Surviving the Literary Shakeout Means Turning to the Internet


BYLINE: By STACY COWLEY, Special to the Sun




LENGTH: 686 words


DATE: March 1, 2005 


The Internet is the best and worst thing that ever happened to the secondhand books business.


When Skyline Books owner Rob Warren opened his shop on West 18th Street 16 years ago, there were a half dozen similar stores nearby. The glory days of "Book Row," the stretch of Fourth Avenue that held a dense network of used and antiquarian dealers in the mid-twentieth-century, were long gone, but independent shops could still draw in enough business to make the trade profitable. But the ever-upward creep of Manhattan real estate costs wrecks havoc on businesses with slim margins, and when the Internet took off in the late 1990s, competition in the used books business exploded. Any volume a collector desired - even a book so scarce it once would have taken years to track down a copy - was suddenly only a few clicks away. Online transactions took off, but walk-in traffic for bookstores started to dry up.


"We sell a lot of books all around the world. We're certainly an international bookstore now," says Mr. Warren, sitting among the book stacks filling the corner that functions as his office. He doesn't sound entirely happy about the distinction.


Skyline is a survivor of the shakeout that's emptying the used bookstore market: Its sales volume has stayed strong, and it has a long-term lease with an agreeable landlord. Warren, unlike many owners, doesn't worry about staying in business. Still, he misses the days when most of his sales were conducted face-to-face. A third of Skyline's business now comes from online orders, and that percentage increases every year.


"I can see someday the door not even opening anymore - it would all be done on the computer, or by invite only," Mr. Warren said. "I hope it doesn't happen. The bookstore could become a museum."


Mr. Warren is fighting off that fate by running a store that preserves an old-fashioned feel, with the assistance of a small staff he calls the best he's ever had. Fifty thousand surprisingly well organized books pack the comfortably disheveled shop, and a portly cat named Linda patrols in search of patrons willing to offer her a lap to sleep on.


The atmosphere draws in customers like Kurt Brokaw, who lives in the Upper East Side but visits at least once a week to check out Skyline's new finds. "This store is very good on modern firsts with an edge - radical, noir-ish, offbeat," Mr. Brokaw said.


Photography and design books are the best sellers, according to Mr. Warren. Recently, Giorgio Armani staffers came through to pick out thousands of dollars worth of rare editions suitable for Mr. Armani's library. Skyline also specializes in African-American literature, beat literature, and poetry - though poetry doesn't sell that well, Warren admits. "I don't think poets read other poets," he commented.


While most of the books on Skyline's shelves are ordinary secondhand copies selling for less than $15, the store always has a stash of treasures on display in the front. Currently, customers can look over a selection including an early French edition of "Ulysses," a signed first edition of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," a signed vintage paperback of H.G. Wells' "In Search of Hot Water," and a first edition of Faulkner's "The Sound and the Fury" - available for the bargain price of $6,000, thanks to the battered dust jacket.


Mr. Warren's best recent find isn't for sale. It's the first edition of Philip K. Dick's "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" the cult classic science-fiction novel that inspired "Blade Runner." Mr. Warren plans to hold onto that trophy for several years, as he did with the book he calls the greatest he's handled in his 20 years in the book trade: a 1925 first edition of Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby," complete with the incredibly scarce dust jacket. Warren kept the book in his collection for a decade before selling it to another dealer. He won't say what he got for it, but copies with the dust jacket list for over $100,000.


Years later, remembering the book still lights Mr. Warren up. "That's my favorite kind of day," he said. "When you're looking, and you see something you've never seen before."