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 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.
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?
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.
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:
Cathartic. But ineffective.
Evil wins again.