Interview with a Bookstore: Book Culture
Where Loyal Customers Hit Robbers In The Face
Book Culture’s first location opened as Labyrinth Books in 1997, run by Chris Doeblin and his partner at the time, Cliff Simms. Chris began his career in the early 1980s with a brief stint selling books for Papyrus bookstore at 114th and Broadway, and then as the receiving clerk in the basement of the old Book Forum, which was located across from the main gate of Columbia on Broadway. In those days you could eat Chinese at Moon Palaceor and get egg creams and comic books at the Mill Luncheonette. People did not want to walk over to Columbus Ave, and nobody wanted to park on Riverside Drive. In the summers, the neighborhood was a ghost town, and bikers, “the Harley kind,” ruled the West End. When the Book Forum operation began to falter, Doeblin set out with his partner and founded Great Jones Books, a scholarly book wholesaler located in Yonkers. At the same time, beginning in 1995, a project was set upon to open an academic bookstore to serve the community. Jonathan Cole, Columbia’s Provost at the time, shared this vision and with his help, by 1997, Chris and Cliff had opened their doors as a bookstore in a Columbia-owned space on 112th Street, in a building built for the Post Office.
In the summer of 2007, Chris bought out Cliff and re-named the store Book Culture. In the fall of 2009 Book Culture opened a second shop on Broadway at 114th Street, a corner which has consistently housed an independent bookstore for over 50 years. In 2010, Annie Hedrick joined Chris as co-owner of the two stores. Book Culture opened its newest location on 82nd
What's your favorite section of the store?
Chris (Co-Owner): I like the whole new releases section, I still love browsing the new books.
Ryan (Manager): Probably literature. It’s by far our biggest section, wrapping pretty much all the way around our second floor. We do a great job of representing some of the authors who are tough to find at a smaller shop, often books in translation (Mahfouz has an entire shelf and a half to himself), and we also get a bunch of great used books in over the buy counter like old NDP paperbacks, Borzoi editions, that kind of thing. Our Marxist section though is a close runner up; it’s always fun to tell a customer that, no, Gramsci is not in our Political Philosophy section, here’s over here in these bays devoted just to Marxist thought.
Adam (Bookseller): Definitely literary criticism. I love reading books, but I also love reading books about books, and we do a great job finding all the best works in literary criticism to include in the section. We also get in a lot of interesting used books that I would never have found otherwise.
Anna (Manager): Picture books and comics!
Devon (Manager): All of our more specialized academic sections. Even if it’s not my personal area of interest, I really enjoy the fact if you’re interested in labor history, or linguistics, or international relations, there’s a section just for you.
Annie (Co-Owner): I’ve always loved the Children’s Room. A part of me is still really a little girl, so to be able to help create a store I would have loved to visit as a child is extremely satisfying.
If you had infinite space what would you add?
Chris: An outdoor space, with a cafe and garden, a place where we could have a glass of wine or beer, cafe food and talk life; a complete children’s space with toys and loads of learning and play space, windows and skylights—a couch for naps, a private office. I could go on…
Ryan: I would just enlarge every section so that we wouldn’t have to do the heartbreaking work of “purging” our older used books that haven’t been picked up. Also a rooftop garden.
Adam: I keep telling everybody we need to start an occult section. We have a back corner that’s used for storage, mostly, but it has a spooky vibe. We could put all the books on ghosts, demons, witches, etc. back there. And some of the best artists and writers (Andre Breton, W.B. Yeats, Jessa Crispin…) were/are interested in the occult, so it’s not completely outside our current focus.
Anna: I’d like a special story time section that you need to pass through a wardrobe to get to.
Annie: More display space. There are never enough tables and shelves to prominently display all the great books we stock. I always agonize about what to take off the table when new books arrive.
What do you do better than any other bookstore?
Chris: In one of our stores we do academic new books better than just about anywhere else. In another of our stores I think we have integrated book and non-book, lifestyle retail in a truly original and superlative way.
Ryan: I think hands down we’re the best place for academic books in the city. While you’ll find Marie Kondo and the standard issues on our lit table, our new release nonfiction tables have deep stacks of the newest books from University of Chicago, Princeton, Harvard, MIT, and so on. Same thing with our remainders section—for instance we just got in a huge order of lefty Verso books that are all like five bucks.
Adam: A professor once told me we were the last good bookstore in the city (her words, not mine). We provide a service that I think is really important for a vibrant intellectual community like that at Columbia and New York City as a whole. It’s not just a place you can buy books, but a place where you can find new ideas, and meet new thinkers (at events or not).
Anna: We are the best place for last minute gifts. People come en route to birthday parties because they know they can find something, get it wrapped, and leave.
Annie: We combine books with other items to an extent that you don’t often see. At the Columbus Avenue store, in particular, we’ve created a shop that is both serious bookstore and design boutique. You’ll find a large table stacked with books and a stylish lamp hanging above it. Around the corner with the cookbooks are Japanese rice bowls, Ethiopian tea towels, French teaspoons and locally made ceramics. A model plane points the way to the Children’s Room, which boasts a stuffed animal “house” and a wide selection of toys and games, in addition to a full range of books.
Who's your favorite regular?
Chris: Chris Grabenstein, the author, and his wife, JJ. They come in a lot, they are exceedingly generous and support the store in several ways.
Ryan: I wouldn’t say I have a favorite regular, but I do love helping the Columbia MFA students—they’re always reading great stuff.
