“New Yorkers as we all know are savvy shoppers. They want to get the best stuff for the best price and plenty of our visitors do as well. For 50 years, this business has helped New Yorkers to look great at any time.” – Mayor Michael Bloomberg, during ribbon-cutting ceremony for new Century 21 store on Upper West Side, September 2011.
A few days ago, I wandered into the Century 21 store that now takes up five levels on 66th Street and Broadway in New York City and offers great deals for bargain hunters looking for nice clothes at low prices.
I hunted for Christmas presents, shopping with dozens – hundreds – of other people. Some children ran wild. Teenagers laughed. Men wandered a few steps behind their female companions, looking like prisoners being led to the electric chair by impatient, unsympathetic security guards.
The trip would be unbearable no matter the store’s location, but this spot on New York’s Upper West Side proved especially depressing. Until last January, this particular location had been home to a flagship Barnes & Noble bookstore, a place I spent hundreds of days in during my first seven years in the city. Walking past the shirts and pants and bags and shoes and hats brought back memories of walking past books and magazines and movies and CDs.
This was our bookstore, but Barnes & Noble shut its doors in January, doomed by high rent and a changing publishing world. I felt like a 36-year-old walking through his childhood home, which has been taken over by a new family that tore up the basement and bedrooms and repainted inside and out. The shell remains, but the soul is missing.
Many people in the neighborhood mourned Barnes & Noble’s closing. Some of those same people cursed Barnes & Noble when it opened the store more than a decade earlier, furious at the bookstore giant for the devastating impact it had on smaller independent bookstores. But 15 years later, while some of those feelings still remained, the store had become a fixture, an institution, a place to buy good books and listen to great authors read from their works during weekly sessions inside packed rooms.
I walked through the new Century 21 store and saw all the clothes but remembered all the books. That Barnes & Noble smell – a special, alluring blend of coffee, books and cocoa, which is likely brewed by bearded men in the basement who spend their days quoting Shakespeare – was long gone. Taking the escalator up to the second floor, I half-expected to again turn right and find the art books, while the kids’ and young adult section would be straight ahead. Fiction sat on the other end, but now instead of seeing people searching for the newest Stephen King, I saw folks tearing through racks of clothing, scouring for designers they’ve heard of and prices they comprehend.
This trip lasted mere minutes; previous excursions lasted hours. Sometimes I sat at a table in the fourth-floor cafeteria, other times I simply took up vacant space near a bookshelf, stretching out with a half-dozen history books, a few sports books and a novel, reading some and setting aside others to buy later. Maybe if I and other visitors had bought more, the bookstore would still stand.
Six years ago – Jesus, six years ago? – I took the 1 train down to the 66th Street stop, sprinted up the steps, crossed the street to the bookstore, took the escalator to the third floor and found three copies of my book in the sports section. I felt like hiding out nearby, waiting to see if anyone would pick it up, look it over and maybe even buy it, but my ego wasn’t quite ready for the surely inevitable disappointment. Still, it remains one of my favorite New York City memories.
Now, in that spot? Could probably find a nice deal on a pair of pants. Just in time for the company holiday party, where you’ll ruin them by spilling vodka all over the front.
The neighborhood hardly needed another discount clothing store, though Century 21 has nothing to apologize for and is obviously not responsible for the problems that bedevil the entire book world, much less the sales issues that took down this particular Barnes & Noble. A Borders that resided in Columbus Circle seven blocks to the south closed about nine months after the Barnes & Noble store, a victim of an entire company that folded. Some independent stores do, thankfully, remain nearby, and another B&N is at 82nd Street.
Still, that store at 66th was practically home, a place to discover new writers and catch up with old favorites.
The Century 21 store employs nearly 400 people and that’s a good thing. It’s a place for “savvy” New Yorkers to shop and that’s a good thing. It’s a place that will help New Yorkers “look great” at any time and I suppose that’s a good thing because as we all know, there’s no greater sin in this city than dressing poorly. Even the mayor will take notice.
But the books are now gone, and that’s a bad thing, because memories aren’t even close to being as good as the real thing.