Searching for Nothing
The joys of the Book Culture browse.
By Willa Neubauer
Althea Lamel is an Upper West Side native and the manager of Book Culture on Broadway, two blocks north of the store’s 112th Street location. Aside from Columbia’s bookstore, Book Culture’s two independent holdouts remain the last bookstores in Morningside Heights, a neighborhood that once brimmed with them. When I met Lamel in late May, she was sitting behind a desk lined with pocket-sized easy reads, the paperback equivalents of clickbait. Beside her, an elderly woman with a beret sifted through sci-fi, and a man with a Columbia University face mask pulled a book from a section titled “Staff Picks.”
Lamel is aware that Book Culture’s readership is diverse, and that store demand changes as its customers do. “When we first reopened last June, everyone was only buying books about pandemics, from nonfiction to classics to contemporary dystopian books, and books about race and racism in America,” Lamel said. Now, interest has shifted. “I do think this year it has been hard to focus on a book, so we’ve been selling a lot of books to customers who just want something light and riveting that they can escape into.”
Lamel seemed to understand the collective exhaustion that still pulses through classrooms and workplaces, even as the virtual era draws to an end. In a year with fewer vacations, beach reads have certainly infiltrated bedside tables, bookshelves, and the hands of subway riders craving escape. Stephanie Meyer’s Midnight Sun was the fourth best-selling book of 2020, next to Where the Crawdads Sing, Delia Owens’s clichéd mystery set in a North Carolina swamp town. The stuff of late-aughts middle-schooler fantasy, Midnight Sun is a retelling of the Twilight saga from the eyes of vampire Edward Cullen, now represented by an especially pale, magnificently groomed Robert Pattinson.
Lamel has her own picks on the beach-read front. “If there’s one book I’ve recommended to almost anyone I’ve spoken to this year, it’s the book Scorpionfish by Natalie Bakoupolos,” she said. “I read it last summer, when I was stuck in the city and it was a good placeholder for a vacation, as the book really transports you to Athens in the summer. It’s also a book about reflecting, both forward and back, which I think we’ve all done a lot of this year.”
In the early weeks of spring, Book Culture employees wheeled a cart of children’s books, books on sale, and soon-to-be-out-of-print paperbacks onto the sidewalk of 112th Street. Some copies are used, others are new and less attractive—a large paperback on American insects, a book on Soviet cityscapes, and a study of Andy Warhol and Robert Mapplethorpe’s collaborations titled Guise and Dolls. Distinct from Columbia’s bookstore on 114th street, owned by bookseller giant Barnes and Noble, much of Book Culture’s spirit lies in its eclectic assortment of bestsellers and smaller, independent press releases. Located in a space formerly occupied by Labyrinth Books, and before that by an extension of the 112th street USPS, the store’s character seems to spill from its enclave beside the post office and onto the surrounding sidewalk.
Customer interest in the store’s wide offerings has sustained Book Culture through the pandemic, as well as other hardships, since its 2007 opening. Feuds, mostly over finances and labor, between Book Culture owner Chris Doeblin, his employees, and the co-owner of the recently closed Book Culture on Columbus, Rick MacArthur, have destabilized the store’s reputation. After five of his workers voted to join the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union in 2014, Doeblin retaliated by firing the employees, later agreeing to rehire them only after significant community backlash and a day-long worker strike. Financial strain has also presented difficulties for the independently-owned chain—$140,000 behind on rent, Book Culture on Columbus closed in 2020, to the dismay of its Upper West Side loyalists. In the store's final month of business, dozens of sticky notes appeared plastered on the windows overlooking Columbus Avenue, scrawled with messages such as, “Independent bookstores are the lifeblood of our community!” and, “Support real people owning real stores!”
With two remaining Manhattan locations situated on 112th and 114th Streets, just blocks from Columbia and Barnard, Book Culture surely remains an integral part of university life and local culture. As I meandered by the carts of books on 112th Street in late May, a young boy crouched in rainboots before a great stack of cardboard children’s titles while his mother flipped through a copy of Michelle Zauner’s Crying in H Mart. I thought about the adoring tone of each sticky note at the Columbus location and considered our shared desperation—a craving especially poignant during the pandemic—for some version of literary escape. The child who knelt at his mother’s feet picked up a copy of Goodnight Moon, surely attracted by its distinct blue and green cover. I was reminded of the unpretentious nature of any good book store, which simultaneously offers a space for readers of children’s classics and writers of dissertations.
Lamal recognizes that Book Culture’s appeal also stretches beyond its title selections. “We were so excited to welcome our customers back throughout this past year,” she said, “and for many people, we were the first business they entered as they shifted out of lockdown. We were glad to be able to provide that for the community.” Pierre Rodgers, CC ’22, may well have been one of the individuals spotted by Lamel after his return to campus in September of 2020. Rodgers escapes to the store when he feels overwhelmed by schoolwork or the city. He appreciates its quiet, non-assuming atmosphere. “My favorite part about going there is the way that you really feel separated from the chaos of school and the city and the subway, and can take a moment to just browse, maybe read a page or two, and just relax,” Rodgers told me.
Anna Connell, CC ’22, shares Rodgers’s eagerness to browse the store in her free time. She frequents the 112th Street location, scouring the isles for birthday presents or light reads, sometimes only to flip through new releases and find sentences that interest or excite her. “I love going into a bookstore and reading the first two pages of a few books; I feel like just by reading two pages I can get a snippet of what that writer kind of has in mind,” Connell said. Book Culture provides her a place to buy school books, but also to wander, and in her words, grow: “It’s a really comforting place—you can always go there and feel at home, but also feel like there’s growth for you, feel like there’s some discovery left to be had.”
While Amazon offers limitless titles, some more obscure than those at a small book store, the shelves of Book Culture retain a certain allure. I consider Connell’s and Rodgers’s browsing experiences, and the influx of customers Lamel witnessed buying fiction this past winter and spring. The vastness of the internet surely intimidates—with too many titles, uncurated and interspersed with advertisements, we yearn for something intimate, and something nostalgic, perhaps. Book Culture is both.
Before meeting Lamel, I headed to Book Culture’s 112th Street location, searching for nothing. A selection of poetry, new titles facing outward, greeted me on the ground level, beside a heap of pastel tote bags. Upstairs I picked my brother an early 25th birthday present, a Portuguese cookbook on sale, and flipped through a copy of Joan Didion’s White Album, which I’d started but lacked the endurance to finish. It wasn't till I made my way to the register that I caught a glimpse of Meyer’s Midnight Sun flashing gothic letters amongst a pile of new releases. I hurriedly added the book to my pile, searching for any cast of judgment in the cashier’s eyes. As she rang the book up, she paused, admiring its oversaturated cover. “This one is unbeatable,” she said, smiling. “Just you wait.”