Independent Bookstores Battle Online Trends

By: Claire Schmidt

A blue flag with the word books on it ripples gently at the entrance of Idlewild Books on 19th street near Union Square, beckoning enthusiastic readers to take a trip around the world. Called Idlewild, for the New York International Airport that was renamed JFK in 1963, Idlewild Books has been highlighting travel guidebooks and international literature since it opened in March 2008. With more than 350 titles available in French alone, Idlewild carries everything from children’s stories, like M. Sasek’s This is London, to Muriel Barbery’s L’élégance du Hérisson. The store is truly alive as over 30 customers enter the store in just a half hour, ready to peruse the polished pine shelves lined with books from across the globe. It is no surprise that this hidden treasure has been able to maintain such a steady following, even as most other big box bookstores struggle to stay in business.

“All bookstores, ours included, have to focus on what they do best,” says David Del Vecchio, owner of Idlewild Books. “It’s important to cultivate a niche.” With the rapid transformation of the bookselling industry, it is hard to imagine how any independent bookstore could be successful. The reading habits of consumers have changed with the shift to buying books online. Even mass merchandising bookstores are going out of business; Borders filed for bankruptcy and is planning to close down 200 of its underperforming stores by the end of April, and Barnes and Noble closed 18 of their stores in 2010 after a 4.5 percent decrease in the store’s sales, according to the company’s annual report. However, many independent bookstores offer something that big chain companies do not; the specialization in a particular type of book and a community experience could be key to a bookstore’s success, enabling niche bookstores to survive when larger stores may not.

As an independent business, Idlewild Books has been able to succeed in the changing industry by focusing on travel guidebooks and foreign novels that most other stores just do not offer. This is one of the strengths of small companies. “Independent businesses become very creative about what they sell in the store and how they sell it,” says Meg Smith, the spokeswoman for the American Booksellers Association, a nonprofit trade association founded to support the interests of independent booksellers. “The independents are really going to be the ones that survive because they can change on the dime.”

However, not all bookstores have been so lucky, especially the ones that carry a wider selection of topics.  “In all honestly our business is down,” says Robert Contant, co-owner of St. Mark’s Bookshop, a shop that provides books on cultural theory, photography, graphic design, literature, and politics among other types. “The book business on the whole is going through a transition period with electronic media and it’s certainly had an effect.”

Perhaps the biggest competition of the bookstore industry is online books. Consumers are now more conscious of the price of books and have turned to Amazon.com for the lowest prices. In 2009, the company’s media sales rose by 11 percent, according to the IBIS World industry report for bookstores in the United States. Many people have also shifted from buying hardcover books to buying the significantly cheaper alternative, paperbacks.

Part of the reason that Idlewild Books has been so successful is because most of their merchandise is not available in an electronic format. “We carry a lot of literature in translation, and they are not in e-format yet,” says Del Vecchio, who also admits that since they never had a big hardcover book selection, their sales have not been as affected in that way.

The future is hopeful for independent bookstores, especially those that have found a particular type of book to concentrate on. “At the moment we are modestly ahead of the previous year,” says Matt Sartwell, of Kitchen Arts and Letters, a bookstore that has specialized in the culinary arts for the past 27 years.

In addition there were thirty new independent bookstores that opened in 2010 across the country and joined the American Booksellers Association. While the number of independent stores that closed in the past year is unknown, this modest increase in membership is a good sign, according to Smith.

It is also important for small bookstores to maintain a close tie to their communities. “The very core of what an independent bookstore does is this relationship that it has with a customer,” says Smith.

It is this customer-employee interaction that often makes the experience of walking into a bookstore more rewarding than shopping online. “When people are going to pay money for a book, they are looking for more than just a recipe,” says Sartwell. “They are looking for a point of view; they are looking for someone who will have something to say.”

Walking into Idlewild Books is definitely an experience all its own. A Spanish melody floats from the speakers surrounding the shoppers. If you close your eyes to listen you will be transported to Spain, sipping a café con leche on the beaches of Barcelona. “It’s the best place to flip through books and see what interests you,” says customer Rebecca Michelson, of the travel themed store. “You can just walk in there not knowing what you want and walk out with a new book.”

Independents like Idlewild Books are hoping that readers are not ready to give up the ability to browse. “It’s a pleasurable thing to be able to walk through a thousand square foot bookstore and be able to feel like you are walking through every part of the world,” states Del Vecchio.

