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OpinionColumnistsMike Vogel

For local book stores, it’s back to the future

In a highly impersonal online world, there remains a longing for the human touch.

Interior of BookBook in Greenwich Village is an

Interior of BookBook in Greenwich Village is an independent bookstore that features recent and backlist fiction, history, drama, and art and fashion, among other subjects. Photo Credit: Charles Eckert

If you wait long enough, everything comes back in style. Bell-bottom jeans. Fanny packs. Independent book stores.

Neighborhood pharmacies and card shops have been swallowed up by the mass chains of the world, and independent bookstores followed the same death spiral. Then an amazing thing happened. As national book chains struggled, independent book stores began rising from the dead.

What accounts for this resurrection? I visited some local book stores for clues.

The Barnes & Noble on Broadway and 82nd Street offers a little bit of everything: coffee, cake, greeting cards, gifts, toys, and yes, even some books. But something was amiss, and I may have discovered the core problem while searching for a copy of Sports Illustrated.

Entering the magazine aisle, the first thing that caught my eye was an abundance of publications devoted to guns, including Ballistic, AR-15, Guns & Ammo and Handloader. I opened one at random, to an article titled “Elk Stopper!”

“The thousands of titles we sell are based on local customer interest,” Barnes & Noble’s senior vice president Mary Ellen Keating told me. Has the liberal Upper West Side suddenly turned into a nest of gun-crazed hunters?

Meanwhile, at Book Culture a few blocks away on Columbus Avenue, there are no weapons magazines — but you can register to vote, in both English and Spanish.

“With the Amazon shopping online explosion, people are starting to miss the community experience,” says Maeve Nolan, manager of this Book Culture store (there are four). “Everything in this store is staff selected, not by a corporate structure, and reflects what the neighborhood actually wants.”

Shakespeare and Company, a neighborhood fixture until it went out of business in 1996, has re-emerged, opening two new stores this year in Manhattan. Meanwhile, indie bookstores are springing up all over the city, including The Lit Bar in the Bronx and Books Are Magic in Brooklyn.

I asked Book Culture customer Gary Ardan, a registrar at Columbia University, why he shops there instead of a larger chain with more selection. “It doesn’t feel like I’m in a mall,” says Ardan. “Service is more personal — they know me.”

In a growingly impersonal online world, there remains a longing for the human touch. Maybe you could find a book on it.

Playwright Mike Vogel blogs at newyorkgritty.net.

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