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On Not Changing With the Times: How Manhattan’s Three Lives & Co. Bookstore Endures

• Three Lives & Co. Booksellers in New York City has managed to survive increasing economic pressure that has forced the closing of numerous other bookstores. Three Lives’ longevity is the result of staying very much the same as when it first opened in 1968.

• Owner Toby Cox — formerly of the marketing department of Broadway Books — likes to keep signage and salesmanship to a minimum. “The store exists for the reader, not for the publisher or the marketer.”

By Rachel Aydt

NEW YORK: Three Lives & Company Booksellers, located in the West Village of Manhattan, sits perched on its corner of West 10th Street like a dependable dear friend who’s always on time, smiling, and happy to meet you. In many ways, the friend remains the same after all these years. The ubiquitous red brick in the Village frames the corner windows, which are stuffed with handsome titles that face the street. For many regulars, it’s hard not to put a full-cover price dent in their wallet every time they pass by. How is it that when other bookshops in the neighborhood are shutting their doors or moving to spots with more favorable leases, Three Lives keeps standing firm? While many businesses are rushing to change with the times, Three Lives’ success rests in staying very much the same as it did when it first opened its doors in 1968.

“See this little sign here? You’ll never see anything bigger than that here.” Toby Cox, the owner of the shop for the last nine years, points to a small standing poster about 2½ by 2 feet tall, celebrating the 75th anniversary of Penguin Books, sitting atop a table full of Penguin Classics. Ironically, Cox worked for three years in the marketing department of Broadway Books before walking away to take over the store. “You know, I’d never considered book selling as a career. In marketing you’re so focused on getting books to booksellers, not to readers, and I was certain I didn’t want to go any further with that.”

Cox bought the store nine years ago from the original founders when they decided to retire. He was a long-time FOS (friend of the store) and when they came ready to pack it in, they thought of him. He had had a stint selling books in Providence, Rhode Island at the Brown University Bookstore before moving to New York, and after his droll and unsatisfying turn in marketing, he took the leap.

“When I first took over the store… I had a table out with my favorites so people could see that I did — now it’s full of staff favorites.”

When you ask Cox if there is anything new going on to speak of — say, new initiatives, business plans, collaborations with publishers — he sort of wrinkles up his nose and offers up a decided: “No. I guess the new thing that I’m trying to do is to do nothing new at all. When I first moved here 12 years ago, I used to come into this store about once a month. I loved it, and made friends with the owners. They used to tease me because I’d always come in and start straightening out the books on the tables… ‘Once a bookseller, always a bookseller,’ they’d tease.”

Cox excuses himself to pick up the phone. In the store today are just himself and his staffer Amanda, a 6-year veteran and relative newbie among his four person staff, the longest clocking in at over 13 years. She’d been helping a lingering and indecisive customer about what to pick up for her summer reading. “Is this like The Secret History?” she asked, holding up Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. “Well, it’s really quite different,” said Amanda, diplomatically, “but maybe you might like this.” She ducks behind the counter and emerges with a couple of other choices. They talk back and forth.

Visually, the shop’s exposed brick interior is heaven for any book jacket junkie. The walls are packed with floor-to-ceiling shelves, and floor space is dominated by browser-friendly display tables. In the front of the store, books are generally arranged face-out, offering up a cacophony of color and subject matter. “Generally, when books face out, it’s just a pleasurable way to browse,” offers Amanda. Toward the rear of the store is a wall of travel guides and a massive wall of fiction. Small sections hone in on books about New York; another houses literature by Americans in Paris.

Another gentleman comes in looking for a journal; they have it, he’s happy and on his way. “More and more booksellers are moving away from the notion of community,” Cox considers. “It’s more and more fractured. I want to be a place of retreat… The store exists for the reader, not for the publisher or the marketer.”

DISCUSS: How Should Bookstores Cope with the Ebook Era?

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13 Comments

  1. Posted September 1, 2010 at 3:22 am | Permalink

    Definitely the RIGHT way to go, in my opinion. I’m what you might call a good, regular reader, both fiction and non fiction and I love my Kindle and e-books BUT there’s always a place for books (and magazines and newspapers!) made of PAPER and consequently for OLD-FASHIONED LIBRARIES – libraries that know what they are, who they are and how to make readers feel welcome…That kind of library will NEVER disappear, it fulfills a function in the community! But it seems big chain store libraries haven’t caught on to that yet. I read somewhere that there’s one putting up a section of…toys for kids, make-a-bear or something like that. Unbelievable, and quite unnecessary. A library shouldn’t double us as a nursery!!

  2. Tim Middleton
    Posted September 1, 2010 at 6:25 am | Permalink

    Not a completely accurate assessment considering they do have a website and they do want your email. I agree that serving the reader is the key but so many bookstores do this it is an insult to say they don’t.

  3. Posted September 1, 2010 at 10:12 am | Permalink

    What a lovely article. I wonder, though, what happens when the building owner (unless it’s Toby) suddenly quadruples the rent?

  4. Posted September 1, 2010 at 11:30 am | Permalink

    Like Ms. Robinson, I couldn’t help noting that after talking about other stores’ having to find new digs because of rent increases, no mention was made regarding the ownership status of Three Lives & Co.’s location. Since the author of the article brought the point up, it seems like it should have been addressed.

    I confess I also felt a jolt when I read of the staff person “diplomatically” suggesting alternative titles. This, too, may have resulted from insufficient information. Was the person who asked about the Ishiguro a regular customer whose tastes are well-known to the staff? If not, was the customer’s simply asking if the book was similar to THE SECRET HISTORY sufficient justification for the staff person to automatically assume she wouldn’t like it?

