Much has been written about the demise of the Gotham Book Mart, nearly all of it lamenting the end of an institution. Having never been a wise enough man to have fished there, I have not felt much of a pang at its passing. Certainly the nominal auction to dispose of its assets was an anti-climax (perhaps by design), leading one to speculate on who is going to get the fun of lotting up the various consignments that will no doubt come out of the landlord’s sudden entry into the bookselling business. Perhaps they can get around the hassle and cost of storage by simply swapping the $400K worth of inventory for a small batch of Steinbeck papers.
(Whoops! In the paragraph above, I meant to type “cold-hearted landlord,” despite the obvious redundancies of such a phrase when speaking of those involved in big-city commercial real estate.)
Much of the coverage of the dissolution of GBM may be found at the Fine Books Blog, which includes a capsule summary of the various on-line lamentations and rending of garments. Much has been made of the fact that the grand old cultural loci (redolent with tradition, etc.), along with their humbler second-hand book shop brethren, are fast dying off and leaving the culture without any place to nurture the next generation of print culture and charming eccentricity.
Are second-hand book shops failing at a greater rate today than they have over the past century? Does the demise of the brick and mortar shop correlate to some decline in our culture? The idea of a book shop as a cultural hub seems to have a peculiar fascination, though my (admittedly uninformed) impression is that it has been a relatively recent cultural phenomenon (bracketed by London’s 18th century coffee shops or maybe the early 19th century American bookseller-stationer-general store of the Ohio valley on one end and our contemporary weird, wired social networks on the other). Certainly the seeming ubiquity of information and low cost of entry for on-line selling has lowered barriers to entering the trade, at least in its (perhaps vitiated) on-line form. But finding the resources to tie up in an inventory and affording the space in which to keep it seem to remain limiting factors in the success of a bookselling business.
My apologies for the open-ended nature of this entry — certainly the questions above aren’t meant to be rhetorical. Framing the questions in terms of the effects on sustainable local economies (measurable or no) gives me pause. Happily, we can all take philosophical comfort in the fact that the paths of entrepreneurship lead but to the grave.