Every 10 minutes, the B61 bus roars by the shipping containers across the street from Freebird Books in Brooklyn. The cold wind from the East River blows over the containers and shakes the weeds growing through the chainlink fence. An old man pauses to let his dog pee on the wall of a brick rowhouse, and after he turns the corner, the only thing on the sidewalk is a chalkboard sign announcing coffee and books just steps from the street. Columbia Street’s not a very busy thoroughfare compared to the pedestrian traffic in nearby Brooklyn Heights and Cobble Hill, but now and then, the glass panes on the door rattle and a customer walks in. It’s easy to tell if a customer has been there before: The ones who haven’t usually walk in with surprised looks on their faces, not having expected a bookstore at the precipice of Brooklyn’s rusting industrial waterfront. The books are a bit more worn than at a Barnes & Noble, and there are no long tables neatly colonized by the latest bestsellers. The customers unzip their jackets, settle in, and tilt their necks to read the titles by the spine, stepping slowly and expectantly.
With nine-month-old Cooper hugged against her hip, co-owner Rachel London is picking an avalanche of books up from the floor in the nonfiction aisle, where, earlier, Cooper had been reorganizing the inventory. The hand-built shelves are fashioned from spalted maple, with yellow and brown discolorations in the grain where wormholes allowed water to seep in. This makes spalted maple one of the cheaper woods at the lumberyard, but it fit the look that Rachel and Samantha Citrin, the other co-owner, wanted. They sanded the wood and left it unfinished, and then nailed ceramic plates to each section, so browsers would know what kinds of books they were looking at. They placed an oversized black leather chair in a corner, next to a brass lamp with a red shade, and set a few mismatched chairs around a sturdy former dining table. Looking out the window at the Manhattan skyline beyond the container yard is like looking at New York from the windows of a book-lined living room in Smalltown America.
Rachel interrupts her cleanup when a brown-haired woman in a yellow jacket is ready to pay for two books. One is the latest Margaret Atwood novel and the other is Secrets of Seduction, by Brenda Venus. The customer opens up to a page in the latter to show a fuzzy black-and-white snapshot of a penis, left behind by a previous owner. The books are presents.
“These and the beautiful picture will bring much joy to my friend,” she tells Rachel, then says goodbye.
Back in the summer of 2003, Rachel and Samantha were both working at restaurants in Red Hook, a desolate, working-class neighborhood in Brooklyn that’s catching the eyes of real-estate developers. Rachel had gotten her master’s in creative writing from the New School, and Samantha had come from Montana armed with a degree in literature. One day, while sunbathing on Samantha’s rooftop, they decided they needed to make a change in their careers. “Let’s open up a bookstore,” Samantha suggested.
“What will we call it?”
“Remember that song I played the other night?”
By fall, they were up in Rachel’s native Vermont looking to buy books. Her parents bought them a battered $400 station wagon and painted “Freebird” in white across its doors. The station wagon was soon to become their bookmobile as they acquired inventory from sales all over the state. One day they went into a used bookstore near Burlington just to look. The owner was an old man, the clichéd image of a grubby bookworm. The books in his store were dusty and falling apart, but there were lots of them, and Rachel realized she and Samantha still didn’t have enough for a store. They would need to spend months scrambling for inventory. She didn’t know then that, months later, the old man, recently divorced, would also decide to make a change in his life and sell them the entire contents of his store. They rented the largest van available to pack up the windfall and drive it down from Vermont. When they arrived in Brooklyn, a dozen friends volunteered to help unpack. Going through their new stock, Samantha and Rachel found themselves surrounded by thousands of self-help titles, paperback airport thrillers and romances, books on hunting, and how to build wood furnaces and solar heaters. This was how it began.
New York used to be a haven for books, used books especially. In Manhattan, Book Row was a wonderland for both everyday readers and hardcore booklovers. It stretched south of Union Square along Fourth Avenue between Ninth and 14th streets. The bookstores on Book Row reached their peak in the early 1950s, according to Marvin Mondlin and Roy Meador, book trade veterans who came to write Book Row: An Anecdotal and Pictorial History of the Antiquarian Book Trade. By that time, more than two dozen booksellers made up Book Row and millions of books were in their collective inventories. Each store had a different flavor. Some were purely antiquarian operations, which saw a boom in the post-war period when libraries and wealthy collectors were eager to add European books to their collections after the long wartime drought. Most, however, catered to everyday New Yorkers, who visited the stores for their inexpensive and esoteric offerings. Those offerings were often dictated by the personalities who ran the register. An owner of a lefist bookstore had once been recruited to become a Russian spy, while another sold only cookbooks, even though the owner didn’t care for cooking. There was a mystique to Book Row. The bookstores had names like Schulte, Biblo and Tannen, Dauber and Pine, University Place, Aberdeen, Sign of the Sparrow and the Strand. Of those, only the Strand has remained in business.
What destroyed Book Row? The bookstores were gone before the rise of the super-sized bookstore chains. After the 1960s, the costs of running a bookstore had become prohibitive. Rents were up, while retail department stores, which had brought foot traffic to the area, moved away. More importantly, the bookstores had become too much of an extension of their owners. As the personalities on Book Row died off, one by one, no one stepped in to take their place.
