a leader building a company, and its culture, as a parent and citizen, I know we can do better. Book Culture as a business is dedicated to serving the community it inhabits. This orientation to the common good rather than extracting wealth is the crucial distinction.

We do not reject large business, or internet commerce, but we know that we can’t build a future by accepting that businesses simply extract and accumulate. We need to support a culture of businesses that serve our communities holistically. And we need to move to a greater diversity of ownership not towards more consolidation.

The families that own America’s 2 largest retailers, Amazon and Walmart, just 2 families, have accumulated over $250 Billion in privately held wealth. That is a 1⁄4 of a $1 trillion!
This grotesque inequity is one of the gravest dangers posed to our democracy, the civil society and the communities we hope to build for our children.

As a parent who has served as treasurer of our schools PA I have grown to see everything as a teachable moment; what are we teaching our children? What are our values here?
If each of those families had only, ONLY, $1 billion, we could have spent $2 million for every single public school in America.

But what really sets off the distinction for our future America is that these 2 companies, like so many others, still arrive in our communities with their hands out asking for more. And they arrive in our governments by way of lobbyists asking them not to represent our children and the best future we hope to create for them. They arrive to continue to pile on to the wealth of the shareholders.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Companies like Book Culture, that are entwined with and dedicated to their communities, offer a better way forward.

Lastly, Book Culture contributes simply by being what we are, storefront businesses active in a community. We add to the street life and Jane Jacobs’s ideal of a neighborhood where people interact, face to face with each other in the simple conduct of our lives. Our shops light up the evening streets with a welcoming inviting space. We provide a place for parents and children to visit together and engage in books. We are a place for quiet, or conversation, discovery and reflection.

We need financial help to continue our transition.

If you run the city or the state or if you have the means to assist, or even if it simply means calling and emailing and writing to the local city council member where you live and the mayor and governor, please do so.

The price of doing business doesn't have to be incurred by the people. The price of doing business should be more about serving our common welfare.

Chris Doeblin

Monday, June 24, 2019

Show World to Hive

After going, going, going, Show World is so very gone.

On 8th Avenue near 42nd Street, the buildings that made up Show World and its neighboring businesses are wrapped in scaffolding and demolition shrouds.


The interiors have been completely demolished, but the buildings will remain, renovated into something called The Hive, "an $80 million boutique office and retail property," according to The Real Deal, geared to "attract technology, financial and media tenants."

So what else is new?

architect's rendering

In the Commercial Observer, The Hive speaks for itself, describing itself as "authentic" to the neighborhood.

"On the inside," it says, "you will find a hip, urban interior featuring exposed hardwood floors, brick walls and steal columns throughout. The historic character of the building reflects the roll-up-your-sleeves work ethic that defined the success of the many companies that called this neighborhood home."

Roll up your sleeves? More like take off your panties.

1976, John Sotomayor/The New York Times

Richard Basciano, New York’s former "prince of porn," opened Show World in the mid-1970s.

It featured a circus theme, the interior decorated with weird clown dolls.

After Giuliani’s 1995 zoning ordinance to restrict adult entertainment businesses, Show World soldiered on, its naughty bits whittled away piece by piece. By 1998, the live girls were gone and the theater space was leased to an off-off-Broadway company that performed Chekhov plays on stages where naked girls once performed live sex acts, including Face Shows—as the sign said, “Let our girls sit on your face.” (Here's an NSFW look inside in 1980.)



The original, main section of Show World Center vanished (mostly) in 2004 and became a family-friendly entertainment place, featuring comedy and light horror (Times Scare). However, right next door, a smaller Show World Center remained a XXX joint, a sort of annex to the original.

Along with video peeps, dirty DVDs, and toys, you could also find rooms full of (almost) nothing but crossword puzzle books -- by order of former Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

When he passed his unconstitutional ordinance against sex shops, part of the ruling stated that a store would be considered X-rated if 40 percent or more of their stock or floor space was in adult materials. As the Times reported at the time, the sex shops complied--by loading their spaces with just enough non-adult materials to qualify them as not X-rated.

So you could wander through Show World, up and down front and back staircases, into warrens and hallways, from one room to the next, passing through smut and crossword puzzles. It was a strange experience.

That Show World went up for lease or sale in 2008, but did not close until 2018, after the death of Basciano in 2017.

The end had arrived.

Show World main lobby, 2003

Show World main lobby, 2018

Gone with Show World are a number of other businesses, including those in Three Hundred Three Towers. With the entrance around the back, it held offices and apartments, possibly an odd hotel--I could never quite figure it out.

I don't know where its people were displaced to.



What remains of Show World and its neighbors will be just a shell, all its dirty, unfettered history gutted and remade for a new population.

