Alabaster Bookshop Thrives as Last Seller of Used Volumes on New York’s Book Row

When Steve Crowley opened Alabaster Bookshop on Fourth Avenue in Manhattan in 1996, he didn’t realize the street running south from Union Square was known as New York’s Book Row.

“It was a great happy accident,” he said.

Twenty-seven years later, the business is now the last remaining seller of used editions on the eight-block thoroughfare, as the retailers that gave the strip its name have either closed or moved because of rising rents and condo developments.

Village Preservation, a local advocacy group, is trying to get the neighborhood classified as a historic district to help it retain some of its old character.

“A landmark designation would help ensure that those buildings are preserved, that they would continue to transform and grow,” said Andrew Berman, executive director of Village Preservation. “It would allow the neighborhood to continue to be a vital part of New York City’s functioning and not only maintain that link to its past, but could be a bridge to its future as well.”

Alabaster Bookshop is a bridge to the past. Inside the tight space of the green-awninged storefront is a maze of packed shelving and tall stacks of used and rare volumes.

“I just find these books interesting because they have a history and each one has almost an energy to it from where it’s come from – they get passed along,” Crowley, 63, said. “Every day somebody comes in and finds something that they’ve been looking for or that they didn’t know they were looking for.”

Originally from Boston, Crowley moved to New York in the 1980s to be a musician. For 10 years, he played drums in rock and alternative rock bands, released albums and toured. The last band he played with was called Ultra Vivid Scene.

To pay his bills, Crowley worked at a bookstore, fell in love with the business, and stayed with it for a decade. One day, while riding his bicycle, he spotted a rental sign for a retail space at 122 Fourth Ave., between East 12th and East 13th Streets. At that moment, he decided it was time to open his own shop. Clean-shaven and sharp-featured, he doesn’t fit the mold of the rumpled, tweedy used bookseller.

To stock his shop, Crowley prowled the annual fair that used to be held in Stuyvesant Town, Manhattan, and came across bookends made of alabaster. But there is another reason behind the store’s name. At the time when he opened his story, telephone directories – the Yellow Pages – were an important source of business. “If your name started with an A, you got to be at the front of the phone book,” Crowley said. “So, mine was one of the first bookstores to be listed.”

When he was setting up shop, Marvin Mondlin, an estate book buyer for the Strand Book Store, the massive retailer around the block on Broadway founded in 1927, dropped by to inform him of the history he was inheriting at that location.

“Honestly, at the time, I didn’t really know that it was Book Row,” Crowley said.

From the 1890s to 1960s, Fourth Avenue, Manhattan’s shortest avenue — running north from Astor Place to Union Square — was known around the world for its secondhand and rare book dealers. At one time the street was home to as many as three dozen bookstores. From specialized to general, orderly to scruffy, with elusive first-editions and antiquarian gems to hordes of cheap paperbacks, Book Row was its own universe.

By the mid-20th century, rising rents and changing generations led to store closures and relocations. Population shifts to the suburbs contributed to the demise of booksellers on Fourth Avenue. When Crowley opened Alabaster Bookshop, it was the first store devoted to used editions to open on Book Row in two decades.

Business is brisk. Customers bring books in to sell daily. Crowley is deliberate about which volumes to buy for inventory — picking the weird and the wonderful, especially those that evade the internet.

Jonathan Dowell, 27, was in Alabaster recently, flipping through a hardcover titled, “Least Wanted: A Century of American Mugshots.” He said he visits many bookstores. “They have a great history section” at Alabaster, he said.

In another corner of the shop, Alyssa Janessa, a 22-year-old designer, was visiting the store for the first time, browsing for fashion books. “If I pass by a bookstore, I usually walk in,” she said.

“I like it so far. There’s a lot of options. There’s some unique stuff in here for sure,” she said.

Crowley is a consumer of books, as well. “I read a lot of literature,” he said. “I read some non-fiction. Some on music too.” Italo Calvino, the late Italian author, is his current favorite, he said.

As retirement looms closer, Crowley said he wants to pass the business on to the next generation. He said he hopes that Steve Seaward, the store manager, will buy the shop. Meanwhile, Crowley said the gratitude of bibliophiles is what keeps him going.

About the author(s)

Amulya Hiremath is a journalist from India currently at the Columbia Journalism School, primarily covering literature and culture.