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Harlem Clergy and Police Struggle to Maintain Authority

It’s another slow Sunday morning at Greater Highway Deliverance Temple on 111th street in Harlem -church members slowly filter into the tabernacle, women shrug off their coats, and children impatiently shuffle into the pews. It is a quiet day outside, one that contrasts with the echoes of a recent homicide and shootings that haunt the very streets that members of the congregation walk through on their way to the service.  The church is nestled in a neighborhood that faces dismal times.

A mother and her daughter listen to the sermon at Greater Highway Deliverance Temple in Harlem

Although, according to NYPD crime statistics, the crime rate has not significantly risen in Harlem from last year, residents still worry about the crimes that still manage to take place in their neighborhoods. Stringent budget cuts and disheartening unemployment rates continue to plague Harlem neighborhoods, while religious and law enforcement authorities struggle to improve the situation.  The neighborhood has been tainted by misdemeanors that have left the community stumped, unstable and unsafe.

“There have been 10 shootings altogether around this neighborhood, five in this precinct. The most recent shooting was on January 30th, when a 17 year old male with a firearm shot at the police between 118th and 128th street. There have been 418 arrests in the last year and a homicide in February. We need to get the perpetrators of violence off the street,” said Capt. Nilda Hofmann at a community meeting.

Many attribute the crime rates to the unemployment rates that torment the neighborhood and the lack of authority to stop criminal activities. According to a study by the Fiscal Policy Institute, a nonprofit research organization, Harlem’s unemployment rate is almost double New York’s unemployment rate. “I really feel that the unemployment rate means that more people are just hanging out, up to no good,” said 23 year old Christopher Vernon, who moved to Harlem six months ago. “[People] can’t find jobs, so they do criminal activities. That’s a very uncomfortable situation.” He added “The church could have moral influence and seems to somewhat have an influence, but the cops have the most power in the community. They do what they want. They can also decide to ignore things, and they can stop you when they want to.”

Frustration over the perceived passive role that the clergy and the police play in the community is common among residents. “Most of our concerns fall on a deaf ear, in this community, in Harlem,” said Carlene Hernandez, who has lived in and around Harlem since 1979. “The churches basically run food pantries and just pray for you, and then get on with running their churches. That’s it, they are low profile. The police just make themselves visible. But nothing is changing. Drugs are still being sold. It’s still the same.”

While attempting to change the situation, the church, which is seen as a haven for relief in the community, now faces serious fiscal storms of its own, while police departments scrounge for resources to keep the streets crimeless. Significant cuts in budget spending have hindered the ability of authorities in the community to counter the effects of crime and unemployment. Churches like Greater Highway Deliverance Temple struggle to provide the community with the same resources they used to offer.

“Jobs are a great issue in this area. We used to help a lot of people that were here,” commented Bishop Liston Page Sr, presiding prelate of the Greater Highway Deliverance Temple Ministries. He said the church’s ability to fully aid the community was intercepted by the church’s economic status.  “Our budget has been tapped. We had to cut back because of the condition in which we are living.”

The church has had to cut its budget by 30 percent, from the quarter million dollar budget it used to receive and utilize every two weeks. It has also had to cut several members of church staff, contributing to the unemployment situation.

“We now have to ask people to do just a little bit more, so that we may be able to get through this crisis, so that we can implement some programs we need for the community at this difficult time,” said Bishop Paige, referring to the community development programs the church runs, which aim to empower members of society by offering job skills and helping with housing problems.

The police department also continues to be constrained by budget cuts that limit its ability to fully cleanse the community of crime. “We’ve had to spend less, and hire less,” said Capt. Hofmann. She said that just as the members of the community face economic challenges that are constantly present and obstruct their daily lives, the public should seek to understand that the police department is “not immune to the fiscal reality, which affects the way in which the community can successfully run.”

As fiscal realities continue to burden the nation, and dire shortages of resources continue to be a thorn in the police and clergy’s ability to assert justice in Harlem communities, many residents in Harlem fear that things will not change fast enough, and darker days of crime, desperation and injustice are still to come. “People keep taking things from other people,” said Hernandez. “When people don’t have, they are going to be forced to feed their families somehow.”