But it's all okay, because "Working at The Hive," says The Hive, "will impart a sense of pride and authenticity."

It's going to be so authentic, in fact, the architects have rendered a new retail establishment called AUTHENTIC--just in case anybody thinks The Hive is anything but.

Also, these people playing ping-pong on the roof!

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Paris Theater


When the Ziegfeld closed, the Paris became Manhattan's last single-screen movie theater. Now, according to Deadline, it will vanish.

It is "expected to shutter in late July, according to the buzz on the Gotham arthouse theater circuit," they write.

Located just under Central Park, next to the Plaza Hotel, "The Paris is owned by Sheldon Solow, best known for the prestige building 9 West 57th Street. It has been booked for years by Bob Smerling, who didn’t return phone calls. The presence of throwback houses like The Paris is dependent upon the goodwill of the handful of family owned real estate companies that dominate Manhattan. That theater occupies prime real estate that could most certainly be used for other purposes and draw high rents."

This, after the recent loss of Lincoln Plaza Cinemas, speaks to two problems with this city: The rents and the rents.

Maybe someone will step up and save this one.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Three Lives Reopens

After weeks of being shuttered by the Department of Buildings, and having to sell books on the sidewalk, the Three Lives & Company bookstore reopens today at 10:00 AM.

They write, "Although it was a fun change of pace for us to be selling books on the corner during our impromptu Three Lives Sidewalk Shop, and we thank each of you who stopped by – whether to browse the books or just give us some words of encouragement – it is wonderful to be back in our proper space and surrounded by our beloved bookshelves."

Now please support them and go buy some books!

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Chase Takes Coffee Shop

Remember when a tipster told us that Chase Bank would be taking the space of Coffee Shop on Union Square? Now it is confirmed.

Earlier this month, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency approved Chase Bank's application to establish a branch on the southwest corner 16th Street and Union Square West. (There was apparently a public comment period, but we didn't get the invitation.)

The bank is rumored to take over part of what was Coffee Shop, while the rest will go to restaurants and potentially other retail geared to attract the sort of people depicted in the rendering below.

Coffee Shop opened in 1990 and closed in 2018 when the rent went up. According to my tipster, the rent was hiked to $3 million annually. Today, the businesses on Union Square are nothing but chain stores and banks.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

DeRobertis Neon Sign


When DeRobertis Pasticceria closed in 2014, I was bereft. So much had gone with it. At least we had the old neon sign to remind us that it wasn't always Black Seed bagels.

This week, I walked by to find the neon sign is gone.

I don't know where it went or when. I don't know if it will miraculously return. I only know the building looks blank and sanitary, with nothing to catch the eye.

What follows is my account of the pastry shop's last days, from my book "Vanishing New York: How a Great City Lost Its Soul."

One day in 2007, I sat down to chat with Annie DeRobertis, who first went to work for her grandfather at 11 years old, folding cake boxes and filling cannoli. I met her in the café on a quiet Friday afternoon. She was reading about corrupt city politics in the Post and wondering out loud if she should go back to Bari, her grandfather’s hometown. She wore her iron-gray hair short, with lavender eye shadow that matched her top. We talked about the neighborhood of her childhood, when every street was filled with Jewish and Italian businesses. And we talked about the newest people of the East Village.

Annie shook her head as she described impatient young customers who whined about waiting in line, ignored her help as they talked on cell phones, and then wanted service "right away, right away, right away." But worst of all, she said, were the Starbucks people.

“People come in and tell me I don’t know how to make cappuccino," she said, incredulous. She'd been making cappuccino for 50 years. "They tell me, 'Starbucks makes it this way.' I tell them, 'I’m here before Starbucks.' They want flavors. I tell them, 'I got flavors. You want a flavor? I’ll put it in.' Put it in? They look at me," with a look of disbelief. "Do these people really think the coffee bean grows in flavors? Like it comes in hazelnut and mint? These are people with college educations. But they want Starbucks. So I tell them, very nicely I say, ‘So go to Starbucks.’”

At the end of 2012, Starbucks planted itself just two blocks away from DeRobertis on First Avenue, taking the space of what had been Mee Noodle, a Chinese restaurant frequented by Allen Ginsberg, who always ordered the steamed flounder in ginger sauce. Just nine months later, the DeRobertis family put their building up for sale. After 110 years of serving crisp cannoli and perfect cappuccinos, providing a warm and welcoming atmosphere, they announced they would be shuttering. Customers flocked to say goodbye. When I talked to third-generation co-owner, and Annie’s brother, John DeRobertis, he shook his head mournfully and said, “Where was everybody for the last ten years? Maybe we didn’t have to do this.”

