I suppose most people don’t get sentimental about Barnes & Noble. In New York City back in the ‘90s, the superstores were denounced, decried and in some cases picketed for putting small, quaint local booksellers out of business.
But in the decade I’ve lived in NYC, the vast Barnes & Noble near Lincoln Center, commanding the corner of Broadway and 66th Street, has been an integral part of the Upper West Side. It also provided 200 jobs.
That is, until yesterday at 8 p.m., when the store closed its doors for good, leaving a huge void at Lincoln Triangle.
Physically, the massive store had unexpected charms—little corners and crannies where patrons browsed and in some cases sprawled out—including a colorful cast of regulars, like the burly, bearded fellow who camped out on the third floor—near the sports section but usually reading physics or math books. Or the smiling Latino in flip-flops posted on the invisible border between biography and self-help.
For anyone who loves books, the seemingly endless stacks enveloped you in a warm embrace. But this B&N was far more than a bookstore—due in large part to its proximity to Lincoln Center, it was a cultural mecca, with a third-floor event space where Broadway and cabaret singers and jazz musicians performed on Wednesdays, and on any given night an author might appear, be it a Joyce Carol Oates, or a Hollywood celebrity—Ernest Borgnine was particular delight—or the latest pop-shrink, holistic doc, or chick-lit sensation.
But for me and my wife Susan, the great personal loss will be the huge, airy fourth-floor cafe adjoining the magazine racks—light streaming through its ceiling high windows, trademark authors mural gazing down as we noshed our scones and drank our coffees, teas and lattes. We met there after work and often went there together on weekends. On election night 2008, when I was too nervous to watch the returns—polls, schmolls, I just couldn’t believe this country could elect an African-American president—we sat there until Ron, the manager, called out to us, “Obama won Ohio.” Then we knew it was safe to go home, turn on MSNBC, and enjoy several of the happiest hours of our lives.
To us regulars the cafe was a kind of Cheers for nondrinkers. We bonded with the young staff, many of whom memorized our phone number (inserted in lieu of our member card)—Ron and Marvin and Greg and Alex and T’Keyah and Sasha and Laura and Andrew and Evan and Jennea and Cindy—and Christina, who met and fell in love with fellow barista Sean—who is also a specialist in the Army Reserve. Now they’re engaged. Christina is expecting their baby in April. And next fall, Sean deploys to Afghanistan.
The cafe—until recently open till midnight every day—was a free wi-fi paradise for laptop and netbook users. And it was a haven for single people, divorced, widowed or simply unattached, many of them middle aged and older, who came there just because they didn’t want to stay home and stare at the four walls.
There was 79-year-old Monroe, in his omnipresent fishing vest (dotted with lefty political buttons), a retired graphic artist and local radio legend—for the past half-century he has been the most prolific caller-in to WBAI. There was Alan, the painter and Judith, the white-haired, angelic former actress, and Tom Signorelli, a character actor of stage and film who sadly passed away last summer in his 70s—just before the store’s closing was first announced. And an eccentric old guy with Einstein hair and a thick, unidentifiable accent, who resembled a Vaudeville clown—often garbed in a jacket, tie, vest and loud red pants
Then there’s the bearded little man my wife and I dubbed The Water Thief—so named because we’ve seen him steal bottled water at B&Ns and Starbucks all over town. His M.O. is to come in, actually buy a coffee, sit and read the New York Times, then, when it’s time to leave, scurry up to the fridge section, stuff a small Fiji or Poland Spring into his apparently bottomless pocket, and scurry out. TWT picks his spots perfectly—he never gets caught.
‘Where you gonna go—82nd?’ we regulars ask each other.
That would be the store that occupies the former Schrafft’s, on Broadway between 82nd and 83rd. It’s smaller, though, and darker, and the cafe is about 1/3 the size of the 66th street store. There’s an impressive new B&N at 86th and Columbus. But it’s in a windowless basement. And we West Siders can’t get quite comfortable there.
At bottom, “our” B&N offered a sense of community, a place to connect, both with literature and fellow New Yorkers. I know that’s part of the problem: They were there to sell books, and between the recession and the decline of print, the store was losing money. We dropped a lot of $$$ there—aside from all the coffee, scones, muffins and bagels we actually did purchase quite a few books. But many folks did just hang out, and use the place as a library. I get that.
But it was our place. Now it’s going to be a Century 21.
Read Full Post »