Bookstore chain and Columbia mainstay Book Culture is in danger of shutting down, according to an open letter written by owner Chris Doeblin published in the West Side Rag earlier this week. This news comes despite the fact that Book Culture recently expanded in the past few years, now occupying two locations in Morningside Heights, one on Columbus, and one in Long Island City.
In his open letter, Doeblin asks for financial help from the New York City government, as well as for NYC residents to take a closer look at the morals that big companies like Amazon and Walmart put into our communities, rather than those that small businesses like Book Culture do. While being a locally-owned company, Doeblin reports that Book Culture produced about $650,000 in tax revenue that went directly back to the city government last year and that Book Culture provides about 75 jobs at peak season. Book Culture also pays their employees above minimum wage and pays about $700,000 in rent last year; these fair wages and rent go back into fueling the city’s economy.
Doeblin also addresses the impact that Book Culture has on the community’s culture. Book Culture employs those interested in the humanities, rather than the more mainstream tech jobs. Book Culture has also provided first jobs for young New Yorkers. Doeblin explains that Book Culture is integrated in the city’s community, while big sellers like Amazon and Walmart do not. Doeblin clarifies that he is not against internet commerce, but he is supportive of businesses that “serve our communities holistically.”
Doeblin cites that thinking of activist, author, and journalist Jane Jacobs, whose works are studied extensively by Professor Aaron Passell’s Introduction to Urban Studies class, in proving Book Culture’s importance to our community. Book Culture provides a storefront open to the street, in which there are employees that community members know and trust, where people can interact with one another face to face.
In order to stay afloat, Doeblin is asking our government officials for financial backing in order to remain an active part of the city’s community. Doeblin concludes his open letter with a call to action: “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 entire text of the open letter can be found here.
Updated on July 1, 2019 at 8:30 PM.
Bwog corresponded further with Chris Doeblin about Book Culture’s impact on the Columbia community, in light of the threat of the independent bookstore’s closure.
According to Doeblin, when Book Culture was founded in 1997, about sixty percent of their sales were course books at Columbia and ten percent of their sales were other books sold to students and faculty. By 2001, however, Book Culture already saw a decline in their sales due to Amazon. Book Culture attempted to expand in 2017 by opening locations on Broadway and Columbus. Today, Doeblin estimates that about twenty percent of Book Culture’s sales are made by Columbia affiliates.
Doeblin noted that all, not just the locations nearest campus, are in jeopardy of closing. He hopes that contributions from the government, as well as greater awareness about the financial jeopardy that Book Culture is in, will “keep the company operating its stores and making the contributions that we make.”
Book Culture is looking for ad-hoc assistance, and Doeblin said that his letter was also a call to action. “I want the citizens and government to align the values and legislation that will create the best america. We have too much complacency,” he said. “A great city, widespread diversity, equality of wealth creation and income equality are not going to be handed to us by Amazon and Walmart and Pepsi and Google. We need to plant a flag and rally.”
Doeblin also pointed out that Book Culture was actually founded to serve Columbia. With the rise of availability of information, Doeblin feels that Book Culture’s role at Columbia has changed but is still important.
“There are two parts to a great university aside from the training and teaching. One is the generative research outside of the humanities and that work reaches the public by deploying new science and medicine and so forth,” Doeblin said. “The other is the way we understand our world and the language we use to express that to each other. Much of that language originates at places like Columbia. More than anything else, books have brought that work out to the wider intellectual community, media, politicos and the public and only the greatest book shops next to the greatest universities aspired to offer that.”