Does Anybody Have $5 Million? Asking for a Friendly Book Shop.


 

New York theatre fans let out a collective gasp of horror on October 24th, when the historic Drama Book Shop announced that it would be relocating in January 2019. Known for its friendly, knowledgeable staff and wide selection of play scripts, musical libretti, sheet music, and more, The Drama Book Shop is a popular hub for students and performers of any experience level to discuss and discover theatre. Furthermore, it frequently serves as a venue for playwrights to hold book signings and release parties, and it even hosted a three-week experimental event in 2012 where customers could watch playwrights write new work. The Drama Book Shop is so integral to the theatre scene in New York that it won an Honorary Tony Award in 2011, making it the first (and probably the only) bookstore to ever win a major performing arts award.

Although The Drama Book Shop has operated for over a hundred years (since 1917, making it the nation’s longest-running arts bookstore), the current location on 250 West 40th St. is one of many in the store’s long history. The Book Shop has been at 40th St. since 2001, when it moved from its previous location on 7th Avenue. Ironically, the reason it moved back then is the same one it’s moving for right now: rent. The Drama Book Shop’s lease agreement expires at the end of the year, and their unnamed landlord is raising the rent by almost 50% (the Book Shop’s previous rent was around $20,000). Maybe the Bookshop can ask Fox to donate some of the proceeds from Rent: Live?

Like the musical of the same name, rent is only part of the store’s financial woes. Regarding the move, the Book Shop’s Vice President Allen Hubby said, “We knew it was getting too expensive. It’s hard to cover a $20,000 rent when most of the books you offer only cost about $10. Not to mention salaries, the costs of buying the books, electricity, taxes. We can’t afford it.” The Drama Book Shop is known for its low markup on plays, resulting in cheap prices compared to other bookstores, and it has a dedicated fan base of theatre nerds—it’s not uncommon to see students come in and buy ten plays at a time. However, it’s still not doing enough business to survive with its current rent, let alone such a substantial rent increase. Apparently Rozanne Seelen, the Book Shop’s 83-year old owner, had recently begun using her personal savings in order to keep the store afloat during the last few months of the lease.

Chester, The Drama Book Shop’s “official greeter,” showing love to Hamilton. Credit: The Drama Book Shop

This isn’t the first time The Drama Book Shop has been endangered; according to the owners, it has endured robberies, fires, and floods over the course of its century-long life. Most recently, the bursting of a frozen water pipe in 2016 damaged a significant portion of the Book Shop’s inventory. Instead of closing, the Book Shop taped off the section and opened its doors to the public as usual. The cost of repairs and replacing damaged books were offset by a sales rally from Broadway’s favorite musical theatre geek, Lin-Manuel Miranda, who encouraged his Twitter followers/Hamilton enthusiasts to visit the Book Shop, resulting in a huge sales windfall. For his services, Rozanne Seelen promised Miranda free books for life.

Miranda’s longtime association with the Book Shop began back in the mid-00’s, when he used the small downstairs sixty-seat theater space to workshop his breakout hit musical In the Heights while it was still being developed, even writing some of the songs using a piano in the theater. As a result, the Book Shop, particularly its theater, the Arthur Seelen Theatre (named after Rozanne’s husband, who owned the Book Shop from 1958 until his death in 2000), has a special place in musical theatre history, and has also developed as a sort of mecca for hardcore In the Heights fans. Losing the location would mean losing the Arthur Seelen Theatre, which currently serves as a rehearsal space for Theatre 68, a small local theatre group. The Seelen Theatre also has a special place in Queens College theatre history—last year, the Queens College Theatre Guild’s production of The Last Days of Judas Iscariot transferred there for an extended run. Although the Book Shop has yet to find a new location, it expects that it will only be able to afford a store half the size of the current location, meaning that a new theater space is out of the question.

Realizing how much there was to lose, Lin-Manuel Miranda sprang into action only a day after the Book Shop’s move was announced, stopping by on October 25th to autograph “everything with [his] name on it,” to encourage fans to come in and support the Book Shop. Miranda also encouraged many of his well-known playwright friends to autograph all copies of their work that were in stock at the bookstore.

Enough playwrights were interested in helping out that a “Save the Shop” Event occurred on October 29th, with many notable playwrights stopping in throughout the day to sign copies of their work and hang out with customers. One of those playwrights happened to be the two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage, who affirmatively responded to Miranda’s Twitter post, blaming “greed” for the Book Shop’s forced relocation; presumably, Nottage was referring to the landlord who had raised the store’s rent to an exorbitant sum.

However, whatever sales the store garnered from the event are likely not enough to allow it to remain in its current location, and many dedicated fans are already prepared to follow the store wherever it goes. A GoFundMe has been set up in the The Drama Book Shop’s name, with the goal of raising $20,000 to help ease the transition into a new location. The support has been somewhat disheartening though; three weeks since its creation, the page has not managed to meet half of that goal. It might simply be that word hasn’t spread fast enough, but it’s more likely that fans of the Book Shop would rather use their expendable money to buy inventory, precisely because that money isn’t earmarked for transition. In other words, people would rather help the Book Shop stay at 250 West 40th St.

