08/10/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Stay Alive Independent Book Stores

On Thursday night I went to a discussion of "Justice After Guantanamo" at BookCourt in Brooklyn, an independent book store six blocks up from Borough Hall on Court Street. The discussion featured a panel made up of David Bromwich, a Yale professor who has written extensively on human rights, Joseph Saunders, the deputy program director for Human Rights Watch, Scott Horton, a contributing editor at Harper's, and Michael Walzer, the editor of Dissent magazine
The discussion focused on the question of how one meted out punishment for those who had sanctioned America's torture policy in the Bush years. The discussion was lively. The questions from the audience were smart and devoid of the political correctness one might expect on such an occasion.

But what made the evening still more noteworthy was that BookCourt was willing to make room for such a panel. The gathering marked the launch of the summer issue of Dissent (a liberal, quarterly magazine for which I also write). But even if BookCourt sold every issue of Dissent that it carries, it would still not make much of a profit from the magazine.

On Thursday BookCourt was doing what the large chains, such as Barnes & Noble and Borders, increasingly disdain---holding a panel that was not going to have an immediate payoff. BookCourt was also demonstrating why New York needs more independent book stores. Without them the chain book stores are free to behave like supermarkets, which in their case means pushing best sellers, ignoring poetry, and making sure their readings feature brand-name authors.

The success of BookCourt shows it is possible to buck this trend. BookCourt was founded in 1981 by Henry Zook and Mary Gannett, and has become a two-generation business. Their son Zack now serves as general manager of the store and is starting up a journal that will have an online component that includes photography as well as literature

But it is not easy for an independent like BookCourt to fight the chain book stores. A decade ago in her 1998 hit film You've Got Mail, writer-director Nora Ephron made fun of the idea that the big book stores were the enemy of the little guy. In You've Got Mail a book store mogul, Joe Fox (Tom Hanks), drives a small book store run by Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan), out of business. The story, nonetheless, has a happy ending. Joe and Kathleen fall in love, get married, and Joe makes sure that his new Fox book store is sensitive to all the issues Kelly's family store cared about.

The problem is that such happy endings are rare in New York thanks to high rents and the ability of the chain stores to offer deep discounts. In my Upper West Side in Manhattan (the film locale for You've Got Mail), the arrival of two Barnes & Noble stores in the 1990s killed three wonderful, independent book stores, including a legendary Shakespeare & Company, which had been on the Upper West Side for 15 years and had such unique features as a table with employee's choices for the book of the week.

Mercifully, BookCourt has waged a battle the independent book stores on Manhattan's West Side lost. Last fall it added 1,800 feet, breaking through a wall and taking over the space once occupied by an old green house. The result is that there is plenty of room for the 50,000 volumes BookCourt carries, and the Barnes & Noble that looms nearby seems like nothing so much as an intrusive Wal-Mart.