There’s a cult of the Independent Bookstore, and Three Lives & Company, a small bookstore in the West Village, is one of its temples. Anne Roiphe proselytizes in the New York Times: “Three Lives feels like a personal library. You know that ideas and words matter here, that someone has handled each book and knows its contents; that you, too, a potential customer, can be part of this calm space. You don’t get coffee in this bookstore — it hasn’t the room — and you don’t get decorating books. But you do get to graze among books that grant humanity.”
Pulitzer Prize-winner Michael Cunningham, whose book The Hours is on display in the store’s windows, is quoted on ThreeLives.com: “One of the greatest bookstores on the face of the Earth. Every single person who works there is incredibly knowledgeable and well read and full of soul. You can walk in and ask anybody, really, what they’ve read lately and they’ll tell you something – very likely something you’ve never heard of. [But] it’s always going to be something interesting and fabulous. I go there when I’m feeling depressed and discouraged, and I always feel rejuvenated.”
In Springfield, Massachusetts, where I grew up, we didn’t have Independent Bookstores. We had independent bookstores, like Johnson’s on Main St., but whatever it is about Independent Bookstores that that can inspire Roiphe and Cunningham to such levels of rapture (and purple prose), the stores in Springfield didn’t have it. They were poorly stocked, harshly lit, and staffed by uninformed and unfriendly salespeople. When Barnes & Noble finally arrived – with its comfy chairs, massive stock, coffee, newsstand, and anonymity – I was ecstatic, and I have more affection for the Barnes & Noble at the Enfield Mall than I’ll probably ever have for an Independent Bookstore. It’s forgivable then, perhaps, that I approach Three Lives with some skepticism.
My first customer contact is Michael, a publishing executive, who’s looking for the new book by Polish writer Jan Gross, Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland. He doesn’t find it. Three Lives is a small store, with limited shelf space and a limited budget; the owners can’t stock everything, and have to anticipate their customers’ tastes. Occasionally there are oversights. Gross’s book is one such oversight. A history of the massacre of Jews of Jedwabne by the Poles of Jedwabne, Neighbors is proving controversial, raising issues of Polish complicity in the Holocaust that will be sure to seduce the clientele of Three Lives & Co. (as Lenny Bruce said, everyone in New York is a Jew. “Even if you’re Catholic, if you live in New York you’re Jewish.”).
Michael, who made the fifteen-minute trek up to Three Lives from his office in SoHo, will not walk the few blocks over to Barnes & Noble to find the book. He won’t go home, log on to Amazon.com, and wait the 3-5 days for the U.S. Postal Service to deliver it to his door. Instead, he’ll order it at the counter, or ask about it at the counter, confident that it will appear, sooner or later, either way. He’ll be back, as he’s been back, again and again, for the past fifteen years. “It’s quintessentially New York City,” he says, by way of explanation, “quintessentially the Village, quintessentially progressive.”
Whatever that means, and it does mean something, Three Lives, named after the Gertrude Stein novel, attracts an impressive collection of book-lovers and flaneurs. On the Tuesday evening I stop by, the store is populated by regulars like Michael – impeccably groomed and impeccably English – and Jamie, a twenty-something who also works in publishing and has been coming to the store for about a year, along with passers-by like Daria, a good-looking writer/actor whose play just won a contest sponsored by the Kennedy Center, and John, her equally good-looking writer/actor friend. Also present – briefly – is Julian, a confused German tourist looking for books on Role-Playing Games (e.g. Dungeons & Dragons).
Michael and Jamie, whether they buy today or not, will be back, and they’ll buy then. Daria won’t make a special trip to the store, but if she’s in the neighborhood again, she may stop by and get a book, or maybe she’ll just browse and draw in other customers with her radiance. John only buys used books, and probably won’t be back, but he tips me off to a curbside bookseller over at Astor Place and Lafayette. Julian, however, is out of luck. Three Lives has a good selection of fiction, poetry, and travel books, and scattered non-fiction (books like Neighbors, though not yet Neighbors itself), but no books on role-playing games. They don’t play in the West Village.
Like Julian, and John, but unlike Michael Cunningham, I probably won’t return to Three Lives. I love books, but bookstores have never been a source of rejuvenation for me, they’ve been a place to purchase books. In this, as in many things I’m a consumer first. I look at the much lamented decline of independent bookstores, and I fail to weep. Why, for instance, has Blockbuster, the Barnes & Noble of the video rental market, failed to drive the good independent video stores out of business? Because the good independent video stores offer a wider selection than Blockbuster does.