    Okay, maybe I’m nitpicking, but there has been considerable discussion on the ‘net about how many independent bookstores may be faltering not because of competition or the economy but rather because they are in the habit of stocking what the owners and/or staff like to read instead of what their prospective customers want. Based on the article, one has to assume that the store knows its customer base well and stocks accordingly rather than having that established.

  5. Deb
    Posted September 1, 2010 at 7:36 pm | Permalink

    Go Toby! I love the fact the independent community bookstore has survived. I am sure the it’s combination of Toby’s personality (speaking from bookstore co-worker experience, albeit 25 years ago) and location location location this store has been able to stay in business. Just wishing every community could have an indie bookstore…I’m all set with B& N, amazon, kindle….

  6. Posted September 1, 2010 at 8:53 pm | Permalink

    Three Lives has been at the forefront of bookselling community for over 25 years.
    Their interest and enthusiasm for the written word has inspired many readers lucky enough to cross paths with the shop, which is a welcoming place, feeling more like a local village shop, than an urban one..
    Never rolling in dough Three Lives has survived by priding itself on “not having everything” but “everything they do have being interesting and worthy of attention. Over the years they have spotlighted authors and books that became quite important to a generation of readers.
    It is a sanctuary.
    A gathering place,a meeting place, a place that people come to when something “big” happens in the world, a neighbor and a friend. In that way, this is a place that is no way comparable to reading a title on a kindle.

  7. Chris Bram
    Posted September 1, 2010 at 11:11 pm | Permalink

    An excellent article about an excellent store. I’ve been going to Three Lives ever since it first opened (which I think was in 1978, not 1968). It is a great good place of smart books and even smarter conversation. We are lucky to have the store in our neighborhood. Thank you.

  8. Chris W
    Posted September 2, 2010 at 9:33 am | Permalink

    Nice to see Three Lives getting its due. A great store and one of my favourites in all the world. You really could go in blindfolded, have them spin you around and pick the first book you touch. Odds are it would be wonderful. They know what they can do and do well–and stick with it.

  9. Posted September 2, 2010 at 11:19 am | Permalink

    Finally, Three Lives gets its due. They once received an award for being an island of civility – and it is.
    Michael Cunningham citing them in The Hours says he goes there whenever he needs to remind himself why he writes novels..The place is one of a kind, the books, the shop, the clerks, the owner, the customers…..

  10. Posted September 4, 2010 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

    I love Three Lives and visit, without fail, everytime I’m in New York. But let us and everyone who cares about Independent Bookstores not delude ourselves with fairy tales that the secret to survival is warmed-over bromides like “serving the reader” and “being a haven.” Because as many of the wise commenters on this thread have already pointed out, those nice sentiments mean nothing when the landlord triples the rent, a pipe bursts and destroys a month worth of inventory or Mr. Toby gets a sudden illness (an unfortunate event nearly closed Grolier’s Poetry Bookstore in Cambridge in short order).

    I’m aware none of these can be predicted but the hardnosed practician in me says the great bookstores that will survive are the ones that are scrappy, resourceful, and ruthlessly committed to their future. “Not changing” sounds like a strategy that feels better than it works. Which just means I’d love to know what other hardnosed practical things Mr. Toby has done to assure his shop’s longevity.

  11. Alexander Inglis
    Posted September 4, 2010 at 4:58 pm | Permalink

    I certainly applaud Three Lives tenacity to stay in business, independent, and continuing to have a large enough customer base to prosper. I can think of a very small handful of Toronto independent booksellers that are left who probably share the same spirit.

    But the industry — and much more important, consumer needs — are changing. The realities of rents for bookshops where the customers are have been rising faster than bookshops can afford. Staff are not free; finding the right personalities, with depth of experience and willing to work for retail wages is much more difficult for bookshops than ever. And consumers — who may love the bookshop dedicated to eclectic tastes, or mysteries, or the arts — have so many others choices, including demands on both their time and pocketbook, that books simply matter less than they once did.

    And there hangs the tale, and the essence of why bookshops — as many of us (loved and) knew them in decades past — will simply not survive except in the rarest of neighbourhoods. Consumers — and I stress not readers, since reading continues to be extremely popular — have moved on, buying their books in new (and sometimes none physical) venues.

  12. Garth Bishop
    Posted September 7, 2010 at 4:19 pm | Permalink

    Every town needs a Three Lives down home type bookstore—or two or three. I’m in Los Angeles and we’ve lost any semblance of same—all the wonderful browsing bookstore have gone away. Some may remember Upstart Crow in San Francisco, and Fowlers and Duttons here in L.A. Recently long standing Acres of (used) Books in Long Beach was shuttered after some 40 or more years. Redevelopment was more important. So what’s to do?

  13. Posted September 8, 2010 at 11:06 am | Permalink

    Garth,

    I have family that lives walking distance from the former Dutton’s in L.A. location in Brentwood and loved the shop but never shopped there. Why? Because to a working family with 2 young children, Dutton was a remarkably unfriendly customer experience. Shelves were divided amongst different rooms across the building courtyard with little signage saying which room was which. There was no room anywhere for a stroller if you entered the shop as a parent or caretaker. Dutton’s also had ample parking behind the store in their own lot (a huge selling point on a busy thoroughfare like San Vincente Blvd.) which nobody seemed to know about as much of the press coverage surrounding Dutton’s closing cited “lack of parking” as a reason customers didn’t shop there. If you had parking in a busy part of town, wouldn’t you advertise that fact with a big neon sign?

    Little of this matters of course when the building is purchased for redevelopment and there’s no convincing the owner to keep the bookstore. But I can’t help thinking that better focus on customer experience and market research might have helped Dutton’s to some degree.

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