There’s obviously plenty of reasons to keep the current location, besides the fact that transitioning may be a difficult and time-consuming process. The current location is a great piece of real estate, located just a few blocks away from Times Square. It’s not uncommon for theatregoers to visit the Book Shop before or after seeing a Broadway performance—the Book Shop prominently displays the scripts of currently-running shows. Moreover, the Arthur Seelen Theatre has great significance to many theatre fans, and allows the Book Shop to service the theatre community more flexibly, as the theatre can be used for performances, interviews, etc. and rented relatively cheaply. However, rent throughout Manhattan is skyrocketing. Although The Drama Bookshop has always managed to stay in the Theatre District, it is currently looking at a location in the Financial District, and another as far away as Queens. Although the rent will probably be more affordable, a location in Queens is likely to reduce the overall number of customers who come to the Book Shop. Although, I’m sure QC’s Drama majors will not be terribly upset by its proximity.

If the Book Shop wants to keep its current location, what’s needed is a long-term solution to ensure that the store is making enough money to cover all of its bills for the foreseeable future. This has obviously proven difficult, which is ironic given the Book Shop’s magnanimity towards its customers. Even with its cheap prices, the Book Shop offers a redemption program, allowing customers to take a free play script for every ten they buy. And despite how helpful the staff is at helping customers find the right scripts for them, the Bookshop allows visitors to sit and read through as many scripts as they like—without any obligation to buy. Customers, especially cash-strapped theatre students, are known to sit in the store for hours reading entire scripts, then leave without making a single purchase. This is not accidental; it’s been part of the Drama Bookshop’s philosophy for decades. In a 1999 interview with The New York Times, Arthur Seelen responded, “The sale is not as important as the customer,” when asked why he let young actors read in the Bookshop.

Rozanne Seelen and Allen Hubby. Credit: Playbill, Marc J. Franklin.

It’s a noble goal, but it has clearly proved problematic as the store has moved into the 21st century. Allen Hubby, who is expected to take over as owner from Rozanne Seelen sometime next year,  suspects that customers have abused the store’s generosity by reading a script in the store, then leaving only to buy the same script online. Hubby has also blamed online retailers for pulling away customers, stating, “Most of the things we sell you can now get on Amazon, and although people often don’t realize it, we actually sell most of our items for lower prices.” This is unsurprising; bookstores across the country have been run out of business in recent years, most of them citing Amazon as a primary factor in their demise. The fact that the Book Shop has managed to stay in business so long is a small miracle.

The exorbitant and sudden rent increase reflects another increasingly-common reality of running a small business in New York City. Hubby has commented that rent increases are not surprising in the neighborhood, stating, “Space is very expensive in New York right now. There are a lot of expensive vacant shops. Just on this stretch of 40th Street, three major businesses closed in the past few weeks: the wonderful falafel shop, Maoz; Elegant Fabrics, which has been there my whole life; and Guy & Gallard, a lunch place that had lines out the door all day long. Their leases came up, and they’re gone.” It’s part of a trend of landlords artificially raising their rents to drive out long-standing small businesses in favor of luring new tenants willing to pay the exorbitant prices for the prime real estate (or, to use Lynn Nottage’s word, “greed”). The ongoing epidemic across NYC has resulted in a current bill to enforce rent control protections for commercial tenants. If and when that bill gets passed, it will likely be too late to stop the Book Shop’s relocation in two months.

Other solutions have been proposed to keep the Book Shop viable in its new location, or to make its financial future more stable. At the Save the Shop Event, Hubby stated that he was eager to strike a partnership deal with a local theatre, either to split the rent with a company in exchange for using the Arthur Seelen Theatre as a cabaret venue, or to relocate the Book Shop within the space of a local theatre company. Hubby claimed he had heard from theatre companies interested in the venture, but didn’t provide any names. Some have speculated that Signature Theater, which owns the spacious Pershing Square Signature Center complex on 42nd St., would be able to accommodate The Drama Book Shop, while offering free publicity from its patrons (the Signature Center is home to three off-Broadway theaters, as well as a bar). Others, more optimistically, hope that a larger venue like the Marriott Marquis Hotel, which houses the Marquis Theatre, will offer discounted space to The Drama Book Shop as a gesture of good will toward the theatre community.

More recently, a short opinion piece by Robin Breon published in The New York Times suggested that the “New York City theater community” should establish “an endowment of $5 million” to allow The Drama Book Shop to partner with a nonprofit organization and protect it from further rent hikes. Clearly, Breon, a theatre journalist from Toronto, has never actually worked on Broadway—$5 million is double the average initial investment required to produce a Broadway play. But Broadway producers are happy to invest in a promising production because they expect their money will eventually return to them. Unfortunately, it’s easier to find people willing to toss away $36.5 million on a giant ape puppet than $5 million for the preservation of a beloved bookstore.

Unless Lin-Manuel Miranda spontaneously leaves his entire earthly fortune to The Drama Book Shop, there’s not a lot that can be done. The landlord is not going to suddenly grow a heart, no major entity is likely to step in just to throw free money at the Book Shop, and even the most ardent theatre fans won’t be able to pool together enough money in time. And even if the Book Shop does manage to get past its current troubles and remain at 40th St., it will certainly need to implement changes to its policies to ensure that it is financially sustainable. Raising book prices, kicking out script browsers, finding a partner to monetize the Arthur Seelen Theatre, doing more special events to reach a wider audience—these are all possible options with obvious drawbacks. Mainly, they all risk alienating The Drama Book Shop’s regular customers, who are used to its personalized treatment and laid-back, non-commercial atmosphere. Change will be hard, especially for a store that is literally one-of-a-kind. But the Book Shop has managed to survive for over a hundred years. It can do it again.

The cast and crew of the Queens College Theatre Guild’s production of The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, in the Arthur Seelen Theatre. Credit: Leeanna Zayas)

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