When I need a video, I go to Kim’s Video in Manhattan, or Best Video in New Haven, or Pleasant St. Video in Northhampton. When I need a book, I go to a superstore, where they’re more likely to have it, and when I want to browse, I hit the used bookshops – they’re cheaper, and shabbier, and I prefer my books, like my women, cheap and shabby. When I want to browse, and am willing to pay full price, I still go to the superstore, because I never know, until I get there, whether I’ll want serious literature or the latest installment in the Boba Fett trilogy, and Boba Fett doesn’t play at Independent Bookstores.
If, 23 years ago, Jenny Feder and Jill Dunbar had located Three Lives & Company in Springfield rather than the Village, or if I’d grown up in the Village rather than Springfield, things would probably be different. Three Lives would probably be for me. Because if you read through the naked advocacy, and put aside the well-meaning exaggeration, and remember that there’s a market for tastes that a philistine from Springfield, Mass never had the chance to develop, Three Lives & Company is all of the things that Roiphe and Cunningham say it is.
It’s beautiful – from the tasteful, golden Bookman Old Style font of the sign outside, to the split-levels of hardwood floors, to the oriental rugs, exposed brick, and green glass lamps lighting the shelves. Music plays softly over the speakers, a mix tape – Curtis Mayfield, Aaron Neville, Liz Story – one of hundreds of tapes made by Feder and Dunbar over the years and stored in a file cabinet behind the counter. The selection, like the music, is excellent but not overwhelming, small enough to make browsing feasible, and pleasurable. The store has good readings – in the past few months, Edmund White, Lillian Ross and Susan Morrison, David Rakoff, and Adriana Trigiani – the salespeople really are knowledgeable, and they really do recognize many of the customers.
This is how it’s been, I imagine, since the beginning (1976), when they set up shop at their original location at 7th Ave. and 10th. Seven years later, in 1983, when they had to re-locate a block away to 10th and Waverly (where they’ve remained), the fusion of whatever it is that makes Three Lives what it is – community, style, taste, courtesy – had already inspired such loyalty that the move was assisted by an elite corps of literati, among them novelist Laurie Colwin and translator Robert Phelps.
Now, another change has come to Three Lives & Company bookstore, a change in ownership. Jill and Jenny finally tired of the bookselling business. Like caring for an infant, the rewards more than compensated for the small profit-margins and the need for constant attention, but 23 years is a long time to care for an infant, and it was time to move on, to trust his care to the outside world. Jill approached a friend, Toby Cox, and asked him if he was interested in buying the store. “When I came in here, a few years ago,” he says, “I thought to myself, ‘this is the kind of place I’d love to own.’” And so when Jill asked, Toby quickly answered. He found some investors, left his job at Random House, and bought the store, taking over for good on February 9th, 2001.
He fits in well. Tall, thirty-ish, trim, balding, with wire-rimmed glasses and quiet clothes, he looks like the singer Moby, if Moby were taller, wore glasses, and had more of a bookseller vibe. Before Random House, Toby worked in Providence, first as a salesman at an independent bookstore, and then as head of promotions at the Brown University Bookstore. Like Joyce (the only other member of his four-person staff whom I met), and the store, he’s nice, unpretentious. There are no disdainful scoffs when someone mis-pronounces an author’s name. There is a manageable quotient of unpronounceable names on the tables and shelves. There’s no literary theory section. They sell books that they like to read (Toby likes travel books, and so he’s expanded the travel book section). “Toby’s Table,” a small display of his favorites, is agreeably eclectic (James Salter, Daniel Duane, Frederick Dillen, Barbara Goudy, Tim O’Brien, Louis Begley, Chris Adrian).
“I don’t see myself as an owner,” he says, “so much as a caretaker.” “This is their store,” he says, indicating the customers. He has no plans to re-decorate, no plans to post his inventory on the web, no plans for radical innovation at all. He owns the place he thought he’d love to own, and he does love it, and he doesn’t see the need to change it. I imagine that if you stop by in a few years, it’ll probably look much the same. You’ll see Toby, maybe a little more bald, you’ll see Michael, still impeccable, you’ll see Neighbors, or its equivalent. If you stop by at the right time, you’ll see a reading by Edmund White, or by his equivalent. You won’t see me, but I’m not much to look at anyway.