Beloved Upper West Side shop Book Culture closes for good

Posted On Tue, January 21, 2020 By

Posted On Tue, January 21, 2020 By In CityRealty, Upper West Side 

Book Culture on Columbus on Thursday 1/9/20, taken by 6sqft

Drawing comparisons to “The Shop Around the Corner” in the movie “You’ve Got Mail” (which is also set on the Upper West Side), Book Culture became a beloved neighborhood shop for its whimsical atmosphere, great selection of books, and cozy children’s reading room. But this past year, the store’s owner penned a letter to city officials asking for a $500,000 loan to stay afloat amid unpaid vendor debts and loans. Earlier this month, a city marshal seized the store for “eviction action” due to unpaid rent, West Side Rag reported. Though the store was hopeful it could find a solution to remain open (even starting a Post-it Note campaign where customers left their support on the storefront), they announced today in an email that their doors are shut forever.

Book Culture on Columbus, courtesy of Book Culture

A community lending program was put into effect in July by Book Culture when neither the city nor state responded to owner Chris Doeblin’s request for assistance. At this time, he said that the total amount needed has risen from $500,000 to $750,000. The program provided loan contracts to individuals who opted to lend Book Culture money for five years at a four-percent interest rate.

Doeblin has been in the bookselling business since the early 1980s, having started out at Papyrus book store on 114th Street and Broadway (this store closed in 2009 after 50 years) and the Book Forum on Broadway across from Columbia’s main gates. In 1997, he and a partner founded Labyrinth Books in a Columbia-owned space on 112th Street, and in 2007, Doeblin bought out his partners and rechristened the store as Book Culture. He opened a second location two years later at Broadway at 114th Street. The in-question location on Columbus Avenue between 81st and 82nd Streets opened in 2014, with a Long Island City outpost opening in 2017.

For the Columbus Avenue store, Doeblin went into a co-ownership with Rick MacArthur, president and publisher of Harper’s Magazine through an LLC titled “Book Culture on Columbus.” The other stores are registered as “Book Culture Incorporated.” The two have been at odds for many months, with MacArthur even filing a lawsuit against his co-owner. As West Side Rag reported in September, MacArthur expressed concerns that Doeblin was misleading customers: “Nobody seems to know that these are two separate companies. And that he’s raising money on the false premise that Book Culture on Columbus is on the verge of failure when it’s not. I won’t permit it to go bankrupt,” he said at the time in a phone interview.

For his side of things, Doeblin wrote in an email to West Side Rag: “Book Culture Inc. is the parent company and the administrator of the LLC. All of the buying and bookkeeping, strategy, marketing etc. are provided by the parent corporation. From the outset, no books would have been shipped to our LLC if our parent co and I did not back those accounts.”

On January 7, Doeblin shared the message above with his customers via Facebook. At a rally that he organized the following day, he told 6sqft: “I’m hoping to broaden awareness of this problem and get the whole city more interested in the granularity of why these stores close and how fragile we are… a business like ours generates an incredible amount of economic churn.” To that end, Doeblin told us that Book Culture Columbus paid $800,000 a year in rent that the city is taxing, had a $2.5 million payroll, and paid $600,000 in sales tax, in addition to a lifestyle component that he feels added to the value of apartments nearby.

Book Culture on Columbus on Thursday 1/9/20, taken by 6sqft

MacArthur offered to buy Doeblin out and put the money in himself, but this would mean Doeblin would lose his stake in the store. In an email to his customers today, Doeblin wrote, “This is the saddest and most destructive outcome we had imagined. The community surrounding our stores provided a lifeline in lending to us these past 6 months. That lifeline now sits, wasted, behind the locked doors. 12 employees who absolutely lived paycheck to paycheck are now out of work.” However, he added, “We will continue to try to raise money to open again in the area.”

Editor’s Note: This story was originally published on January 8, 2020, and was updated after a press event on January 9, 2020, and then on January 21, 2020.

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Neighborhoods : Upper West Side

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