small-business stories

A Greenwich Village Bookshop Pivots to Phone Recommendations

Illustration: Jeanne Verdoux

Several weeks into New York’s statewide shutdown, Troy Chatterton, the manager of Greenwich Village’s Three Lives & Company bookstore, called Beth Whitman to collect her credit-card information. They wound up talking for half an hour — about cooking projects, Whitman’s recently attempted victory garden, and, of course, books. Chatterton recommended Whitman tack on Grow Fruit & Vegetables in Pots to her order — it was written by Aaron Bertelsen, the gardener at the Great Dixter, an East Sussex home dating to the 15th century that the pair had discussed during her visits to the shop. Days later, a stack of books arrived at Whitman’s place along with a jar of Chatterton’s homemade marmalade.

These types of chummy relationships between customers and booksellers are standard at Three Lives, a minuscule, red-doored shop on West 10th Street. Since its founding in 1978, a sharply curated inventory has crowded its shelves. The staff are steeped in the book-publishing world — some days, the space is filled with a dozen varying opinions about Patrick Radden Keefe’s Say Nothing.

All of which created something profitable — at one point, the store was selling 500 to 1,000 books a week. But by mid-March (with customers lined up outside the store shouting requests for the new Rebecca Solnit memoir), the staff became acutely aware that Governor Cuomo would be forced to mandate that nonessential businesses close. They knew, too, that they’d have to bring their shop online.

They weren’t the only ones: Many independent bookstores across the country were, at once, put in the same position. By late April, hundreds had signed up with Bookshop, a new online retailer led by Andy Hunter, publisher of Literary Hub, that aims to offer a bookseller alternative to Amazon; stores earn 30 percent of the cover price on any sales. The Strand’s website, for instance, attempts to categorize the books online exactly as they are in the store: “Underground — Gender Studies,” “Second Floor — Art Technique.” Three Lives’ system, the staff felt, needed to mirror its own low-tech outlook on bookselling.

Ultimately, owner Toby Cox decided to set up a link to a svelte Google form on the site’s home page with a comments section and six questions, one of which requires typing in exactly which books you want to order. After the request is vetted in a Google spreadsheet by backlist buyer and bookseller Miriam Chotiner-Gardner for availability, Chatterton will call and collect the customer’s credit-card information. “It’s a wonky system,” says Chatterton, who, after walking his dog, Olive, and listening to the BBC newscast, makes calls and answers emails for hours from his Brooklyn apartment. “The result is very Three Lives. We call to tell them a book isn’t in stock, and they’ll say, ‘Okay, so you don’t have that book. Would you recommend this book?’ And then we’re just talking with folks.” Afterward, requests are processed and shipped via Ingram, a book wholesaler in La Vergne, Tennessee, which is fulfilling some online purchases for independent booksellers during the pandemic. To date, Three Lives has processed an estimated 2,500 orders during the shutdown. Half of the shipments have been sent outside New York City, many to local customers who have been displaced by the pandemic, but also to supportive onetime tourists from Cincinnati.

Online ordering is bringing in revenue. Still, Cox estimates that sales have dropped by 50 percent. The impact has been cushioned by the fact that the shop “had a very good couple of years” before the pandemic. And in May, the store was approved for a Paycheck Protection Program loan covering eight weeks of payroll and benefits, which freed up funds to pay rent, utilities, and invoices to publishers. Cox expects that the store can weather a few more months of online-only operations.

Meanwhile, with the doors still closed, Cox is making daily trips from his home in Fort Greene to the store to ship orders and drop off a few in Greenwich Village. And the staff have upped the frequency of their newsletter. These days, it’s filled with reports on how everyone is keeping busy: digging into Lewis Thomas’s 1974 The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher, which “feels right for this moment,” or watching a reality-TV show about a Korean pop star on Jeju Island. Each newsletter starts with a ruminative dispatch. “Time flows strangely without the steady rhythms of the bookstore to guide us, the evening twinkle of streetlights against the shiny new jackets in our window,” reads one entry. “But new rhythms have taken root: calling customers, writing email recommendations. We will keep saying it: ‘Thank you, thank you for making the choice to get your books from us.’ ”

Quarantine Notable Sellers

Clockwise from left: Photo: RetailerPhoto: RetailerPhoto: Retailer
Clockwise from left: Photo: RetailerPhoto: RetailerPhoto: Retailer

The Glass Hotel, by Emily St. John Mandel; The Great Influenza, by John M.Barry; and Salt Fat Acid Heat, by Samin Nosrat. Fill out this order form to purchase.

*This article appears in the June 8, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

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A Greenwich Village Bookshop Pivots to Phone Recommendations