Scanty Financial Aid Clouds College Experience for International Students

It is that time of the year again when college campuses around the nation are swarmed with eager prospective students while parents squirm about the cost of an undergraduate education. For American students, the possibility of financial aid is crucial as the price of undergraduate education is expected to continue rising. At least 60 percent of American students are expected to receive financial aid, with an average of $9,100, according to the US department of Education.  But for international students, thoughts about the future are not ameliorated by the hope of federal aid as few colleges offer financial aid to international students. Reports by The Institute for International Education show that about 80 percent of international students can expect to pay their tuition from their own funds, and many of them might not even be able to get a job in the United States after they have finished their studies.

“I feel somewhat limited in the things I will be able to do, if the job situation doesn’t get better. To study in the U.S you need a lot of aid and it’s really hard, coming from a country where the exchange rate is ridiculous,” said Tiffany Arnold, a Jamaican student and freshman at Amherst College. Many worry that finances poured into an American undergraduate education might not pay off as much as they are expected to. For the 2008–09 academic years, annual prices for undergraduate tuition, room, and board were estimated to be $12,283 at public institutions and $31,233 at private institutions, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics. Between 1998–99 and 2008–09, prices for undergraduate tuition, room, and board at public institutions rose 32 percent, and prices at private institutions rose 24 percent. For international students, the cost of undergraduate education is enveloped by fears of the lack jobs after attaining an undergraduate degree in an increasingly competitive US job market. Those fears are reinforced by the lack of scholarships and financial aid given to international students and a disturbing unemployment rate in America, which remains at 9.2 percent.

Furthermore, non immigrant  students are not eligible for employment in federal work-study positions because of the visas they carry, strictly limiting both the kind and the amount of work that students can do in the United States.

“Sometimes I question if it’s even really worth it,” admits Isabel Gutierrez, a Brazilian student at NYU who is forced to pay full tuition. “We can’t get scholarships; I can’t even get a part-time job at the pizza place because they won’t work with my visa.”

Some international students worry about how not getting work experience while in the US because of visas will affect their careers. “Finding jobs is a very hard process since I am currently running under F-1 Visa now and will need another visa later,” said Wonjun Hong, a finance student at NYU’s Stern School of Business. “A lot of the internship opportunities I want are restricted to American students.”

International students have to face the strong possibility that upon attaining their degrees, they will have to return home, where they might have better luck finding jobs. This possibility raises another question; is the U.S doing harm to itself by literally creating intellectual talents and resources for other countries? As Obama’s state of the union address pointed out “As soon as they [international students] obtain advanced degrees, we [The United States] send them back home to compete against us. It makes no sense.”

The job creation challenge that the government faces is worsened by missed opportunities to invest in international students. A large amount of international students come from countries that are strong competitors in technology, an area Obama identified as crucial to the future of the American job market. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, India, China, and South Korea were the top three countries of origin for international students studying in the U.S. in 2007-08, accounting for half of the international student population. In addition to those numbers, nearly half of all international students who were enrolled in U.S. postsecondary institutions in 2007-08 studied in either the field of business and management, engineering, and math and computer sciences.  Many of those students will return home when they fail to find jobs in the U.S, creating “sputnik” phenomenon in their countries and not contributing to the very nation that educated them.

Big Spaceship – Small Company, Big Culture

By Caterina Andreano

Those who work at the Big Spaceship certainly seem alien to many of us – they can drink a beer at work, fiddle with computer games, and take a break playing foosball after lunch. This unique company culture is what Big Spaceship hails as their key to success as a digital creative agency. Though a small company, Big Spaceship works with huge names like Google, Microsoft, and Nike, helping them to brand their products, but claims that their company is anomalous in that they preserve a creative company culture, which allows them to be creative in their work.

The company, only eleven years old, gets equal, if not more, recognition in their field as do larger competitors, like BBO Creative, and they chalk it all up to culture. “Culture is the absolute most important thing to success in this economy,” said CEO Michael Lebowitz to a graduate class at New York University.“I won’t grow the company until I have a clear intuitive sense of how we’re going to preserve the quality of the culture at this size,” he added.

Why is culture so important to a company? “An organization’s culture sends signals to people about what’s important around here,” said Dolly Chugh, an Assistant Professor of Management and Organizations at New York University. That means that creating a unique company culture will show employees that uniqueness is important in the work that will be produced.

But still, what is it that makes Big Spaceship’s culture so different and extraordinary? Well, for starters, the company organizes itself by cross-disciplinary teams. These teams work together, each with different projects, focuses, and ideas, in order to optimize and monetize on creativity. Lebowitz says that the team system not only helps the employees to feel like their part of something, but also helps them build distinctive relationships with each other, which leads to exclusive relationships developed when the team interacts with their clients.

