There is no question that the independent bookstores of New York are disappearing, which is why I am always thrilled to come across one that is thriving. Book Culture was originally founded as Labyrinth Books in 1997 by Book Culture's current owner, Chris, and Cliff, his partner at the time. Chris' career had begun in the 1980s when he started selling books for Papyrus Bookstore. He also worked at the old Book Forum, located across the street from Columbia, and at Great Jones Books. In 2007, Book Culture broke off from Labyrinth Books. Two new locations opened in Morningside Heights and the Upper West Side in 2009 and 2014. In 2010, Annie Hendricks joined Chris as a co-owner.I spoke with Cody, who became the store manager at 112th Street in 2013. He explained that the real estate is owned by Columbia, and so the shop sees a lot of college students, especially in the early autumn months. Book Culture's customer base, however, is varied: after all, he pointed out, the Upper West Side has not really had an independent bookstore since Endicott Books closed in 1995. Book Culture carries a wide variety of subject matter including English, anthropology, history, philosophy, and sociology.Despite how many independent bookstores have been lost, Cody has optimistically seen a trend over the last four years, which he called "a natural renaissance of independent booksellers." He noted that chain stores are not sustainable in the literary world, since people "want bookstores to be tied to the communities." Cody acknowledged that Book Culture has tried to fulfill its role as a community center by offering events, such as family outings and bagel breakfasts. He then went on to say that since Book Culture takes care to cater to the neighborhood, the store "oftentimes offers a better curated selection" than one's average Barnes and Noble. "In many ways it's more than just a bookstore. It's a great place to spend a couple hours."Cody has noticed a few other recent trends. The store, he told me excitedly, had become increasingly busier. He has noticed that there has been a "return to fiction" with specifically a "growing interest in translated works." In response, Book Culture's literature section has expanded. Customers are encouraged to spend time figuring out what interests them. He then stated, "It's rare that someone doesn't leave with a book or at least a good idea of what they'd like to read next."
Shadowed by the leaves of a weeping willow is hidden a little oasis in the city. As I entered, I was greeted by the sight of neatly organized rows of boxed-in garden plots, and a path through the middle decorated with cobblestones. There were overhanging vines, and stray cats sunning themselves among the cabbages and the squash. On either side, of the garden were concrete walls.The Rodale Pleasant Community Garden was built from a vacant lot in 1998, so we learned from Sandy, a member at the community garden who proudly showed us her piece of land. It was Bette Midler's New York Restoration Project that is responsible for enabling this piece of land to be turned into the garden. When Ms. Midler learned that vacant lots were going to be sold, she "came in with lots of money, and said that she wanted to save the green," Sandy recalled.Today, Rodale boasts a membership of close to fifty. They not only come from the neighborhood surrounding the garden, but men and women travel from Lower Manhattan and Midtown to care for their small piece of land. There are eighteen lots where the community is invited to plant vegetables and or flowers while also putting in four hours every month to water the plants and to maintain the garden's appearance. Together they work to cultivate a community of active gardeners in a place where nature is scarce.Sandy told us that everyone begins planting in spring, and within a few weeks, there is an abundance of food for them to eat throughout the season. Looking around, we saw signs of zucchini, tomatoes, lettuces, mint, basil, peppers and okra. Amazed at the variety, and commenting on how my husband and I could never grow anything like this when we lived in Westchester because of the deer and rabbits, Sandy laughed and said, "Here, it is whole foods for the squirrels, deer are the issue in the suburbs."Some would say the charm of Manhattan is in its people. Some would say it is in its innovative, forever-changing spirit. Some still would disagree and say it is in its constancy. To Sandy, and many of the urban gardeners on 114th Street, the charm of Manhattan is in its gardens and green spaces. "It is a lifeline... a gift," said Sandy, "to be able to garden, and vegetables are my thing."