Articles

The Last Gasps of Rizzoli Bookstore

by Samuel Cooper on April 14, 2014

Outside Rizzoli Bookstore on closing night (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

Outside Rizzoli Bookstore on closing night (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

The Rizzoli Bookstore is now closed. I was there for the final minutes last Friday, along with the rest of the staff. We stood outside the building on West 57th street drinking champagne, smoking cigarettes, staring at the hired guns sent by the LeFrak family and Vornado Realty to start boarding us up at 7:30pm sharp. A nice touch, that flatbed stacked with boards. Dramatic. No chance, of course, that we (wan, thin booksellers) would actually come to blows with the big guys in hardhats. Even so, there was palpable tension. LeFrak and Vornado were apparently pissed about a petition to get the building landmarked. They plan to tear it down and replace it with another big glass residence for the superrich.

The truck with boards (click to enlarge)

The flatbed truck filled with boards (click to enlarge)

The store’s lease does not expire until May 16. So, why the immediate board-up? To send a message.

This building is fucked.

I worked at the Rizzoli Bookstore from August of last year until this past January. Six-month tenures were not uncommon among the younger staff, though many older staff (including Joan, my colleague on the art books floor, and the security guard, Mr. Anderson) had been there a long time. Gary, the long-time general manager, phoned me a couple weeks ago and asked if I would come back and help out on the last two days. Sure, I said, I’d love to. It will be fun.

Mostly it was not fun. By noon on Thursday, I was whipped, and I’d only been working for half an hour. Turns out 40% off all books will draw quite a crowd — especially if the books are as nice as Rizzoli’s.

I had been back to visit a couple times since January, when the New York Times broke the news that the store was being kicked out and its lovely building demolished. During one of those visits, my buddy Kareem (a jazz trumpet player and aspiring Dominican friar) told me that Rizzoli’s corporate office had ordered the staff to stop passing out fliers supporting the landmark effort. If the staff did not comply, he said, their (small but vital) severance packages would be in jeopardy.

Protestors outside

Protestors gathered outside.

Evidently Rizzoli bigwigs had resigned themselves to cooperating with LeFrak and Vornado, perhaps in hopes of placing a few fashion books in the developers’ luminous new lobby. I was disappointed, but by no means shocked. My impression is that Rizzoli Corp is not much better than the realtors. Or than Amazon, for that matter: reliable sources tell me that Marco Ausenda, Rizzoli CEO, has said privately that website sales are “much more important than finding a new location.”

Like I said: I never imagined the people at corporate were saints. But hearing this brought home to me just how helpless a real brick-and-mortar bookstore — even one with a Diocletian window and chandeliers — really is in this day and age. Obviously the realtors don’t care about books (though Steven Roth, the boss at Vornado, waltzed into the store on Thursday, waved his dick around, and bought $1,500 worth of books at 40% off). But tell me this: if a bookstore that has increased its profits each year for the past three years can’t stay in business, where does that leave us? What will we have left?

More protestors (click to enlarge)

More protestors (click to enlarge)

Look, I understand, the Rizzoli Bookstore was not the New York Public Library. Many of its beautiful books (such as the $4,000 edition of Salvador Salgado’s Genesis, which I once helped a nice lady purchase on a whim) were too pricey for the average person. But the beautiful space was open to anyone, as the Vornado crystal palace certainly will not be. Events, too, were free and open to the public — and what a public! I have particularly fond memories of long chats with Miles Aiken, a regular at Rizzoli wine and cheese events, who played basketball in Naples and coached the British Olympic team in the ’70s and is now more or less homeless. Staff members could borrow any book from the store for as long as they wanted, so for them, at least, it actually was a library. During normal business hours, old, not-rich customers who had known my colleague Joan for years would come in and sit and talk to her for half an hour. You won’t find that kind of community on Amazon. Or in the crystal palace.

Inside Rizzoli on its final day

Inside Rizzoli on its final day

At least corporate was kind enough to buy us champagne, so we could party in style on Friday night after the doors closed. We did just that. We mixed the champagne with vodka, lit cigarettes inside, and as the guys in hardhats were walling us in, raised our glasses to the Diocletian window and screamed a final toast:

Fuck Vornado!!!

Cathartic. But ineffective.

Evil wins again.

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  • Beau Toutant

    I like books. I like bookstores. Amazon’s good for locating hard-to-find books, but I enjoy finding interesting books while browsing. I don’t want “kindle”…I want a book. I read enough backlit crap on-line, thank you very much. RIP Rizzoli, and any other closing bookstore! ‘would be nice if we, as a society, would revere intellect and knowledge as much as the almighty-high-rent-dollar.

  • bookloverfolife

    This article is bogus. The closing of this location is heartbreaking, but I have no doubt that Rizzoli corporate will find a new location and are putting all their efforts into the fact. The idea that you think corporate just brushed this under the rug is your personal opinion of a situation you know nothing about. To think that people who devote their lives to creating beautiful books would sit back and watch THEIR beloved bookstore go away easily is absurd.

    • Lloyd Bergenson

      What exactly are you basing this on? Various staff members have confirmed corporate tried to stifle promotion of the Save Rizzoli petition and the author worked in the bookstore. I’m fairly certain that makes him more qualified to comment on the motives of Rizzoli corp than you.

      • bookloverfolife

        Corporate members did everything they could to support this store. It was their pride and joy. If corporate members were to stage a coup against the inevitable destruction it could lead to more trouble down the road in finding a new location. The author WORKED- past tense- at the bookstore, how is he to know what is actually going on? Especially in the corporate offices. It’s rude of you to throw serious shade at people trying to make the best out of a shit situation and doing all they can to get the store up and running again.

        • Lloyd Bergenson

          Who are YOU to know what was going on? You NEVER worked there.

          If the bookstore was corporate’s pride and joy then they should have been active in efforts to work with staff and management to save the building instead of reportedly harassing employees already under stress over their jobs. You claim advocating for landmarking would have undermineda search for a new location. That sounds like horseshit.

          I’m guessing Vornado gave Rizzoli corp a sweet credit on the remaining rent to stay quiet. They’ve been bought out. There’s no other logical explanation.

      • bookloverfolife

        rude.

        • Lloyd Bergenson

          Dismissing an article written by a former Rizzoli Bookstore staff member–who actually worked in the store during its final hours–as somehow “bogus” because he rightly criticizes the ineffectual leadership rife in the corporate offices–that is the height of rudeness.

          I’m sure there is a reason why so many former Rizzoli employees have not uttered a single word of praise for the corporate offices in the press…

  • bronxflash

    rip rizzoli books. it wasn’t really a place i went to to buy books, but i definitely respected it. onwards to a new location!

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