Sarah Goodyear is a Brooklyn-based contributing writer to CityLab. She's written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog.
A fight to keep a Barnes & Noble alive in the Bronx points to the necessity of real bookstores—and to the struggle for the borough to get one in the first place.
You’ve heard of food deserts. What about book deserts?
The Bronx is home to 1.4 million people, nearly as many as the city of Phoenix. But for a few days there, it looked like it was going to lose its only general-interest bookstore, a Barnes & Noble in an outdoor mall.
The store's management announced the store would be closing its doors at the end of December because of a rent dispute with its landlord. A Barnes & Noble executive told local blog Welcome2theBronx, “The property owner informed us that they had other users who were willing to pay in excess of what Barnes & Noble was paying for the leased space.”
The news caused dismay and outrage among local residents. Two of them, Amelia Zaino and Jessica Cruz, started a petition on Change.org that in three days gathered more than 2,000 signatures. “In a borough with nearly a dozen institutions of higher education and almost 20 percent of its residents now possessing a bachelor's degree, the lack of accessibility to quality literature, in addition to art and hobby supplies, is truly alarming,” their petition said. “The Bronx is already the poorest county in the country. We must not let it become the stupidest.” They call for landlord Prestige Properties to “arrange a fair leasing deal for the bookstore.”
That activism, and some behind-the-scenes negotiations with elected officials, produced a quick result. On Thursday, just days after word of the closure got out, Barnes & Noble's David Deason announced that his company had reached a two-year deal with the landlord: "Barnes & Noble is extremely excited to announce that we have reached an agreement with Prestige Properties to extend our lease. We deeply appreciate the help of Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., in helping to coordinate our discussions with Prestige. We look forward to continuing to serve the Bronx community."
The Bronx can be a tough place for book lovers. Public libraries have endured harsh budget cuts and reduced hours in recent years, making the role of a big store like Barnes & Noble even more important.
True, there are a few other places in this northernmost part of New York City where you can exchange money for bound volumes of paper covered with words—including a handful of Christian and Spanish outlets and a couple of college bookstores. Those have their place, but they don’t provide anything like the same kind of service as a general-interest bookstore, whether it’s a chain or an independent. Think of them as corner bodegas compared to a supermarket.
The Bronx Barnes & Noble, located near the Co-op City housing development, was the product of an earlier battle, in the 1990s, when the Bronx was still on shaky ground after decades of neglect, arson, and disinvestment. According to the New York Times, Stephen B. Kaufman, then a state assemblyman, mounted a three-year campaign to get the chain to open an outlet in his home borough. He called it “Barnes & Ignoble” for its decision to expand a store in the neighboring city of Yonkers, in Westchester County, rather than set up shop in the Bronx.
Kaufman and his allies eventually won their fight, and the first and so far only Bronx Barnes & Noble opened its doors at the Bay Plaza shopping center in 1999. "I think this proves the Bronx has arrived, where this major bookstore chain feels there's a market for knowledge,” he told the Times then. “I feel they're going to be pleasantly surprised by how well that bookstore will do."
While the company hasn’t released sales figures for that location, the store has been very popular among the borough’s residents, who have welcomed the chance to shop for books without traveling to Westchester or Manhattan.
In the 15 years since the store opened, a lot has changed—in New York in general, in the Bronx in particular, and of course in the publishing industry. Barnes & Noble itself, while it was welcomed in the Bronx, was for many years denigrated by book lovers because it was a powerful behemoth that threatened independent bookstores and drove many of them out of business. Now it is in deep financial trouble, closing stores all over the country, and the loss of those stores is keenly felt by people who value real physical space in which they can browse through books in the company of other human beings. Amazon just doesn't compare.
The Bronx is a place of remarkable breadth and history. It includes within its borders affluent neighborhoods such as Riverdale, as well as one of the poorest Congressional districts in the country. It has a world-class botanical garden and zoo. It contains Yankee Stadium, the Italian-American food mecca of Arthur Avenue, and a thriving African restaurant scene, among many other attractions. Perhaps most important in a city struggling with rising rents and gentrifications, some of the most affordable housing that remains in the city can be found in the Bronx.
In recent years, the Bronx has seen renewed investment and economic activity. Real-estate developments are booming. Right across the road from the Bay Plaza shopping center where the Barnes & Noble is located, a new indoor mall just opened, one of several to spring up in recent years. It does not include a bookstore.
To those who protested the closure of Barnes & Noble, the struggle was emblematic of the way that the “New Bronx” touted by elected officials and developers continues to marginalize long-time residents of the borough.
A passionate post on Welcome2the Bronx, titled “Don't Believe the Hype: The New Bronx Doesn’t Exist,” described the problem with the idea of the "New Bronx" this way:
The New Bronx’ mantra is very insulting to the Bronx for many reasons but primarily because it is a campaign to whitewash our borough and scrub it clean from the grit that made it what it is today. …
There is no New Bronx as the powers that be would like you to believe but what we have is The Bronx and its people, the working class poor and middle class striving to make their dreams come true along with those of affluent means as well.
It may seem strange that Barnes & Noble, once a symbol of corporate greed, has become a rallying point for those fighting to preserve community space in the Bronx. But it isn’t, really. The store has provided the precious “third space” that urban dwellers need to stay sane—not home, not work, but a place to go and socialize and exchange ideas with other people. A place where books live.
The proud residents of the Bronx have fought hard to get to where they are today. They fought hard to get a Barnes & Noble to begin with. Now they've won the latest battle. The Bronx will not become a book desert.