The Used Bookstore Will Be the Last One Standing

by Drew Nelles

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A year ago, what might be the modest future of bricks-and-mortar bookselling arrived in Ridgewood, Queens, the neighborhood northeast of Bushwick that has been impolitely dubbed “Quooklyn.” Topos, at the corner of Woodward and Putnam Avenues, is sunny and small, with blond-wood shelves, plants in the window, a bas-relief tin ceiling, and a pointedly thoughtful selection of used books. There is no cash register; sales are logged by hand. Topos is also a café, and, although the coffee and pastries are better a few blocks away, at the Milk & Pull on Seneca, the coffee and pastries are incidental. People seem to just like hanging out among all the books.

On a recent Sunday, the morning after Winter Storm Jonas glazed the city with two feet of snow, Cosmo Björkenheim, who wore round glasses and a green plaid shirt, opened the store for business. He started Topos, along with a few partners, as an unofficial offshoot of Williamsburg’s Book Thug Nation, where he still works once a week. In previous eras, the Ridgewood storefront hosted a bodega, a thrift store, and a furniture-upholstering studio, but it had been vacant for five years when the bookshop moved in. In Greek, topos means “place”; in literary criticism, the word also refers to a traditional motif or convention — an abbreviation of tópos koinós, or “common place.”

“We bandied about at least fifty or sixty Greek words before we landed on topos,” Björkenheim said, standing behind the copper coffee bar. “Aletheia was one — truth. Another was from Greek myth, from the Odyssey, which I really liked. I’m going to write it for you, because it’s hard to pronounce.” On a note card, he spelled out, in careful block letters, AEAEA. “That’s the island where Odysseus and his men land, where Circe lives, and where his men are turned into pigs. It was on the way to Ithaca, like this place, in a certain sense. If you’re going north.”

“If you’re going to Ithaca, it’s on the way to Ithaca,” an artist named Kyla Chevrier, who took an Americano with milk, said.

Topos is a snug place to spend the day drinking coffee and talking to strangers. Offering coffee and books at the same place is not a novel idea, but it is one way for booksellers to pay the bills, even if nobody likes to read anymore. There is the corporate version — Barnes & Noble outlets usually include a Starbucks, which is a natural pairing, a sort of Oprah’s Book Club made flesh — but there are lots of other, better examples. In New York, there is Housing Works, Molasses, Bluestockings, the Loft, McNally Jackson, and more.

Bookstores, of course, are having a rather hard time right now. One of Topos’s other founders, Benjamin Friedman, helped start the shop after fleeing St. Mark’s, the East Village landmark, which is tens of thousands of dollars in debt to its landlord, and has been perennially on the verge of closure. Other shops have shuttered, or fled Manhattan in search of cheaper rents. But this has not necessarily been the case for used bookstores, many of which are thriving. “Strangely enough, it’s the big chain bookstores that are more of an anachronism,” Björkenheim said. “Even Strand is having to do a lot more of what Barnes & Noble was desperately doing for the last ten years. I don’t even know what they’re selling now — more tchotchkes and t-shirts and tote bags. Which is something a used bookstore doesn’t necessarily have to resort to.” The whole industry was probably heading in this direction, he added: “smaller used bookstores, rather than enormous megastores.”

Even as New York lay low after the storm, Topos was busy. Customers lingered and bought books: The Beginners by Rebecca Wolff, Hollow Land by Eyal Weizman, Nescio’s Amsterdam Stories. Donald Byrd’s Byrd in Hand played over the stereo. “My favorite thing is the smell of used books,” a customer, Jeff Freer, said as he waited for his coffee. “It’s the smell of, ‘We have something here.’ The smell of, ‘It’s not going to disappear.’ The digital can be gone in an instant. But smell has to come from time.”

“On my computer there’s a smell, but it’s not that kind of smell,” Bogdan Szabo, a friend of Freer’s, said. “It’s a different kind of smell. A smell that most people wouldn’t want to smell.”

“You can’t smell the internet,” Freer said. “You can’t smell a website.”

“You can smell what The Rock is cooking,” Szabo said.

A man sat at the bar, ordered a cappuccino, and began to work on a screenplay. There is no Wi-Fi at the store, but people still bring their laptops. In some ways, Topos is a very contemporary literary endeavor, in that it cultivates an aura of bookishness without requiring anyone to actually buy books. The fact that it sells coffee represents the same kind of product diversification to which Strand and Barnes & Noble, to say nothing of Amazon, have turned; it is possible that most people prefer being associated with books to reading them. Topos is applying for a beer-and-wine license, another revenue stream that doesn’t rely on a widespread cultural appetite for literature.

People at Topos also wring their hands over something else: the creeping Bushwickification of Ridgewood — traditionally a working-class area populated by European and Latin American immigrants — and the store’s role in it. The owners want it to be a neighborhood hub, and the more prominently displayed titles — Anarchy in Action, The Fact of Blackness, Blood Rites of the Bourgeoisie — make clear where their loyalties lie. A Polish book club and the local community association use Topos for meetings; the store banks with Ridgewood Savings; many hangers-on are involved with Woodbine, a radical-left organizing space a few blocks away. Still, a bookstore-café in an “up-and-coming” neighborhood tends to attract a certain clientele. “Shortly after we opened, some real-estate broker dude came in here, y’know, suit and tie,” Steve Macfarlane, an employee and eight-year Ridgewood veteran, recalled. “The first thing he said was, ‘Oh, nice to see my kind of people in the neighborhood for a change.’” Macfarlane grimaced. “Who the fuck says that? It’s terrifying.”

There were many more book sales that day: The Carnal Prayer Mat, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy. As night fell, Friedman and another cofounder, Anny Oberlink, arrived. Friedman, a cheerful, loquacious man who worked in new bookselling for many years, talked about why used bookstores are still a viable venture. “The not very glamorous economic answer is that it’s a lot easier to make money selling used books,” he said. “On the whole, the problem with new books is that there’s a list price set by the publisher and a discount price that’s also set by the publisher. So, as a new bookseller, you have no control over what the book sells for or what you pay for it. With used books, if you’re smart, you find ways to get them cheap, and you decide what you price them at. As a general rule, on any book, a used bookseller is probably making twice as much profit as a new bookseller. And that’s the difference between making it and not making it, because the profit margins on new books are razor-thin. At a used bookstore, no one is getting rich, but you can make enough to stay alive.”

A photo posted by Topos Bookstore Cafe (@toposbookstore) on Jan 24, 2016 at 5:53pm PST

Around six o’clock, the employees began to prepare for the store’s one-year anniversary party. Kira Josefsson, a Swedish writer and translator who works Sundays, strung streamers between the lights and put up dollar-store decorations: crepe-paper pineapples, flowerpots, strawberries. The employees moved the tables and chairs aside, and laid out big trays full of cheese, figs, baklava, rugelach. The music changed to disco. Partygoers began to file in, until the windows were fogged and the room became claustrophobically full. Oberlink told a story about the time a squirrel got into the store and hid behind the Murakami section.

As the evening wound down, Björkenheim tapped his glass with a spoon. “I wanted to make this more of a celebration of this world we’re building here, rather than just Topos the bookstore, Topos the café,” he said. “It’s our first anniversary, but it’s also the anniversary of something more that happens within these confines. I think that’s what we’re truly celebrating — not just this institution, this cold, impersonal institution that is Topos.” Everyone laughed knowingly, and Björkenheim trailed off. “Anyway, thanks for coming,” he said. “Please finish the cheese.”

Photo by Topos Books