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Sarah McNally, Unfiltered, on Her Soho Bookstore’s Forced Move

“I never thought I was a genius, but in the last week, I’ve discovered that I am.”

Sarah McNally in front of her Soho bookstore, McNally Jackson. Photo: Melissa Hom
Sarah McNally in front of her Soho bookstore, McNally Jackson. Photo: Melissa Hom

Sarah McNally walked into her store on Thursday morning, in dark jeans and a black suede jacket, ten minutes late for our interview. She shook my hand and apologized. “I lost my dog this morning,” she explained. “I was looking everywhere. I was like, Where is the fucking dog?!” The mutt, Chief, was now at McNally’s heels. “Then I found her under the covers of my bed.”

I was here to discuss what’s next for McNally Jackson, the revered bookshop McNally opened in Nolita in 2004. Earlier this month, the Lower East Side website Bowery Boogie broke the news that the store would be leaving the Prince Street building it’s always occupied. Panic spread on Twitter — was one of the last great indies about to shutter? — but McNally quickly reassured everyone that she was just moving to a new spot, on account of a stratospheric rent increase. As we stood in the store’s café, McNally noticed we were short a chair. She’d told a staffer to get more, she muttered: “How fucking hard is it?” It didn’t feel like a rhetorical question. Then she took note of the customers around us. “It’s all right,” she said. “I’ll just have to control myself.” I suggested we head downstairs, instead — to a basement space that hosts readings most weeknights.

McNally, surprisingly brash and unfiltered for a bookstore owner, is iconoclastic in other ways. As all of the city’s independent bookstores have struggled to redefine themselves in the age of Amazon, she’s not only succeeded — her company opened a second store in Williamsburg in January — but tacked in a different direction. Unlike newish Brooklyn shops that double as social spaces, heavy on author events and relatively light on inventory, McNally Jackson focuses on hardcovers and paperbacks and marginalizes all else. The owner estimates there are 14,000 books in the literature section alone.

All those books take up space — which in Manhattan has become expensive enough to amount to something of a retail crisis. There’s pending city legislation that would give small businesses more security, including the right to a ten-year lease and the chance to negotiate rent increases with the help of an independent arbitrator. But McNally says the real-estate market is better for her now than it would have been five years ago, when the store might not have survived a hike like this one.

Settled in at a long table downstairs, with Chief avidly licking her fingers, McNally explained how she’d chosen Prince Street in the first place. She was 29 at the time, the scion of two Canadian booksellers (her parents own the McNally Robinson chain), looking to open a store of her own. “I went down to the Department of Land Use,” she said, “and I got a map — huge, black-and-white, printed on shitty paper, with every building in the city. I colored in all the movie theaters, the cultural centers. I colored in pedestrian flow. This became the obvious area.” Her fingers rapped the table. “All the brokers were like, ‘You can’t open on that side of Broadway. You’re wrong.’ But I knew I wasn’t, because I’d drawn this thing out. And I wasn’t.”

Choosing a highly trafficked spot was critical, because her business model is built on brick-and-mortar browsing. A large share of her sales, she says, come from impulse purchases. And it’s true that for browsing, especially in world literature — Romanian poetry or new Nigerian fiction — there’s no better store in the city.

McNally Jackson in its current home (for now). Photo: Melissa Hom

McNally takes personal pride in her store’s design. After directing a customer to the basement restroom, she flapped her hands in excitement. “We just made this new Borges bathroom — have you seen it? It’s so rad! It’s so rad! That Borges cover — is it Labyrinths? That’s all mirrors? I modeled it on that, so I put mirrors all around, these sort of infinity mirrors. And we piped in audio from Borges’s lectures.” She gave due credit to her forebears in indie retail design: Kim’s, the dearly departed East Village video shop she frequented 20 years ago as a new arrival to the city, and Paul Yamazaki at San Francisco’s legendary City Lights Books. “Paul wants every inch of his shelves to be devoted to books people would probably not otherwise find,” she explained. “I’m not a purist like that at all, but his courage is in my mind, always.”

McNally may be house-proud, but she isn’t remotely attached to the building itself, aside from the rent — $360,000, below market rate for the neighborhood. She had expected to pay more when her lease runs out next June, but was surprised when the landlord, Alex Berley, told her how much he wanted: $850,000. She says she asked for time to think it over, and meanwhile began looking for a new spot in the neighborhood. Then, on October 9, she was caught off guard again. Bowery Boogie reported that Winick Realty Group was advertising the building for lease, starting next summer. (Berley could not be reached for comment.)

McNally responded with her own statement the same morning, calling the building “shoddy” and mentioning that it was “thrown up over a former chicken abattoir.” Downstairs in her store, she told me she regretted those comments — before continuing in that vein. “I was so mad at that dickhead,” she said. “But yeah, I can’t tell you how bad this building is. There’s not a single right angle in this entire place” — a flaw elegantly disguised by the bookshelves. “There are problems with the plumbing. When you look at the ceiling upstairs, you realize, Holy shit, she’s got a lot of leaks. The paint is peeling all the time. So it’s okay to leave.”

In recent days, concerned customers have been calling in for news, while McNally’s friends approach the topic gingerly. But McNally actually seems thrilled, if only because it gives her a chance to design more stuff like the Borges bathroom. She says she’s finalizing the lease on a new place nearby and hopes to announce the location, along with architecture plans, within a week or two. It’s large enough that she can fold one branch of Goods for the Study — a stationery store that has two downtown locations — and merge it into the new space. She pictures a rare-books room with a fireplace, and she’s already working with an architect on plans for balconies and skylights.

McNally pulled out a notebook and started showing me sketches: an arch at the entrance, a staircase surrounded by bookshelves. “I never thought I was a genius, but in the last week, I’ve discovered that I am. I’ve discovered my own genius in the last week! In this bookstore design. It’s going to be fucking heaven. It’s going to be fucking heaven on earth.”

Sarah McNally, Unfiltered, on Her Bookstore’s Forced Move