By Sabina Mollot, Town & Village
With local branches of bookstores such as Borders and Barnes & Noble closing in Manhattan and elsewhere and consumers switching to e-readers such as Kindles and iPads, opening a new brick and mortar bookstore might seem like a strange move.
But Van Alen, a nonprofit institute aimed at supporting the architectural and design industry, saw a need, and on April 25, it opened a bookstore and public reading room in the Flatiron District. The somewhat cozy space of 600 s/f will be located at the ground floor of a building Van Alen owns, at 30 West 22nd Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues.
“We wanted to create a situation where people immerse themselves in books, and have a physical encounter with books,” said Olympia Kazi, executive director of Van Alen. “That’s what you’re missing when you don’t have a bookstore.”
On shopping for books online, Kazi said, “There’s this illusion that we know everything. But if you don’t know what you’re looking for you’ll never find out.”
According to Kazi, the idea to open the store came over a year ago after the city’s last bookshop specializing in architecture, Urban Center Books, closed. But that store, she explained, had problems beyond the recession or rent woes or even the usual complaint that no one reads books.
The building, on Madison Avenue, had no street storefront and the store had been there a while. And location is important, which Van Alen already discovered when its original public reading room didn’t get much use. Unlike the one now opening, the previous reading room was located on the seventh floor of the building.
The ground floor Van Alen Books will be set up like an amphitheater, with seating constructed from 70 recycled doors. Events will eventually be held there such as debates and storytelling sessions . The store is open for business six days a week, excluding Sunday.
Although Kazi was unsure of how much has been spent so far to finance the store, the space was built on a budget of $150,000, all of which came from donations and endowments. There have also been donations of services. The firms LOT-EK and Robert Silman Associates offered their architectural and engineering services pro bono, while United Hoisting provided free materials. Eleven hundred books will be available for sale, some of which were donated, and others are being sold on consignment.
“We’re working on a shoestring,” said Kazi, “but we’re being optimistic that we can keep it under budget.”
The institute is a nonprofit, but, noted Kazi, the store does need to make money within the year, otherwise, it won’t be kept open.
But fortunately for local bookworms, there has already been some excitement from architectural and publishing industries.
“We’ve been inundated with proposals,” said Kazi. “London has four architectural bookstores; it was weird in New York not to have any.”
The Van Alen Institute, which was founded in 1894, was originally called the Beaux Arts Society, since it was made up of a small group of alumni of the school, Ecole des Beaux-Arts.
It was renamed the National Institute of Architectural Education in 1956 and then Van Alen in 1995 after William Van Alen, architect of the Chrysler Building and founding donor for the institute’s endowment.
Over the years, the institute’s role has been to promote excellence in architecture, through design competitions and other outreach efforts in the industry.