Simon O'Hagan: End of an era for the Biography Bookshop

New York Notebook
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The Independent Online

The books were piled high: some of them second-hand, others review copies that were as good as new, and all being sold at rock-bottom prices. It was warm and cosy in there on a bitter winter's morning, and contented murmurs could be heard round the shop as people discovered one title after another that they just had to have. A handsome hardback edition of the lyrics of Cole Porter? The memoirs of Bob Dylan's one-time girlfriend Suze Rotolo? What about the latest Paul Auster?

This was the Biography Bookshop on Bleecker Street in New York's West Village, a favoured grazing point for book-lovers for a quarter of a century and a cherished institution which has helped define the character of the neighbourhood – cultured, homely, a bit boho.

But things are changing. The visit I made the other day was one of the last that anybody will make to these charming corner premises, where rows of brownstones meet and books spill out on to trestle tables on the sidewalk, protected by a pretty blue awning. The Biography Bookshop is having to up sticks, forced out by escalating rents and a process of commercialisation which has drawn in more expensive retailers, particularly high-end clothes stores.

Some of the blame for what's happened can be laid at the door of Sex and the City. The West Village was a key location for Carrie and her friends. The Magnolia Bakery is right opposite the Biography Bookshop, and hordes of fans now flock there. The likes of Marc Jacobs have seized the opportunity to muscle in.

Similar episodes could be charted in other cities – think of what happened to Notting Hill in west London – but the fate of the Biography Bookshop, forced out by the power of money while also battling Amazon, seems particularly sad. "We knew this would happen about a year and a half ago," one of the shop's co-founders, Charles Mullen, told me. "So I've kind of gotten over it. But the way rent laws operate is not good for the city. If a fashion store comes along with a big fat cheque there's nothing you can do about it."

Not that it's all over for the Biography Bookshop. It has re-established itself on a less quaint stretch of Bleecker Street close to Seventh Avenue, and because it's no longer just a stockists of biographies, it has taken the opportunity to rename itself as Bookbook.

Next Wednesday will be the Biography Bookshop's last day in operation. Any plans to mark the occasion, I asked. "Probably just something informal," said Mr Mullen. "Some wine or soda for any customers who call by." And so a chapter of New York life closes.

The curse of the hydrant

One unconsidered aspect of the Tiger Woods affair is surely the ubiquity of the fire hydrant on US streets. It was one of these tough metal protuberances that the golfer drove his car into, and so many of them are dotted about that I can see what a hazard they are, not least to pedestrians.

That Britain keeps its hydrants safely tucked away under yellow covers with a big H on them while America prefers rampant outbreaks of street furniture is just another of those curious differences between us.