February 14, 2011

Buffalo Street Books Writes Final Chapter

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After 35 years of business, Buffalo Street Books — Tompkins County’s last independently-owned bookstore — announced on Thursday that it will be closing shop.

Although there is not yet an official closing date, Gary Weissbrott ’71, the store’s owner, said he is aiming to empty his inventory by the end of March.

The store, just off the Ithaca Commons, is closing primarily due to a change in people’s reading habits, Weissbrot said.

“People are reading less, they’re reading on different devices, and the people who are buying books … are buying from Amazon.com. It’s wiped out the independent books stores,” Weissbrot said.

Weissbrot said he wondered every year if his business would survive as the last standing independent bookstore or if he would be “the fool who didn’t get out when the getting was good.”

Weissbrot said that when Borders and Barnes and Noble came to Ithaca a little more than a decade ago, the area’s independent bookstores suffered from the increased competition. There were approximately six independent bookstores before the “big box” retailers opened in Ithaca, he said.

In an attempt to solve some of the store’s financial problems, Weissbrot and the staff of Buffalo Street Books — formerly known as “The Bookery II” —  have come up with new ideas and programs over the years.

Among these was the popular “First-Class Program,” which allowed Cornell and Ithaca College students to order their book lists from the store and have their books ready for them in time for class.

Cornell professors who supported Buffalo Street Books lamented the store’s  closure.

Some professors, like Prof. Mary McCullough, English, sent their courses’ book lists exclusively to Buffalo Street Books to support the local economy and to pick from a collection that Weisbrott and his staff personally selected.

“Independent bookstores carry a different range of books, so they offer a broader intellectual field of exploration for students,” McCullough said. She added that independent bookstores such as Buffalo Street Books “also foster a community between the University and the local community.”

Prof. Paul Sawyer, English, not only sent some of his book list to Buffalo Street Books, but also said the store was “a center of downtown life for me.”

“It was a center for buying but also a performance space,” Sawyer said. “Readings were frequent and included staged readings of plays, which resulted in a continuous conversation between store patrons and authors.”

“With universities here, a highly educated population and a small downtown, there’s every reason for independent bookstores to succeed,” Sawyer said. “I don’t think people are yet aware of what the loss means.”

Still, according to Weissbrot, the days of independent bookstores are coming to an end.

“In a very short time, people are not going to even have noticed,” Weisbrott said. “A younger person is going to walk into a bookstore in a larger city … and say, ‘this is quaint … Remember when we had one of these?’”

Weissbrot is currently selling all of the books in the store at discounted prices. The 140 bookcases, computers and desks will be for sale as well.

But for now, Weissbrot’s customers are mourning the space and the memories of the store, Sawyer said.

“We’re fortunate he was able to hold on as long as he could. There’s gratitude as well as sadness,” Sawyer said. “Gary made a profound contribution to the life of this community, and we’re all mindful of that.

Original Author: Liz Camuti