New Chapter for Indie Bookstores as Megachains Close Up Shop

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Borders, the No. 2 bookstore chain in the U.S., filed for bankruptcy and announced plans to close almost a dozen stores in our area. Its rival, Barnes & Noble, has also struggled, shuttering three of its Manhattan locations in the past three years.

Not long ago, it seemed as if these megastores would keep expanding, driving out small, independent bookshops. But as it turns out, there are still plenty of indies around to appreciate the irony of the shrinking of the chains.

Eighteen years ago, the New York intellectual's favorite bookstore was in the fight of its life. Shakespeare and Company had the perfect location: Broadway and 81st Street. It had the perfect milieu - Toni Morrison, Al Gore and Art Spiegelman all drew huge crowds to the store.

And the competition saw the perfect opening: a 32,000-square-foot space one block to the north. Barnes & Noble's superstore opened at that location in April 1993.

“People were upset,” said head book buyer for Shakespeare & Company Linda Marotta. “Everybody in the book business -- or independent stores anyway -- was very upset.”

As soon as Barnes & Noble moved in, Shakespeare and Company’s sales dropped off. Still, the store hung on another three years until another even bigger Barnes & Noble opened 14 blocks to the south.

“So we were surrounded, basically,” Marotta said.

The store’s closing inspired Nora Ephron to write and direct a romantic comedy, “You’ve Got Mail.” The ending was the same -- Meg Ryan’s character loses her bookstore -- but with a twist straight out of Hollywood: she finds love with a guy from the chain that drove her out of business, played by Tom Hanks.

“It was completely depressing,” said Marotta.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the pulping mill. Indie bookstores came back. New York Magazine recently counted more than a dozen new shops all around town.

McNally Jackson was founded in Soho in 2004. Proprietor Sarah McNally said revenues rose seven percent last year. At a recent conference for indies in Washington D.C., her peers told her they too are thriving.

“We can’t figure out why that is, McNally said. “Whether it’s because the chains are feeling sad and tired and on the verge of collapse, or whether it’s people want to return to shopping local.”

Either way, if, say, Nora Ephron wanted to remember what the old Shakespeare and Company was like, she could come to a reading at McNally’s store, and enjoy a similar intellectual ambience.

In the meantime, Shakespeare and Company has reinvented itself as an academic bookstore with locations near Baruch College and NYU. And Linda Marotta is still head buyer there.

“I guess I’m surprised – I’m pleasantly surprised – and very proud that we still exist,” she said.

In the next few weeks, Borders will close stores on Park Avenue, Second Avenue, and Broadway. No doubt, some patrons will migrate back to the independents. Linda Marotta said it's still a sad occasion.

“You know I kind of like Borders," she said.

Check out all of the Borders closing in the tri-state area

View Borders bookstore closings in a larger map