Leases On Life

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In an era when major bookselling chains like Borders and Barnes & Noble are struggling, independent Westsider Books—a narrow, split-level shop crammed floor to ceiling with used and rare volumes—somehow survives.

Photo by: Marc Fader

In an era when major bookselling chains like Borders and Barnes & Noble are struggling, independent Westsider Books—a narrow, split-level shop crammed floor to ceiling with used and rare volumes—somehow survives.

Nowhere is interplay between chains and independent stores more apparent than on the route Broadway takes through the Upper West Side. An independent toy store—there are very few of those—stands next to a Dunkin’ Donuts. West Side Judaica operates across from a Duane Reade. And Westsider Books—a narrow, split-level shop crammed floor to ceiling with used and rare volumes—somehow survives just down the street and across the way from a Barnes & Noble.

“We do two different things, Barnes & Noble and us,” says owner Bryan Gonzalez. “They do new books. We do used books. It helps to have them here. If someone comes here and can’t find what they’re looking for, they can go over there,” and vice versa.

So the two stores benefit by creating a destination for book shoppers. The store has been on Broadway between 80th and 81st streets since the 1980s. Gonzalez has owned it for eight years. He says rare books make up about half of sales, but most of those are special orders. Sales on the floor are about 80 percent used books. Rare-book selling is a tricky business. “Something can be extremely rare but not worth anything, if nobody wants it,” Gonzalez notes.

Bookselling in general is getting trickier, at least for places like Barnes & Noble that compete directly with digital book-reading devices. (The B&N store at Lincoln Center, for instance, is closing.) Gonzalez says the e-readers might affect his business, but it is too early to tell. “We’re still kind of a niche thing, you know?”

A few blocks away, it’s obvious that chains aren’t the only pressure facing small businesses in the area. On the block between 77th and 78th streets, there are chains like the Children’s Place, Brooklyn Diner, T-Mobile and AT&T (although many cell phone stores are independent resellers, not actually part of the company). Indy restaurants hold three of the four corners. There’s an optician and a tae kwon do school.

But there’s no sign of the Arthur Murray dance studio, the sports bar and the hardware store that locals say were there a few years back. And on the east side of the block, a jeweler, a restaurant and a salon have recently closed up shop. A Subway sandwich joint is also dormant.

One former and one current tenant on the block, who asked not to be named because they didn’t want to harm their relations with the landlord say Friedland Properties, which owns the entire east side of the block, has made things tough for commercial tenants. Requests to reduce rents, given the economic climate, have been rebuffed, as have requests for longer-term leases.

“Not only does it make it hard for you to not know how long you’re going to stay in business, it makes it hard to sell it to someone else,” says the former tenant. “It’s hard to tell somebody, ‘Buy me,’ when you don’t know if you’re going to be in business the following year.”

Tenants suspect Friedland is waiting to tear down the block and build a new high-rise. The company did not return a call for comment.