The Bell Tolls for Book Culture

The owner announces that the iconic Columbus Ave. bookstore will not reopen

24 Jan 2020 | 12:17

After having a city marshal’s lock placed on the door of its 450 Columbus Ave. location two weeks ago, Book Culture announced on Jan. 21 that the popular neighborhood bookstore will remain closed.

The iconic store owed more than $100,000 in back rent.

Owner Chris Doeblin said it’s never easy to lose a business, but he is a glass-half-full kind of guy. “I chose optimism,” he said. “I've got a very difficult path with this business and just being a person is not easy. I pull on the coat that says persistence and try and go do my best.”

On Facebook, Doeblin said he was hoping to enter into an agreement that would have allowed the store to quickly reopen under new management, but those plans fell through.

Financial Pressures

“This is the saddest and most destructive outcome we had imagined,” Doeblin said on Facebook. “The community surrounding our stores provided a lifeline in lending to us these past six months. That lifeline now sits, wasted, behind the locked doors. Twelve employees who absolutely lived paycheck to paycheck are now out of work.”

Doeblin told Straus News that he saw the writing on the wall about 20 years ago, when Amazon starting putting people out of business.

According to Doeblin, at one point in 2019, the company, which operates two other stores on the Upper West Side and one in Long Island City, owed four months’ rent, more than $175,000, on the Columbus Ave. store, which is located between 81st and 82nd Sts. For a time, Doeblin explained on Facebook, the landlord "was gracious enough to show the forbearance that allowed us to stay open and make payments while we clawed our way back to viability."

Then, five days before Christmas, Doeblin said, he received an eviction notice.

A Career in Books

Doeblin, 58, who lives on the Upper West Side but grew up in Buffalo, never imagined operating a book business in New York for 20 years.

Years ago, after travelling around the U.S. and Europe, he returned to the city and needed a job. He landed one at Papyrus on 114th and Broadway, then worked 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 1997 Doeblin and his partner at the time, Cliff Simms, founded Labyrinth Books t 536 West 112th. A decade later, Book Culture became an independent company when Doeblin bought out his partners.

He said that unlike some first-time businessmen, he wasn’t scared. “When I was growing up, I hitchhiked all over the country,” he explained. “I slept under bridges. So having a job and owning a business was small potatoes.”

A Changing Business

When Book Culture launched, Doeblin said, independent bookstores were everywhere. But soon, chains like Barnes & Noble and Borders had them on the endangered species list. The real killer, though, was Amazon, which arrived in full force in 2000. “Books were the first thing that got affected by Amazon,” he said.

They were fortunate to be near Columbia University, he said, and they eventually expanded. They began to offer more items, such as children’s books, but sales continued to decline. “We tried to grow and change, and I think every business has to,” Doeblin said.

But it wasn’t enough.