In addition to the team system, the company only hires the nice guys when taking on new people. Averaging a size of about 50 employees, Big Spaceship has its perspective employees interview eight times with different members of the company before they get hired. Why is such a tedious process used?

“Because you don’t want to hire assholes no matter how talented,” Lebowitz explained. “So the asshole may be the most talented person in the world, but net-net, they will do less good to your company than the second best or whoever it is that’s a nice person.” He added, “And that lesson, as hard as it was to learn, was probably the most profound one. I want to work with nice people.”

Hiring only nice people who are split into teams is not what makes Big Spaceship so anomalous. These people are only hired if they are creative and forward thinking, or, in Lebowitz’s words “are going to help us make cool shit.” To maintain their creativity, there are key employee perks such as foosball tables, kegs, and masseuses.

But maybe what’s more vital to permeating this sense of originality is Lebowitz himself. Lebowitz, who claims that he doesn’t look at spreadsheets or even think about the bottom line of the company, has a lax attitude and is in constant need of stimulation. He claims to want to be the first human cyborg and therefore buys every new gadget that comes out on the market.

As focused on culture as they are and as blasé as the CEO is about the numbers of the company, there has to be some secret to how Big Spaceship remains so monetarily successful. Beginning to take on new employees who have big names in the industry is now requiring Big Spaceship to dish out some three-figure salaries. Lebowitz, who claims that “last year was awesome,” about the company’s bottom line, says that in reality, there is someone looking at the spreadsheets of the company and making sure that they don’t take projects on that aren’t profitable, it’s just not him.

In the Midst of Recession, Beauty Still Goes On

Manager Sony Ham (far right) and employees of Dashing Diva nail salon in Gramercy, New York smile behind neatly arranged nail lacquer, the warm pink hue of the store creating a feminine aura of comfort and relaxation.

By K

In a city where its inhabitants are all about maintaining fashion and beauty, it may no longer be the case that paying for a manicure or pedicure is a luxury in New York. If anything, the investment of both time and money on such endeavors has become a necessity and a common lifestyle for many city dwellers. However, current businesses seem to suffer because the number of salons has grown in proportion to the number of people who frequent them.

According to the most recent economic census report conducted in 2007, there are a total of 8,082 established nail salons across the nation. New York accounts for about 19%, having the second largest number of nail salons in the country. Due to the recession, there has been a drop in the number of establishments by approximately 16% in New York, compared to 2002. IBIS World shows that combined revenue for the nail and hair industry has annually decreased by -1.8% between 2005 and 2010 in the country at large. These numbers add another layer of worry and stress for business owners who already have been feeling the disquieting effects of the recession.

“Because the economy is bad, of course business is not so good,” said Julie Song, owner of Iris Nail, located in the East Village. “Regular customers who usually came once a week now come every two weeks. The customer who usually spent $50 a visit now spends half that. Even tourists who used to spend money generously now are saying prices are too high.”

As most are in the habit of doing, it is easy to blame everything that is out of line and favor on the failing economy, but the heart of the matter seems to lay somewhere deeper than that—there are just way too many nail salons in the city.

“Ten years ago, it was so busy that people used to wait long periods of time,” said Song, “but customers don’t need to anymore because they can easily go to another one close by.”
But despite this gloomy predicament that many of them face, some nail salon owners in the city still have reason to hope for better days, and prefer to think of ways to fight it with optimism. It seems that the suffering economy will not be an excuse for long. This profession to enhance beauty will not be easily weighed down by the nation’s economical shortcomings, as well as the inherent competition within the industry.

“I would be lying if I said that I don’t feel the competition with other shops in the area. But I don’t want to dwell on that too much because then it prevents us from doing the best job we can provide,” said Sony Ham, manager at Dashing Diva nail salon located in Gramercy.

“People value quality work, and wherever that’s present, that’s where customers are also.”

Staying Strong During the Red Envelope Scare

By Sonia Weiser

“Where everybody knows your name,” once referred to the Cheers bar in Boston, but It can just as easily be applied to the West Village’s World of Video. Since its opening twenty-five years ago, the rental store has been the friendly neighborhood film supplier to members and non members alike. Although business has slowed due to the popularity of Netflix, Redbox and online streaming, World has stood its ground, towering over its once lively New York competition and putting up a fight against its online nemeses.

Boasting a vast selection of movies and television series, the variety at World remains a primary factor in its appeal. That and the extensive adult video section in the back.