Adam: Pretty much anyone who brings a dog into the store can keep coming. One time someone brought the cutest English bulldog into the store. I think the bulldog’s name was something like Lily. She only came once, so she’s not a regular in the store, but she’s a regular in my heart.
Anna: A man who comes in and asks for fun picture books for his son, he trusts my picks and asks for the books to be wrapped because his son likes ripping through the wrapping paper. I like that I can help him make his son happy with a few silly books and colored paper.
What’s the craziest situation you’ve ever had to deal with in the store?
Chris: I once came into the stationery side of our store and saw the guy behind the counter was covered with blood, all over his face, his head. He and the other guy were in shock but managed to explained that we had just been robbed and they had hit our guy in the face with the gun. The robber had just left and I took off after him. I saw him immediately and yelled, STOP STOP, but he managed to jump in a cab and make a u-turn. I ran down the middle of Broadway for a block and half and caught the cab at the light, pounding on the trunk, but he took off. Later we dealt with the hospital and the police.
Ryan: I once had a pretty overweight guy come in at night wearing just a gold vest and sweatpants. He was browsing the remainders and I had to tell him that he wasn’t appropriately dressed to be in the store. He was very offended and asked, “Do you know who I am?” I said that I didn’t, and he told me, “I own $50,000 worth of real estate in Yonkers!” I had to tell him that that in spite of this he still had to put on a shirt or leave the store.
Adam: We keep it pretty low-key over at Book Culture (or maybe I’m just a calming force in the store). I heard that Ryan caught the store on fire when I wasn’t there. One day, a bird got into the store. I was excited to finally have a store pet, but everyone else wanted to get it out.
Anna: Customers come in with very specific books that they’d like. They have fully formed ideas for what book they’d like for the kids, and it’s a challenge to find them but satisfying when you do.
Devon: One of our locations is situated next to and provides coursebooks for Columbia University and Barnard College. For the first few days of every semester we see hundreds of students come through the door in a matter of hours and trying to match up so many students with the books they need as quickly as possible can get pretty crazy. You feel a little more like a short-order cook than a bookseller, but it’s a real adrenaline rush!
What’s your earliest/best memory about visiting a bookstore as a child?
Chris: I remember as a kid visiting our local drugstore which had paperbacks. I bought a mystery and remember the man behind the register looking at me strangely. I read it, a John D. McDonald tale, and encountered sex and detective work. I hid it from my parents but I was so liberated to have done that.
Ryan: There’s a great little bookshop near where I grew up in LA called Chevalier’s that’s been open since the 1940s. I used to go there with my dad to get these little sports biographies when I was a kid; he also insisted that every birthday gift I got one of my friends had to be a book (so I was that kid). I remember waiting for the patient old women who used to work there to wrap my dinky gifts while I browsed the huge political biographies even though I had no idea what they meant.
Adam: My dad and I were frequent patrons of our local used bookstore, and every few months, we’d gather all the YA/kids books I had torn through and all the Dean Koontz he had finished and sell them back. Then I’d get to pick out whatever I wanted from the store. It was like I had found a way to get infinite books without spending any of my own money (my parents would buy even more books for me that I could then re-sell, so I was really working the system).
Devon: When I was a kid I used to frequent Black Oak Books in San Francisco (now closed, sadly). Sometime when I was in middle school, the store came into a big collection of Arthur Conan Doyle’s works—mostly early editions featuring lots of elaborate frontispieces, even some printings in Pitman’s shorthand! I enjoyed the adventures and mysteries, but it was also the first time I really fell in love with the book as a physical object. There went all my allowance for a whole summer and I only regret I didn’t snag more of them.
Annie: The local bookstore was my favorite store in town. I remember that the counter was so high I couldn’t see over it. I planned to work there when I was older and when I was 15 they finally hired me to help wrap during the Christmas rush. I was hooked.
If you weren’t running or working at a bookstore, what would you be doing?
Chris: Who the hell knows, life is so determined by little chances. I almost started a career in food though and loved France and cooking and wine so something in there might have happened. I had a good early job at the original Dean and Deluca and almost stuck with them.
Ryan: I think I would be back on the West Coast—doing what, who knows!
Adam: I’m still going to school, so I’d probably get my homework done on time but not be able to afford any of my coursebooks.
Devon: I’ve always wanted to work in museum administration. I think museums and bookstores are sort of similar: places where the community can gather to experience, discuss, and interact with cultural objects. The bonus of a bookstore is you get to touch the objects and take them home with you afterwards.
Annie: After college I started down the path to become a literature professor. In bookselling I get to read books and talk about themm but I never have to write about them.
What’s been the biggest surprise about running a bookstore?
Chris: Even though it’s little shop in a big world, you can blow the roof off and think without limit if you choose to.
Ryan: There’s this myth that exists about curated retail stores—especially record shops and bookstores—that it’s just a bunch of hanging around, shooting the shit, and feeling holier than the customers. But it turns out that kind of place doesn’t really exist any more, if it ever did in the first place. We’ve got a mountain load of work to do each day, and the next day, while also making sure that we’re providing top notch customer service. It’s a hustle, but it’s an immensely gratifying one.
Devon: How lively and vibrant the bookselling industry is! Bookstores that continue to thrive do so because they’ve got people (owners, employees, customers) who really care and it shows. Everyone always has a new project they’re working on or some aspect of their store they’re developing or improving. I love meeting with other booksellers and hearing their exciting new ideas.
Annie: I’m amazed that we’re still here and thriving! I’ve heard so much about the imminent demise of bookstores that I’m always surprised at how many people do come in and buy books.
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