The Last Chapter of bookbook: A Greenwich Village Institution Closes

Endangered Spaces

After 35 years on Bleecker Street, the store will close by the end of this month. But the owners will still ply their wares at a nearby farmer’s market — and at a pickle stand.

It is more than just a bookstore for JoAnna Beckson.

Bookbook, which opened as Biography Bookshop on Bleecker Street in 1984, is a relic of the Greenwich Village that charmed Ms. Beckson when she had first moved to the city decades ago.

“It’s a special place,” said Ms. Beckson, who teaches acting and directing at New York University. “People come here to socialize, to get neighborhood news. It’s like a landmark.”

Carolyn Epstein and Chuck Mullen originally opened Biography Bookshop at the corner of Bleecker and West 11th Street. At the time, there were more independent bookstores in the area and they needed a niche, Ms. Epstein said.

When that stretch of Bleecker was taken over by luxury stores about 10 years ago, the store moved east, between Cornelia and Jones Street. (The old location became a Marc Jacobs shop called Bookmarc.) Having expanded their selections beyond biographies by this time, Ms. Epstein and Mr. Mullen decided to change the name of the shop as well.

Now, after 35 years, they have decided to close. Their lease is up and with operating costs rising, they would have needed a reduction in rent to continue. But more important, after years of working seven days a week with a skeletal staff, they are simply ready to retire.

“We’re done!” Ms. Epstein said, laughing as she rang up customers on a busy Saturday.

Well, not quite.

They will still sell books and greeting cards at the nearby Abingdon Square Farmer’s Market, and occasionally at a pickle stand on Carmine Street.

Ms. Epstein, who is 70, has a long list of trips planned: to Spain, California, the Grand Canyon. There are apartment renovations and long-neglected chores to do. She’d like to take up Tai chi.

“We live in Manhattan, so it’s not like there’s nothing to do,” Ms. Epstein said.

The couple met, fittingly, while they were both working at Ms. Epstein’s father’s wholesale book company, also in the Village. Mr. Mullen’s mother had also owned a bookstore, in Stony Brook, N.Y.

Mr. Mullen, 68, said they have always tried to foster an unpretentious environment, equally open to discussing popular fiction or the classics. “We just try to be people-friendly,” he said.

The vibe extends to employees, too. When Arman Safa lost his job after the Barnes & Noble at Sixth Avenue and West 8th Street closed in late 2012, a customer suggested that he would be a better fit at bookbook.

“And it was true,” Mr. Safa said, as he flitted between restocking shelves and working the cash register. Bookbook even sells greeting cards designed by Mr. Safa, who has been an employee since 2013.

“I’ll miss the intellectual and the social engagement. I even saw Malia Obama here. She was at the cash register, buying a couple of plays. We talked about ‘The Price’ by Arthur Miller, which she had just seen with her father. She said it was a relief I hadn’t asked for a selfie.”

— JoAnna Beckson, a longtime customer

The closing is “very sad for the neighborhood and for people who like books,” said Mr. Safa, who added that he was happy for his bosses.

Nearby, customers browsed a table of popular titles, including works by Joan Didion, Jeff Chang, Roxane Gay and Haruki Murakami.

Ms. Epstein said one consistent seller was “The Power Broker,” Robert A. Caro’s epic biography of Robert Moses, whose plan to build a highway through the neighborhood was vehemently opposed by the writer and activist Jane Jacobs and other residents.

Also available is “Vanishing New York,” by Jeremiah Moss, who has been called “the Jane Jacobs of the digital age” for his writing on gentrification and displacement.

It’s not clear what will replace the bookstore after it closes at the end of the month. Ms. Beckson worries that it will become another empty storefront on Bleecker. “It’s starting to look like a blighted neighborhood,” she said.

Elana Caplan, who works in advertising, stopped by with her wife, Amber Brandes, a psychologist.

Ms. Caplan had lived nearby as a young investment banker more than a decade ago, working long, frenzied hours. Her weekend visits to bookbook were a welcome respite. There was “something magical” about browsing the shelves and finding a deal, she said.

She brought Dr. Brandes to the shop after they started dating. They were back the other day, loading up on gifts for relatives and their eight-month-old son.

“We got him some New York books, and some classics, so we would remember bookbook,” Ms. Caplan said.

Illustrations by Julia Wertz.


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