However, there is more to why members keep coming back.  “It’s not because they are good looking,” explained member Jeremy Meyers about why he’s been coming back for about fourteen years. “It’s a neighborhood place. They treat dogs well and the price is still right. If you don’t want to give your money to a big conglomerate like Netflix, you go here.”

Unlike online services that base movie recommendations on formulas and inferences from previous star-ratings, the World is staffed by articulate movie nerds who can provide suggestions based on their own opinions while taking into account the customer’s preference.“There are still people who want to come in and look at videos themselves and talk to people,” said Sean Gallagher, one of the store’s managers. “[The staff] prides ourselves in having a varied taste; you’re going to have people [here] who are real movie buffs.”

The movie rental industry is hurting. Annual growth has shrunk by almost 5 percent in the last 5 years, according to the IBISWorld DVD, Game & Video Rental Industry Market Report released in October. Despite the overall decline, Gallagher, displaying an acute knowledge of all things that have graced both the silver and television screens, is still hopeful for in-store rentals, or at least when it comes to World of Video’s business.

Even though the idea of getting a movie in the mail may seem like a better alternative to making a trek in the slush for the first season of Mad Men, there are many reasons for staying local. “Many of the major studios right now are playing games with Netflix–they don’t like the fact that the window between theatrical release and video release has shortened,”Said Gallagher.Using movie distributers’ own distaste for online streaming to its advantage, World is able to begin renting out newly released movies earlier than Netflix, bringing new characters into its members lives almost a month before its online counterparts. Great

Citing the shorter waiting lists and the continuing rental of of VHS  Gallagher has faith that his store will continue to prevail.

Other customers are able to recognize the best facets of both worlds. Julia Murphy, a New York mother is a member of both Netflix and World of Video.  Belonging to World for twenty years, Murphy relies on the store for when “someone wants to do something on the spot” and Netflix for when her family is in the country and an hour from the nearest store.

So whether the night’s movie is something off the Criterion list or a weird obscure indie, Gallagher has one thing to say:  “We can help you find something.”

 

 

Second Avenue Subway Construction Endangers Economy, Lives

By Sami Riley

There is something out of place on Second Avenue, between 92nd and 63rd Streets. This avenue is typically adorned with homegrown stores and restaurants such as Park East Kosher, Cho’s Happy Tailoring Cleaner, Hummus Kitchen, and The Art and Framing Gallery.  Usually, friendly owners, tree lined sidewalks, and familiarity greet pedestrians walking down the street. Now, these have been replaced with jackhammers, fences, and ironic graffiti displaying “become your dream.” Owners are claiming that construction of the Second Avenue subway line is disrupting the economy and livelihood of their businesses.

“Our sales went down 75 percent from last year,” explained Robin Mishka, manager of The Art and Framing Gallery. “Nobody wants to walk this way anymore. The construction just drives the away.”

This lack of pedestrian traffic is doing more than just bringing down sales for Second Avenue stores. The safety of both pedestrians and owners is at risk. “On January 11th, we were robbed,” Wendy Iza, owner of Item, a designer boutique on the corner of East 83rd Street. “It was around 6 p.m., after the workers had left. I was here alone and hadn’t seen anybody for a couple hours. Two men came in, forced me to open the register, and tied me up in the basement. They stole so much money and merchandise. I used to feel safe here but now the construction has changed that.”

Despite this, the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce stands by their claims that even though times are difficult now, the new subway line will bring 2nd Avenue an influx of business once construction is completed in December 2016. In the mean time, the “Shop Second Avenue, It’s Worth It!” campaign is geared towards attracting consumers back to neighborhood businesses.

“This is a huge project that’s affecting a lot of people so we are really trying to use all of our outlets,” said Nancy Ploeger, President of the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce. The campaign includes extensive marketing, Shop Second Avenue ads on MetroCards, physical improvements, increased presence on social media such as Facebook, Foursquare, Groupon, and Twitter, and a Good Neighbor program.

“We’re in the process of providing loans to Second Avenue businesses as well as promoting ‘Business Matters’,” explained Jeffrey Bernstein, Chairman of The Archstone Group, during a press conference. “Business Matters” will host a Block Party for Second Avenue organizations in addition to helping educate business owners.

But the neighborhood remains skeptical. “I’ve tried to tell them that they have to at least clean up the trash they’re leaving on the streets, but they don’t even do that,” added Iza. “They haven’t cared about us so far, why would they start now?”