To the shock and dismay of the theatre field, on Wednesday New York City’s venerable Drama Book Shop announced that it would not be renewing its lease in January due a substantial rent increase at its 40th Street storefront, which it’s occupied since 2001. The store hopes to reopen in a new location in early 2019.
“We have no plans to close,” said Allen Hubby, the co-owner of the shop, earlier today. In the past 24 hours, Hubby’s email, phone, and Twitter has blown up. “It has been a little dizzying,” he confessed. “It has been overwhelming, with all the support and nice thoughts.”
In the wake of the news, the theatre community has taken to social media to express their love of the shop. Lin-Manuel Miranda stopped by this morning to sign all the Hamilton and In the Heights books and memorabilia. By the early afternoon, the only merchandise left in this haul was a single copy of the Hamilton Mixtape songbook.
Hubby began working at the Drama Book Shop in 1978 and stayed with the shop through three different locations. In the store’s 101-year history, it has been located at various stores on 52nd Street, in the Diamond District, and in Times Square. The shop has defied rent hikes in the past, and even survived water damage last year. The staff is hopeful that the store will survive this setback.
In the past few weeks, many of the Drama Book Shop’s neighbors, including Maoz Falafel & Grill and NY Elegant Fabrics—which has been located on 40th Street since the 1930s—have lost their leases. Hubby notes that the zoning on 40th Street has led to the proliferation of hotel construction between 7th and 9th Avenues.
And while independent bookstores have been on the decline, Hubby is quick to point out that the Drama Book Shop is much more than just a place to buy books.
“Look at our customers, they’re all young!” effused Hubby, pointing to the dozens of folks sprawled on the chairs reading plays and perusing the shelves. “People don’t come here just for books. We’re a drama shop—we’re everything drama, we’re information, we’re resources. We’re not just plays.”
Indeed, the store sells casting directories, audition books, vocal scores, and more (including, ahem, American Theatre magazine). Some products, such as CD-ROMs and mailing labels for casting directors, have become obsolete in the digital world, he notes.
“The stuff we sell isn’t that expensive,” he said. “We have a huge inventory. We don’t make anything ourselves—we’re not a pizza parlor where you take 25 cents of ingredients and turn them into $2.50 of pizza. We’re not Starbucks, where you take a quarter worth of coffee and turn it into $4. We take $6 and turn it into $10.” And Amazon is “ubiquitous,” he lamented. “You can order your toothpaste, your cat food, and your play all at the same time.”
What Amazon can’t offer are special events and book-signings that the store hosts. The store’s two theatre spaces are used for rehearsals and performances, and are home to the arts education program Story Pirates. American Theatre even held a live podcast event in its downstairs black box. Lin-Manuel Miranda penned In the Heights on the piano in the basement, and director Tommy Kail co-founded the store’s first resident theatre company.
Looking back, Hubby fondly remembers meeting Carol Channing in the store and he points to a “life-changing” Stephen Adly Guirgis event in which Philip Seymour Hoffman directed scenes for a reading.
“It is an atmosphere, people love to be here,” he said. “Even Edward Albee was happy when he was here,” says Hubby with a laugh.
Chester, the in-house Pomeranian, adds to the store’s welcoming environment. The friendly staff help customers find monologues and audition materials. This afternoon when I visited, scene partners huddled in the corner reading through scenes.
“Losing this space is going to be heartbreaking,” said Hubby. “We have the Story Pirates upstairs; we donate that space to them because we love them. And they pay rent for the theatre, so that helps us. We have the theatre downstairs and Theatre 68. We also have Roger Hendricks Simon, who teaches out of here. I just don’t know how we’re going to take them with us.”
The new space will likely be smaller, and will not have the space to accommodate as many special offerings. While the shop owners hope that the store will remain in the Theatre District, they’re also exploring other neighborhoods and boroughs. So far they’ve looked at a space in Queens and plan to visit a building in the Financial District.
In the meantime, there are plenty of events to keep them busy, including a presentation of Who’s Your Baghdaddy by Marshall Pailet and A.D. Penedo (Oct. 25); the cast album launch of Head Over Heels (Oct. 29); a discussion, signing, and reception with Max Posner (Nov. 19); and a discussion and signing with Ivo van Hove and David Willinger.
“We’re closing this location, and hopefully finding another one with your help,” he said.