The arrival of the internet brought sweeping changes to the used-books trade. Bookstores can now list their inventories online. A used bookstore in Arkansas might be able to sell a volume on the mating habits of hairy-nosed wombats to a gentleman in Brazil looking to fill a void in his library. As a result, used books are making a comeback. According to Ipsos Book Trends, used books accounted for an estimated 14 percent of trade book purchases made by adults in 2003, up one percentage point from 2002. Using an online survey of booksellers, Book Hunter Press estimated that sales of used books amounted to $614 million in 2003, with online sales accounting for over 53 percent of all used book sales in 2003, up from 49 percent in 2001. Used bookstores now have to compete with stay-at-home sellers who keep their inventories in a spare closet. Why then even bother to open a store at all?
“Winter has been very slow. There are days we panic,” says Rachel. “We worry about which bills to pay first.”
Two customers walk in. One is an older woman, the other a younger man in a brown leather jacket, likely her son. They stand for a while in the front part of the store, taking in the warmth and the sight of books. Then they split up and crab-walk down separate aisles. The woman asks, “Do you know who wrote The Namesake?”
“Jhumpa Lahiri,” says Rachel, after checking online.
“Do you have the book?”
“Let’s see.” Rachel walks down the fiction aisle, carrying the baby. She looks at the books piled near the bathroom and then goes up front to check on the display stacks—Freebird doesn’t have a computerized inventory database.
“Do you know what you want?” the old woman asks the young man in the meantime.
“I don’t know.” He’s still lurching sideways through the aisle, undecided.
In 10 minutes, they are at the cashier. The woman does not find The Namesake. Instead she buys The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey. The young man is also buying.
“I’ve always wanted to read Jim Harrison,” he says as Rachel hands him back the copy of The Beast God Forgot to Invent.
An underlined segment of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets points to a reader’s epiphany, and what sort of person he or she was to be moved by such imagery.
Something has happened since Freebird opened its doors in January 2004. Every day customers come in to buy books, but many also come in to sell. The Brooklyn neighborhood around Freebird is home to many artists and writers, with plenty working in publishing, and, apparently, avid readers of serious fiction and non-fiction. Critics living nearby often come to sell or donate review copies. About 60 percent of Freebird’s inventory is still from the original purchase, but the turnover has brought in the kinds of books people might find discussed in the New York Review of Books, or at the very least, populating the reading lists of many over-educated, over-caffeinated Brooklynites.
The used bookstore is a unique business model in which inventory is, to a good extent, determined by the direct participation of its customers. The customers’ cultural awareness, preferences, age, education, careers, and direction of curiosity at certain times and places in their lives defines what stocks the shelves, and so the used bookstore becomes a reflection of its customers, if only at slight angles. This is not simply the nature of selling used merchandise. Most used goods, the kind you might find at a pawnshop, don’t have enough variation or cultural encoding to bear the residue of their previous owners. A camera model in a certain condition says something, but nothing we can decode. An old ring with inscribed initials is missing its Rosetta Stone. But an underlined segment of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets points to a reader’s epiphany, and what sort of person he or she was to be moved by such imagery: And you see in every face the mental emptiness / deepen / leaving only the growing terror of nothing to think about.
Before the store opened, when Rachel and Samantha first sorted through their new inventory, many things fell out of the books. Postcards, bookmarks from stores all over the country, letters, receipts, and photos. Other informational media, like videotapes, records or CDs, have to be in more a pristine shape if they are to be consumed again, but books can carry evidence of their previous owners without serious damage to their stories. Marginalia track the prior reader’s thoughts, like the underlined “Important” in a copy of John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction, and the “Bullshit” inked in another section of the book. In a copy of the Cormac McCarthy book Child of God, Rachel found a Post-It saying on one side, “Gabriela bracelet 6 inches,” and on the other side, “Email James Brown.”
What’s clear is that the books came with their own private history. Each had its own real-world plateaus and plot twists—by way of curiosity, admiration, and curricula, the books were acquired, and by way of deaths, heartbreaks, financial need or boredom, they ended up again on the shelves.
There is also the respite from the publishing industry’s cold hucksterism. What gets prominently displayed in major chain bookstores is determined by marketing campaigns for new books. What books get that push is often decided by how much the publishers expect them to sell, thus mostly boosting the author and novel groomed for pre-calculated prestige. That kind of marketing doesn’t happen at a place like Freebird. Rachel and Samantha buy books at their discretion, but they don’t call a distributor to order specific titles. What’s on the shelves is what happened to come in the weeks before and what’s on the display table is thematically built from a quick round up of on-hand stock (for example, the small, unmarked pile of Susan Sontag books discreetly placed on a table after her death in December).
The way books are frequently sold at a local used bookstore like Freebird is less by word-of-mouth than an unexpected tap on the shoulder. The book you’re leafing through might have been the very book that you saw in the hands of a commuter who got on the subway at your station: a minor bit of local synchronicity. The used bookstore is not the kind of place you visit to find a specific book. It is where you shop because a good accident is likely to happen.
Before the two customers leave, the young man turns around to say, “This really is a great place you have.”