Bookstores have not died — try this one in Greenwich Village in NYC

Three Lives bookshop, on the corner of Waverly Place and 10th Street, has attracted writers and artists since 1978.Credit…Christopher L. Smith/Courtesy of Three Lives & Co.

In this series for T, the author Reggie Nadelson revisits New York institutions that have defined cool for decades, from time-honored restaurants to unsung dives.

Last summer, it appeared that Three Lives & Company, the beloved bookshop in Greenwich Village, had shut. Its customers went into mourning. For over 40 years, the little shop on the corner of Waverly Place and West 10th Street had remained exactly as it was in the beginning: the Platonic ideal of a sweet, civilized and wonderfully curated store with a literate staff who really like books. Now it had seemingly gone, and word traveled down the hotline of despair, where there are regular reports that nothing at all is left of the Village to remind you of its bohemian glory days.

The news was, however, a little exaggerated; the Three Lives building was merely undergoing structural work and was closed for less than a month. When I went back on a recent Sunday morning, the sun was shining through the windows, past the displays of new books and onto the original honey-color wooden floors and bookshelves. There were the old glass-shaded library lamps overhead providing good light for browsing, there was the pretty pinkish rug on the floor. Toby Cox, the store’s owner, stood behind the desk.

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“Bookselling is where I wanted to be,” he says. Like so many people who love their trade, Cox more or less backed into the business. After he finished studying at Brown, he sold books in Providence for a while, then came to New York for a job in publishing. His brother, who lived in the Village, “stumbled into Three Lives and became a regular,” says Cox, who quickly followed suit. By the 1990s, he was working at the shop, and in 2001, he bought Three Lives from its original owners.The T List |Sign up herefor T’s newsletter, a weekly roundup of what our editors are noticing and coveting now.

The interior of Three Lives remains as it was when it first opened 42 years ago.
The interior of Three Lives remains as it was when it first opened 42 years ago.Credit…Nina Westervelt

The shop’s name refers to the three women who founded it — not the Gertrude Stein novel, though there is a little picture of Stein on the wall. It was 1978 when Jill Dunbar, Jenny Feder and Helene Webb opened the shop on Seventh Avenue and 1983 when they moved the store to its current location. New York was in the doldrums and Greenwich Village still its old and shabby self. The neighborhood had scores of bookshops then, and people inhabited them the way they hang out in Starbucks now — except bookshops rarely sold coffee or food or souvenirs. What they had were books. There was companionship. Ideas. Maybe sex — plenty of people met in bookshops.

“Jill was working for Betty Parsons Gallery on 57th Street,” recalls Feder. “Helene and I were working at a village bookstore, next to the old Jefferson Market. Helene was a trained graphic artist, and I was also working as an apprentice at Circle Rep on Seventh Avenue doing sets and costumes. Everyone came to the shop. Our neighborhood was the city, and we had actors, writers, publishing people, artists — almost anyone who was involved in the arts at the time passed through the shop, and gave to the shop. They helped create it.” Being so close to the publishing world was helpful, she adds.

“I loved the idea of a corner bookshop,” says Cox. “It was part of what the Village always meant — a little bit of civility and a welcoming face, a place where people buy books and sometimes neighbors leave their keys.”

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This is a corner with history. When Edward Hopper painted the building in 1927, it was Silber’s Drugstore. When much of the Village was still Italian in the first five or six decades of the 20th century, it was Angelo’s Market. Across the street is Julius, one of the oldest gay bars in New York where the 1966 “sip-in” was an early part of the gay rights movement. On the wall of Three Lives is a photograph of the actors Anthony Perkins and Christopher Walken at Julius when they were filming “Next Stop, Greenwich Village” (1976) and another of Dylan Thomas at the White Horse Tavern — a couple of blocks west — where he more or less drank himself to death.

Edward Hopper’s “Drug Store” (1927).
Edward Hopper’s “Drug Store” (1927).Credit…Bequest of John T. Spaulding. Photo © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Today, books fill the whole shop, on the shelves, on the long tables, at the front desk; there are paperbacks and hardcover books; fiction, history, crime; a terrific section on New York City that includes the first book printed by the Three Lives Press: “The Last Leaf,” O. Henry’s short story about art and life in old Greenwich Village.

Every day, as soon as the manager, Troy Chatterton, opens the door, customers rush into Three Lives as if for a fix of a singularly restorative oxygen. Troy feels like a kind of throwback, a 21st-century version of a true Greenwich Village book guy — welcoming, cool, well read with wonderful stories about visits to Three Lives by the likes of Edmund White and Oliver Sacks. I like to think of Three Lives as a secret garden hidden from the city streets with Troy as the custodian. There is the low chatter of people talking to each other, to friends and strangers, discussing favorite writers or offering opinions on new editions of classics. There is a joyous bustle.

“The best kind of customer,” says Joyce McNamara, who has worked at Three Lives for 20 years, “is the kind who just spends an hour looking at everything and absorbing it and maybe asks what you think.” McNamara took the job because of one book in particular. “I saw Michael Cunningham’s acknowledgment of Three Lives in ‘The Hours,’ and I was charmed,” she says.

I hate a certain New York sentimentality that celebrates the past for its own musty sake, but the disappearance of the independent bookshop has been tough. When I was growing up in Greenwich Village, the corner bookshop was as much part of the cityscape as the drugstore or the tavern, and a family stroll after supper always included a visit to one — and an ice cream from C.O. Bigelow. “I can’t tell you how many families brought their kids in after a walk and started them on a lifetime of reading,” Feder says.

The Three Lives building in the late 1940s, when Greenwich Village was a refuge for artists and writers who couldn’t afford much else. This was the corner grocery and deli that served the West Village.
The Three Lives building in the late 1940s, when Greenwich Village was a refuge for artists and writers who couldn’t afford much else. This was the corner grocery and deli that served the West Village.Credit…Courtesy of Three Lives & Co.
Every available surface of the shop is packed with books.
Every available surface of the shop is packed with books.Credit…Nina Westervelt

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But enough with the nostalgia. Didn’t I read that James Daunt, the proprietor of several of London’s best bookstores, is going to turn Barnes & Noble back into the real thing? Specialty bookshops like Argosy on East 61st Street and Albertine at the French Embassy thrive. Three Lives is jammed on the weekends. I remember when, last year, I think, you had to take a number at Three Lives to get a copy of the new Murakami one midnight, rather like a “Harry Potter” release. And there’s always somebody there buying an obscure Norwegian novel or Czech poems in translation.

“I always ask for advice,” says Michael Gilsenan, a professor of anthropology at New York University who stops by the shop at least once a week. “The staff is always engaged by anything you’re interested in. It’s a truly open place. And it’s part of the neighborhood.”

When the sun falls in just the right way, Three Lives can look like a bookshop invented by a Hollywood designer. It is the bookstore of your dreams, the deliciously perfect version of a New York independent business, alive with the excitement of customers and a reassuring reminder that true romance does still exist in New York retail.

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