The Drama Book Shop, known for its exhaustive collection of plays and books on theater and as hallowed ground for the Broadway set, will shutter its store at 250 W. 40th St. early next year. Its owners hope to reopen—likely in a smaller space—elsewhere in the Theater District or nearby.
The decision came after what has become an increasingly common death knell for beloved businesses across the city: a sharp rent increase. The 100-year-old bookstore’s lease for the space it has occupied for almost 20 years expires at the end of January.
While some retail businesses around the city have been surprised by rent spikes handed to them by their landlords, Allen Hubby, a vice president at the bookshop whose aunt, Rozanne Seelen, has owned the store for several decades, said they had expected its time in the space to come to an end at the close of its lease.
Recent rent escalations for the space have brought its monthly bill to about $20,000, Hubby said, a price it was already struggling to pay.
“We knew it was getting too expensive,” Hubby said. “It’s hard to cover a $20,000 rent when most of the books you offer only cost about $10. Not to mention salaries, the costs of buying the books, electricity, taxes. We can’t afford it.”
Hubby said Seelen, who is 83 and plans to hand the business to him, had recently begun dipping into her personal savings to subsidize the store and keep it from going under. The shop employs about 20 staff members, most of whom are students or performers who work part time.
The landlord of the building had initially proposed a 50% rent increase for the bookshop to renew its lease, Hubby said, terming the offer a nonstarter.
“At this point that’s already so far out of the reality of our situation,” Hubby said. “We didn’t expect that the landlord would agree to reduce our rent, which is really what we need.”
Retail vacancies and the displacement of independent businesses led the City Council to hold a lengthy public hearing Monday to discuss controversial legislation that would offer commercial tenants, including retail stores, protections to remain in their spaces and combat what council members described as a crisis of businesses being forced out of longtime homes by skyrocketing rents.
In the Drama Book Shop’s case, rent increases have not been the shop’s only woes. Sometimes shoppers will come into the store and use the expertise of its staff to find books or plays, Hubby said, only to leave and buy the merchandise online.
“Most of the things we sell you can now get on Amazon, and although people often don’t realize it, we actually sell most of our items for lower prices,” Hubby said. “It’s bad for everyone, except Amazon.”
Another setback came during a cold snap in February 2016, when a pipe burst upstairs in the building on a weekend, sending more than 20,000 gallons of water into the store and destroying about 20% of its merchandise. That catastrophe led to a fundraising effort from some of Broadway’s biggest names, including Lin-Manuel Miranda, who early in his career had used the bookstore’s basement theater space to pen and stage early performances of In the Heights, his breakout Broadway hit.
Hubby said he anticipates the bookstore will shrink by at least half in a move. Gone will be the theater space, home to burgeoning groups such as Theatre 68, which has practiced and staged performances there for the past seven years.
“It’s devastating,” said Ronnie Marmo, Theatre 68’s founder and artistic director. “All the things that attracted people to this neighborhood are going away. Talk about a staple. Everyone in the theater community loves the Drama Book Shop. I’m broken up about it.”
Marmo said the bookshop had been an accommodating home for his company, allowing it to have a key to the store to lock up so members could stay late to practice, rehearse and perform. He was unsure where his theater company would relocate and if it could find a similar arrangement. Marmo has been absorbed preparing for I’m Not a Comedian…I’m Lenny Bruce, a play he wrote and stars in about the comic Lenny Bruce, for a run at The Cutting Room, near Park Avenue South. He plans to begin looking for a new space once the play is out of previews in November.
“I’m scared to death about finding a new home,” Marmo said. “I love the bookshop, and I love being in Midtown. But listen, we have faced hurdles before, and who am I to start having doubts now?”