Let me hold this moment, my final visit, in present tense. I am sitting inside DeRobertis on the day before the last day in December 2014. It is morning and the café is quietly busy. There’s a feeling of anticipation in the air. John and his son, also John, are prepping for the day, wrapping black-and-white cookies, folding cake boxes, answering the phone that keeps ringing. “Tomorrow we’re closing. Tomorrow afternoon!” Over the speakers, 106.7 Light FM is playing Christmas carols. Sinatra sings “Walking in a Winter Wonderland.” A couple of old guys, the last of the diehard regulars, are talking about hunting. “I still got the two rifles,” says one. “They haven’t been fired in 40 years, but I still got ‘em. And the thing is, I never shot nuttin’. I tried shootin’ deer, but I couldn’t. They looked too nice.”

A hale and hearty fellow bursts into the shop, announcing himself as Murray the Syrup Man. For years he’s kept DeRobertis stocked with Torani flavors—almond, vanilla, hazelnut. He bellows, “I gotta give the whole family a hug goodbye! God almighty!” They hug him, one by one, and then out he goes, saying, “Good luck to your family. You’ve been a great tribute to New York City. I’m not kiddin’ ‘bout that.”

One of the old guys says to his pals, “Everybody’s talking about what’s happening to New York. They all got the same feeling that the city has changed. And not for the better.”

The baker comes up from the basement with trays in his hands. Up comes the last batch of black-and-white cookies. “No mas!” says the baker. Up comes the last batch of sfogliatelle. “Finito!” says the baker. Up comes the last batch of pignoli cookies. “Last one!” he says, waving his hands like an umpire calling safe. A lone European tourist asks how many pignoli cookies in a batch. John the junior tells her, “One-thousand three-hundred and fifty-six,” with a grin that says he’s pulling her leg. She marvels at the large number, repeating it softly to herself as she exits, “One-thousand three-hundred and fifty-six. One-thousand three-hundred and fifty-six,” committing it to heart.

Above the cash register, along the Wall of Fame, the faces of Robert DeNiro and Martin Scorsese look on. Mike Tyson makes a fist. In the flesh, actor Michael Badalucco, who played David Berkowitz in Summer of Sam and about a million gangster types for TV and movies, walks in and calls out, “I want the last pignoli cookie!” He and the senior John talk about where you can still get real Sicilian food in the city. “Joe of Avenue U,” Badalucco says. “The best. That’s my place. The best, the best! Listen to me. You take the F train, and stay on the back of the train, all the way to Avenue U. They cook with spleen! Everything fresh. Forget it.”

I ask John how the new Starbucks on Thirteenth Street affected his business. He tells me, “One night, there was just one person in here. I left work and I was walking past that Starbucks. I looked inside. The place was packed. And I thought, well, this is what people want now.” He shakes his head. “What can you do? Starbucks took a bite out of us.”

A bite here, a bite there, and soon the entire city is devoured. Death by a thousand bites.

Gem Spa (to Citibank?)


You may have heard that the great and beloved Gem Spa on St. Mark's Place and Second Avenue is closing. Concerned about the fate of this landmark shop, I went in and spoke to Parul Patel, the owner's daughter. She assured me there is no plan to close any time soon. However, the shop is struggling.

Recently, the rent went up. Then Gem lost their license to sell cigarettes and lottery tickets due to a former employee's negligence. As Patel explained, those sales are critical. People who come to buy those items also buy newspapers and magazines, which are expensive for the shop to carry. 

At the same time, the landlord told Gem to clean up the historically and happily jumbled front exterior of the store--so away went the newspaper racks and Zoltar the fortune teller. Gone, too, are the magazines, at least for now. Once Gem gets their cigarette and lottery license back, the papers and magazines may return. But that is another four months away.

Patel urges locals, "Instead of buying your coffee at Starbucks, buy it here. It's cheaper and tastes really good." They've also started selling Juul and other vape products, along with candy bars, sodas, and lots of hats.

And egg creams, of course. Excellent egg creams that you can get with a pretzel rod. 

What might happen if Gem Spa vanishes? For one, like many East Villagers, I will be very unhappy. Back in 2013 I had a nightmare that Gem was put out of business by 7-Eleven. They survived and the 7-Eleven vanished instead.

Today, rumor has it that Citibank is interested in taking their space. As one customer said to that, "We don't need another bank. We have enough banks."

Ted Berrigan, 1972

The loss of Gem Spa would be a tragedy that the neighborhood would not tolerate. Any new business would be shunned. When The Stage Restaurant was forced to close across the avenue, a local used spray paint to call for a boycott of whatever business moved in. When one did, the neighborhood rejected it. For several months it sat empty of customers and eventually folded. The space remains empty.

