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

In Europe by Rachel Aydt

• 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?

About the Author

Rachel Aydt

Rachel Aydt is a full-time writer, editor and researcher in New York City. She worked on the staff at American Heritage Magazine, YM, Cosmopolitan and CosmoGirl. Rachel has also contributed to Time International and Inked magazines. Since 2001, she has taught writing classes at the New School University.