Bibliophiles keep Westsider Books open for business in a changing retail climate
Westsider Books has the musty smell and sense of disarray that a used book store should have. Books pile high in every corner, even crowding the narrow staircase to the second floor. For owner Dorian Thornley, his store is the only game in town, and holds the unofficial title of the last used bookstore on the Upper West Side.
Thornley, originally from Blackpool, England, sits behind a desk on the second floor of the shop, peering at his computer through black-rimmed glasses. Business continues as usual at the moment, but he gives the publishing industry five years before the printing of new books comes to an end. At that point, he figures, physical books will become more of a novelty item than a means of reading.
“You can’t fight the future,” Thornley said. “What am I supposed to do—bomb the Kindle factory?”
Westsider Books began as a wheelbarrow full of used books for sale, later moving to a tiny storefront on Broadway between 80th and 81st streets. Thornley was originally an employee at the store, then known as Gryphon Books, and he eventually bought it with his business partner, Bryan Gonzalez, in 2002. Gonzalez and Thornley own both Westsider Books and Westsider Records, located eight blocks further downtown.
The Upper West Side used to be full of used-book stores, Thornley recalls. But today, their store is such an anomaly that Woody Allen chose Westsider Books as a setting for his newest movie, Fading Gigolo, due out in theaters later this year.
When not being used as a movie set, the store is filled with bibliophiles, some of whom come in twice a day. For diehard customers, Thornley says buying books is an addiction. Even so, the Upper West Side has changed a lot since the store opened 40 years ago, and his clientele is simultaneously more affluent and less academic.
Even newcomers are impressed with the tiny shop. One first-time customer, Mike Higgins, 30, whispered “wow,” as he peered up at the rickety ladder that scaled the towering bookshelves.
“They’ve never seen a bookstore like this before. We’re celebrated for being a holdout,” Thornley said. “We’re getting older, and the customers are getting younger.”
It should go without saying that you probably won’t find the latest bestseller at Westsider.
“We like to think we have a good selection of books here,” Thornley said. “No one raving into a cellphone, no lowbrow dreck.”
Instead, the shelves are filled with unusual books from people’s basements and attics, or even suitcases, collected over interesting, far-flung lifetimes. John Springs, an elderly man with a gray beard and gap-toothed grin, lugs a ragged suitcase full of paperbacks into the shop. He is a regular bookseller at Westsider, and claims to have once been a bestselling author.
“If you just come here, you’ll see something,” Springs said. “It’s real comfortable; they know where everything is.”
But being a book expert is not enough. Thornley says he tries to keep his store relevant by updating Westsider’s Facebook page and responding to Yelp reviews. What really keeps the bookstore running though, he says, is the location: on a main thoroughfare and right near the 79th Street subway stop. Plus, it doesn’t hurt that the Barnes & Noble across the street closed a couple of years ago.
“It’s a vocation. It chooses you; you don’t choose it,” Thornley said. “I’m selling books; what could be better than that?”
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