Flower Power to the Rescue

Written by Deb Sperling on . Posted in Breaking News, Posts.

The biggest development along the stretch of West 28th Street
in recent years has been the amount of sliver hotels (especially the chain
ones) that have been sprouting up among the flower shops and cheap jewelry

Chelsea’s Flower District has been dealt a serious blow over
the last decade, but the only businesses that have suffered more setbacks is,
perhaps, small booksellers. So, the sight of piles of used and rare books
practically budding from the leaves in a florist’s window on this dumpy stretch
of the neighborhood is at once inspiring—and heartbreaking. Although it’s a
relief to see that something real still exists in this zone, it’s also crushing
since it seems too fragile to withstand the harsh economic climate.

Garden District, Ltd., a flower shop located at 51 W. 28th
St., is also the site of The Book Gallery, which many will remember as the
former Skyline Books. Surrounded by plants and vases, bookshelves and boxes of
rare and used books—mostly art and photography books, along with some signed
literary first editions (ranging from $3 to somewhere in the thousands)—line
the walls and floors of the storefront.

In January 2010, Skyline Books owner Rob Warren found himself
in the wretched position of having to close his well-known and well-loved
20-some-year-old used and rare bookshop located at 13 W. 18th St.

“Expenses started going up on me, rent,” Warren says. “I
didn’t have any real problem with the landlords. They gave me a good deal, but
it was time to get out. I just couldn’t afford Fifth Avenue anymore. It was a
tremendous loss to me.”

Skyline had enjoyed significant success, particularly in the
mid- to late-’90s, selling a mishmash of inexpensive and moderately priced used
books, as well as a collection of rare books Warren had amassed over the years.

“One of the best books we ever sold at Skyline was a Great Gatsby,” Warren says. “It was in
the dust jacket, and we got $100,000. I flipped my lid. It was nuts. The dust
wrapper, there was an error made, so they hand corrected all the copies, and I
had one of those. Without the dust jacket, it’s just worth a few thousand

Frequent Skyline customers shared special moments with the
store’s resident cat, Linda—somewhat of a New York celebrity—who now lives at
home with Warren.

When Skyline closed its doors, most of the low and mid-range
books were donated to two charities. Many went to New Alternatives, an
organization that provides support services to homeless LGBT youth, and around
300 boxes were given to a veterans’ organization that Warren declined to name.

Rather than transferring all of the books, Warren decided to
narrow down his in-store collection to target a more specific audience. “I
wanted something smaller, something with better books, not like the $5 and $10
books, because that really wasn’t paying the bills,” he explains.

A few months later, Warren quietly relocated a portion of his
collection to the 28th Street storefront, owned by friend, florist and rare
book collector Lenny De Martino. “Lenny collects Hemingway, Faulkner, all the
major writers,” Warren says. “He has a world-class collection. Those books
aren’t in the store. Years ago, I used to put out a catalog and mail it around
the world. He was my best customer, and I’d give him first crack [at buying

The Book Gallery deals primarily in higher-end first editions
and other collector items, like a first edition of Charles Olson’s Letters
for Origin
, signed from the author’s death bed, or a signed copy of Kurt
Vonnegut’s Happy Birthday that recently sold for around $700. “There are
certainly books here that you’re not gonna find around town,” Warren says.

Although it’s not the most peaceful place to browse—since most
customers are there for the flowers, not for signed copies of Vonnegut, Salman
Rushdie or Studs Terkel, you may stand out—but it’s
well worth it. Store hours are approximately 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through
Saturday, but potential book-buyers can call ahead to double-check or request a
Sunday visit.

“This is an experiment,” Warren says of the stint in this
unusual location. He is grateful to have a space to display and sell his
collection, and has made some significant sales since the move. However, he’s
also realistic about the current state of book-buying.

“[Book buyers are] not coming in on foot,” he explains,
lamenting the rise of Amazon and the invention of the eReader. “They go online;
they compare prices. I’m an old-school bookseller. When I started my business,
there was no Internet. Everybody’s a bookseller now.”

In addition to the quirky storefront in the flower district,
however, books from Warren’s collection are also available online at
alibris.com and abebooks.com.

“It’s not exactly working out too well here,” Warren says with
a tinge of sadness in his voice. “We’re on the farthest block. But I do have
plans, over the next few months, to open up my own small shop downtown. I need
to be below 14th Street.”