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The Corner Bookstore

Christopher Beha’s debut novel, What Happened To Sophie Wilder, is making its way onto the shelves now. His first reading is Thursday evening at Corner Bookstore, a shop that played no small part in his development as a reader and a writer. If you’re in New York, come by and say hello (May 31, 2012 at 6:00 pm. 1313 Madison Avenue, on the corner of 93rd Street).

When I was nine years old, I got my first paid writing job, reviewing for the Kid’s Newsletter—motto: “By Kids, for Kids”—published by the Corner Bookstore. The corner to which the store’s name referred was 93rd and Madison, on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, two blocks from the house where I grew up. The neighborhood is crowded with schools, and the Corner Bookstore was a favorite spot for bookish children, who were the audience for their newsletter. The store paid ten dollars for each contribution, plus a review copy of the book under consideration—which remains a major perk of the trade. In my case, at least, it was money well spent, since I invariably handed it immediately back to store, before leaving with another book. I already loved reading when I started reviewing for the Corner Bookstore, but I don’t think it had occurred to me before then that I might build a life around this love. Those advance reading copies, complete with press releases and typos, taught me that books were not objects that miraculously sprung into the world but things that people made. And those crisp ten dollar bills taught me that making such things could be a way of making a (modest) living. All of which is to say that I owe a lot to this store.

It may surprise some people to hear that such practices took place in pre-Giuliani 1980s New York, which has since been mythologized as a hell on earth, but the Corner Bookstore was hardly unique among the shops in my neighborhood for having an intimate relationship with its customers. The owners of the video store on Lexington knew their customers well enough to call about an overdue movie we wanted, and we could wait there for the culprit to run it down the block. The deli men at the Madison Avenue Grocer knew my twin brother and me by sight, and if we picked up a sandwich after school, my mother could pay for it on her way home from work. More intimately still, the guys at the 90th Street Pharmacy knew before my mother walked in that a dreaded bout of head lice had struck our class.

Then the neighborhood changed. Blockbuster moved in, and the video store on Lexington shut down. After the Madison Avenue Grocer closed, the deli counter at the Food Emporium wasn’t interested in selling ham-and-swiss on credit to twelve year olds. The pharmacy made a valiant effort in the face of the arrival of Duane Reade across the street, but it succumbed eventually, too. When Barnes and Noble appeared on 86th and Lexington, it seemed likely that the Corner Bookstore would be next. But here’s where the story takes a surprising turn: a few years ago, when I fulfilled a dream that began on that corner by publishing my first book, I read from it at the Corner Bookstore. This week, as my second book is published, I’ll be reading there again. Meanwhile, Barnes and Noble is gone from 86th and Lexington, part of the chain’s contraction in the face of Amazon.

This should be surprising, but it isn’t. Barnes and Noble got a leg up on independent booksellers with a simple pitch: the largest possible selection at the cheapest possible price. If that’s what you’re after these days, there is no reason not to shop at Amazon. I know this because sometimes that’s exactly what I’m looking for, and when it is that’s where I shop. I say this without apology, since I don’t share the general Amazon-as-scourge attitude prevalent in publishing, in part because I recognized how many of the people with this attitude work for subsidiaries of enormous media corporations like CBS and NewsCorp, and in part because I remember when the fragile Barnes and Noble and the late, lamented Borders were publishing’s scourges du jour.

But the rise of online bookselling and the decline of the chain stores, has had a clarifying effect, making it clear that if you want anything more than just the best selection at the best price—if you want the kind of thing exemplified by the Kid’s Newsletter—you have to go to a small independent. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that New York City, at least, is the midst of a golden age of independent booksellers. In the past decade, McNally Jackson opened on Prince Street in Noho. Greenlight Books opened just a few years ago in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. In Cobble Hill, Bookcourt recently expanded. All of these stores play a role in their neighborhood that Amazon couldn’t possibly. Meanwhile, the Corner Bookstore still thrives, and it still publishes the Kid’s Newsletter.

Christopher R. Beha is an associate editor at Harper’s Magazine and the author of a memoir, The Whole Five Feet. He contributes frequently to the New York Times Book Review. What Happened to Sophie Wilder is his first novel.

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