Gem Spa has been here for a long time (though not "since the start of Manhattan"). Since 1957, it's been famously loved by punks, poets, and countless East Villagers. The Patel family has run the place for 35 years. They have good relationships with their customers and three years left on their lease. Help keep them in business. Go to Gem Spa--get an egg cream, a candy bar, a couple of pretzel sticks.

Like Patel said, "Every dollar counts."

Want to save what's left of New York? Put your money where your mouth is. Don't let the history of Gem Spa stop here.

New York Times, 1969

New York Dolls, 1973

photo by Roy Colmer, 1976

photo by Michael Sean Edwards, 1979

photo by Hank O'Neal, 1980s

Monday, June 10, 2019

Three Lives on the Sidewalk

The great and glorious Three Lives & Company bookstore in Greenwich Village has been buried behind scaffolding for weeks. They've had to close--since Memorial Day weekend--for some structural work on the building.

The work has been completed, but the shop remains shuttered as they wait for the Department of Buildings to release the building and give the bookstore the go-ahead to reopen.

This is rough news for any small business, where every sale counts. So, until the DOB says the word, the Three Lives crew is taking their books to the sidewalk.

They write: "we are excited to announce the opening of the Three Lives Sidewalk Shop! Since we cannot invite you into the shop at the moment, we are taking the shop out onto the corner of West 10th and Waverly. From 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (noon to 5 p.m. on Sunday), we will be selling a selection of the latest titles, shop bestsellers, and staff favorites. If we do not have what you are looking for, we are taking special orders as usual. Please stop by and talk books with us."

You may recall that Three Lives had a near-death experience back in 2016 when their building was sold. To my (and many others') great relief, the bookstore got another lease on life. Now I'm worried again.

Keep Three Lives alive and thriving. Go by their sidewalk sale and buy something. You can also contact them by email and place a special order. Books typically arrive within a day or two and you can pick them up on the sidewalk outside the shop.


Why bear the horrible shame and guilt of buying books from Amazon when you can enjoy the good feelings of being a virtuous human who supports a beloved local spot?

Monday, June 3, 2019

White Horse "Elevated"

When I first broke the news that the White Horse Tavern would be taken over by Eytan Sugarman, restaurateur to hedgefunders, I predicted that "we'll see a high-end re-do, like the ones that destroyed and/or exclusified Bill's Gay 90s, Minetta Tavern, Rocco's, Fedora, and so many other beloved--and once democratic--classic spots."

Sugarman went before the Community Board 2 State Liquor Authority Committee and, addressing New Yorkers' concerns, promised not to change the spirit of the historic bar. “I have every intention of keeping this amazing institution the way it is,” he said. “I have no intention of making any dramatic changes.” But he also said he would raise prices and make "a little bit of a better burger."

Now the Post reveals what the new White Horse will be when it reopens this week after a renovation. “We are keeping prices accessible," Sugarman told the paper, "but the dishes will be elevated... We are going to turn it into a first-class gastro pub."

New York Post

That sounds like an oxymoron. Somehow "accessible" means grilled lobster and fries “with ramp butter and aioli” for $32, and Arctic char “with whipped potatoes & bone marrow” for $29. There will also be that "better burger" for $16, a pretty standard price for much of Manhattan, and mugs of beer will remain at $8. Other prices will rise. Croman is the new landlord, after all. The chef is Ed Szymanski "who made his name at Beatrice Inn."

The Beatrice was one of the first places that fell victim to the fauxstalgia trend--the one that, according to the Times, has turned the Village into "a theme park of the past, as these restored standards offer a vision of a lost bohemian New York— albeit with a well-heeled clientele and prices to match." When the Beatrice was first taken over by Paul Sevigny, he said there would be a mix of old and new, high and low -- Monday nights would be for the old regulars, featuring red-sauce specials and Scrabble, while Saturday nights would go upscale. "The whole idea behind the bar-restaurant," he told Grub Street in 2006, "is bringing things back to NYC, like American and New York things." A mix of high and low doesn't sound like the worst thing, but the plan didn't stick and the Beatrice was, in a word coined by David Kamp, Vongerichtified.

The Beatrice changed hands over the years, ever elevating. Szymanski came later. The Post says he's bringing history to the historic White Horse, "researching pub fare from the 1920s and 1930s for inspiration." There will be a Waldorf salad.

As for the interior, "Sugarman says he is keeping the tavern’s interior mostly the same despite plans to bring contemporary artist Roy Nachum, known for creating the cover art for Rihanna’s 'Anti' album, into the mix this fall."

Let's hope this is not a slippery slope, ever elevating over time.