There’s a word in Danish that doesn’t translate to English. Google Translate will tell you that “hygge” means “cozy” or “coziness,” but it really means much more than that. Hygge, pronounced “hue-gah,” is the happy, satisfied laziness you feel when it’s raining outside and you’re curled up on the couch. It’s the feeling of being at home—of being comfortable—that all humans crave.
Hygge is exactly the feeling you get in tiny bookshops that smell like paper and dust and feature leaning towers of good reads. And it’s the feeling on which the owners of those bookstores count to stay in business.
“There’s a synergy that goes on in a brick and mortar bookstore,” says Bonnie Slotnick, owner of Bonnie Slotnick Cookbooks on West 10th Street. “You’re in a place that means a lot to you. And you make connections with other people who share your passion.”
Slotnick is one of the few independent booksellers left in the West Village, where big names like Marc Jacobs and Tommy Hilfiger have swooped in and swallowed up privately owned storefronts. Her tiny shop off Seventh
Avenue, where she sells old and used cookbooks alongside vintage kitchen knickknacks, has managed to survive in the face of Barnes and Noble, websites like Amazon and the increasingly popular electronic readers. This, said Slotnick, is because of the homey atmosphere of her store.
“People have other ways to get old cookbooks,” says Slotnick. “But they come to my store because they enjoy the experience.”
Three Lives & Company, a 33-year-old bookstore down the block from Slotnick’s shop, has survived for much the same reason. Owner Toby Cox says the store has continued to do well in recent years despite the pressures of corporate competition.
“There are still people like me who want to come in and look at a book and have that sense of discovery,” said Cox, who bought Three Lives from its original owners in 2001. “And there’s something about a locally owned business, where the workers know the name of your dog or that your mom is in the hospital.”
Instead of trying to catch up with big booksellers like Barnes and Noble or the now-defunct Borders, both Slotnick and Cox have actively tried to keep their businesses as old-fashioned as possible. Both of their websites are bare and appear as if they haven’t been updated since the early 2000s. Neither sells books online or even lists their inventory.
“I feel that the Three Lives experience begins when you walk through the front door,” says Cox. “I’m a brick and mortar store. That’s our strength.”
Anyone who walks into Three Lives and asks for assistance will be helped by someone who knows, reads and loves books. The customer might spend hours with a bookseller there, scouring shelves and discussing favorite authors or new works of fiction. The same holds true for Slotnick’s store, where she engages customers in long conversations that often venture away from the subject of cookbooks. She imparts wisdom to her visitors, helps them with problems, gives them advice. When I spoke to her, she told me how to make a cure-all ginger tea that would help my sore throat.
“Sometimes it’s like therapy,” she jokes. “I feel very close to my customers. So take that, Amazon!”
But as comforting as Three Lives and Bonnie Slotnick Cookbooks are, both stores have their share of troubles. The biggest problem for small store owners in New York is rent, and in the West Village, leases have been steadily increasing for years. In 2009, Biography Bookstore on Bleecker Street was forced to move because it could no longer afford the space. Book lovers were appalled when, shortly thereafter, Marc Jacobs moved his own designer “bookstore” into Biography’s old spot; Slotnick described the experience as akin to the sinking of the Titanic.
Left Bank Books, a rare and used bookstore, was also forced to move because of inflating rent. Until 2010, the store was located on West Fourth Street. But when its lease ran out, the landlords raised the rent to “unbelievable amounts,” says owner Kim Herzinger.
“They didn’t even ask me if I could pay it—they knew I couldn’t,” he says.
Now Herzinger is in the middle of a five-year-lease at a storefront on Eighth Avenue, and truthfully admits that he’s just barely hanging in there. Slotnick worries that the same will happen to her.
“I’m always living in fear that my landlord will say, ‘OK, that’s it!’” says Slotnick. “Ralph Lauren could buy my space and move in and start a Ralph Lauren bookstore, and people would flock to it.”
Luckily for Slotnick, the West Village is a supportive community that is keen on keeping its local businesses.
“People here understand that what makes their community dynamic and vibrant and interesting is these small shops,” says Cox. “They feel like, ‘I really like this store, I want it to be there, I’m going to participate in it.’”
And participation really is what keeps these stores alive, because people yearn to communicate with others, to spend time in a small bookshop surrounded by books and other people who share their interests. Barnes and Noble may have lattes and cappuccinos, but it certainly doesn’t serve up that hygge feeling like the bookstores on West 10th Street.
Article originally appeared in the NY Press and the Chelsea Clinton News. Link here.