posted 2012-09-21 18:07:14

Living Off the Whale

Alabaster Bookshop maintains business near the Strand

Michelle Zak-Strazalka

Contributing Writer

Contrary to popular belief, Alabaster Bookshop is not a descendant of the secondhand bookshops that used to line Fourth Avenue from Union Square to Astor Place—“Book Row,” as that road was called four decades ago. Alabaster opened only 16 years ago, long after Book Row had disappeared. However, its shelves still carry out the legacy left by many of the previous independent shops. The antiquated shop holds volumes of books that Book Row shops once did. Almost as good as the selection is the personalized attention the shopkeepers provide, which makes this bookstore worthy of a visit.

The owner of the shop, Steve Crowley, came to New York as a drummer in 1986, and worked on and off at the Gryphon bookshop on 80th Street and Broadway. At the Gryphon, Crowley learned the odds and ends of book-buying and selling. He also began developing a plan to open his own bookshop.

In his spare time, Crowley would ride his bicycle along the former Book Row for the few diminishing bookshops that remained at the time. One day, he noticed a “for rent” sign in the window of an old bookshop fallen to disrepair because its owner had passed away. Crowley proposed a business plan to the owner of the building and borrowed $15,000 from his uncle to get started on achieving his dream.

Once settled into the space, the bibliophile and laid-back drummer transformed the old bookshop into a chill place decorated with pine bookshelves, a Persian rug, a vintage lamp, and an elephant statue. The statue today is used to hold a rare edition of American Art by John Wilmerding and The Cannabible Collection by Jason King. Used and rare books are turned in every direction as they stand from floor to ceiling, covering the front desk to make it look like the employees are sitting in a dome of books. Some books even hang from the ceiling to act as decoration.

There was once a time when Crowley would search flea markets for rare and used books to sell, but now all the books arrive to the shop in overflowing bags and grocery shopping carts from people who want to make a few extra bucks. Employees like Nicholas Cass-Johnson purchase, sell, maintain and research the books. When people bring in books, an employee determines its value based on knowledge and research. Not all books are taken; in fact, Alabaster is very selective and picks only books that fit a certain taste. Employees must also sell and maintain the books, which adds to the careful choosing.

Like its atmosphere and owner, Alabaster’s role in the business is laid back. Of course, major competitors like the Strand exist right around the corner, but Cass-Johnson compares Alabaster

to a “pilot fish who swims next to the whale.” Many of the books the Strand rejects, Alabaster takes in. Accordingly, Cass-Johnson claims that “people come to Alabaster as an alternative to the Strand,” which “does not have everything we have.”

Another difference between the two booksellers is that Alabaster offers customers a more personalized shopping experience than the Strand does. Forty- two-year-old Alabaster customer Jacek Tuzun left the store carrying an armful of books. He said, “Nick, the employee, provided so much information about horror novels, which helped me figure out which author I may be more interested in. He recommended Contact by Carl Sagan, because I tend to go for extraterrestrial- type books.” Alabaster employees offer their advice based on individual taste or needs; if a student is looking for an acting book that will get him or her started in the business, the shopkeeper will tell the customer about the different methods to learn acting and which authors are widely read by famous performers.

Alabaster is about quality versus quantity. Sure, the Strand contains 18 miles of books, but Alabaster’s carefully chosen shelves contain a large collection of books on art, photography and fashion, along with rare and autographed first edition books. Within its collection, one can spot a rare edition of Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and a first edition copy of Ian Fleming’s You Only Live Once. Alabaster also has wa wide selection of pulp fiction, a genre many bookshops ignore. Crowley feels it is necessary to include the old action- and comedy-packed books and comics in his collection. In carts outside the shop, Alabaster keeps a less selective collection, which sell popular titles like Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and E. M. Elville’s Paperweights and Other Glass Curiosities for two dollars.

Alabaster seems to be doing well as an independent business, despite the economic downturn. Customers pop in and out of its crowded 500 square feet every minute, buying and selling books for low prices. The shop keeps the motto “illegitimi non carborundum,” mock- Latin for “don’t let the bastards grind you down.” As Cass-Johnson says, “it’s not a contest and we don‘t compete with big merchants. We’re all for ‘live and let live.’ We don’t have a warehouse, we’re selective, and are in this business because we love it and it pays for our rent and bills.”

To check out this atmospheric bookshop for yourself, stop by 122 Fourth Avenue between 12th and 13th streets next time you wander south of Union Square, between the hours of 10 a.m. and 10 p.m. every day.