The bookshelves at Rizzoli Bookstore are empty. Little by little, starting from the top shelves, the books started to come down, all the way to the bottom, leaving only the empty cherry wood ledges have been in place over the past 29 years. It looks as if the books moved out first.
Rizzoli’s fate has been determined.
April 11 marked the last day for the historical Midtown bookshop, famous for its ample collections of international design, photography, and landscape books, for its elegant structure, and as “a place of warmth inside the skyscrapers,” as Antonio Monda, well-known Italian journalist, writer and professor, said.
The news spread on January 14: Vornado Realty Trust and LeFrak real estate family, owners of the building where Rizzoli is located and two of the adjacent ones, decided to demolish the buildings to erect a high rise luxury building. The location’s vicinity to Central Park apparently seemed too delicious to waste the opportunity for yet another skyscraper in Midtown.
“These buildings and towers are turning 57th Street in a canyon of glass and steel. They will punch Central Park in the dark,” said Layla Law-Gisiko, chair of the Landmarks Committee for Community Board 5, during a rally organized by the board in front of Rizzoli’s windows on its last day.
In front of the store, protestors held signs high: Bye Bye Books, Shame on LPC, Designation Not Demolition they read, showing the outrage and frustration of employees and patrons.
Of little comfort was an online petition, started by the group Save Rizzoli in January 2014 when the news outspread. At the beginning of February more than 10,000 patrons from all over the world signed the petition. On April 11, the signatures numbered almost 16,500.
And of little help were the requests initiated by Community Board 5 to the Landmark Preservation Commission for the recognition of the three buildings as historical landmarks for their antique exterior decorations.
Community Board 5 filed the first request in 2007. Since then it “has been sitting on the desk of commissioners for seven years,” said Law-Gisiko. “When we heard that the owner was going to demolish the building, there was a little bit of commotion,” she added, but the Landmark Preservation Committee ruled against historical designation. “After a careful review of 31 West 57th Street, the commission determined that the building does not meet the criteria for individual landmark designation,” read a statement release by the Landmark Preservation Commission in late March.
On April 4 another request was submitted, this time empathizing on the interior ornaments. The request came from Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, who held a rally on the sidewalk in front of the bookstore. Brewer called for a reform of the city’s landmarking process, advocating that Rizzoli building deserves protection through landmark status, despite rejections by the Landmark Preservation Commission. Brewer’s aim is to introduce new legislation that would require the Landmarks Preservation Commission to consider any building more than 50 years old for protection if a developer files plans to raze it and will also consider public comments in the decision process, in order to avoid any future “Rizzoli situations.”
The request was rejected again. “The site no longer retain the integrity of its original design, and the ca. 1985 redesign of the space dose not rise to the level of an interior designation,” ruled the Landmark Preservation Commission in a statement released on April 10, referring to the “original design” of the previous piano showroom.
Aware of its fate and with no might to oppose the landlords, Rizzoli bookstore started a wind up sale: 40 percent off on every book.
Big crowds poured into the bookstore in its last week, taking advantage of the discounted prices but mostly paying homage to a place that has meant so much for so many people, both Manhattan resident and visitors.
“We are a cultural institution, a beautiful place,” said Davide Di Cagno-Hagen, operation manager at Rizzoli. “A lot of people come here for a lot of different reasons, and everyone is happy when they come here. That is the most important thing.”
For this typically quiet, elegant place, with soft carpets and classical music played over the speakers, and its few discreet visitors, the eager crowd seems unusual.
Many customers clustered in the section of landscape and architecture coffee-table books; they browsed around the balustrade on the second floor, crowned by the stucco bas-relief on the ceiling and the gigantic hand-wrought chandelier. They perused photography volumes, flipped through the pages of ancient art tomes, and snooped around cooking manuals and Italian prints, enjoying the last moments in this elegant environment.
They gazed at the decorated arch, snapped photos with their cell phones, and shook their heads both in disbelief and resignation. Some of them sit on the carpeted steps a little longer, staring at the ceiling one more time, trying to imprint it in their memory.
Once they have selected and piled up their books, they patiently joined the line that stretched from the cashier. Another unusual scene for Rizzoli.
Many customers looked for the store employees’ help, asking for a particular book, other seemed eager to purchase even bookends used for display. They kept the employees busy, making it hard for them to realize what was happening.
“I have been so rushed over the past few days and haven’t even thought about [the closure] until now, and we are about to close in 10 minutes,” said Di Cagno-Hagen. “It is all becoming reality right now, and it is very sad.”
But most of all, the apprehensive customers wonder about the future: Will Rizzoli reopen? When? And where? The answers for now are uncertain.
“There has been someone who has looked for the last six or seven weeks all over Manhattan and seen about 150 locations,” said Gary McElroy, who has worked for Rizzoli Corporation for the past 35 years, the last seven as general manager in the Midtown location. “The list has been cut down to four sites, few of them in the NoMad and Flatiron district, which seem very promising,” McElroy said, adding that they are looking to reopen in the Fall.
However, some fear that the store’s relocation might not become a reality.
“They had a branch in SoHo, on West Broadway for the longest time,” said Adrian Mathe, an architect originally from Romania, who has been in United States since the mid ‘80s. “The same thing happened, they closed and they say they will reopen and never did,” said Mathe, who has been a Rizzoli aficionado since his arrival in the U.S. “A city like New York needs independent bookstores. It is the closing of an era,” Mathe said.
“While some customers might express doubts about the reopening there is no question in my mind,” said McElroy. “The bookstore is too important to the publisher not to reopen.” As per a timeframe, McElroy said that they should have an answer before the end of the month.
As Rizzoli’s final closing time approached, customers lined up holding stack of books in their arms. Even after having exited the store, they stuck around on the sidewalk, for a last photo, one-more nostalgic glance.
“I have always enjoyed coming in here. It is such a beautiful building, such a wonderful peaceful respite from the cacophony of the city, and the people are so knowledgeable, the music is so beautiful,” Kaye Madison, a publisher that used to work close to Rizzoli, said.
“We are losing a place where you can come and feel you have escaped the feeling of New York, it feels like you are in the different place. An old time elegance that is disappearing,” Madison said.
Like every other night, at 7:30 p.m., an employee informs the customers through the speaker that the bookstore is closing. This night, the last night, the message was a little different: “Rizzoli Bookstore is now closed for the evening. Thank you for 30 years of patronage and have a good night,” an emotional good-bye that was cherished by the last remaining clients with clapping and cheers.
As they left, the Rizzoli team gathered behind closed doors for one last intimate moment. The shutter is pushed down like every other night. Customers and curious pedestrians still stared at the shut door and at the lighted windows.
On the other side of the sidewalk, another team gets ready to work. A truck loaded with large green wooden boards awaits for the last light to go off inside the store. They will cover the bookshop façade with construction boards and Rizzoli Bookstore on 31 W. 57th Street will become history.