Farewell to a beloved bookstore

09 Jan 2017 | 01:35

The booksellers were on duty, even during the Jan. 5 reception marking the closing of Crawford Doyle, a retail mainstay on Madison Avenue for the last 21 years. A customer came up to co-owner Judy Crawford and said, “You can give me advice,” and then wondered aloud about what to read next.

As longtime fans of the store drank wine, ate cheese and shared memories, Crawford suggested Ian McEwan's new book, “The Nutshell,” explaining, “It's very clear and it's not too long.” The customer seemed satisfied with the suggestion.

Crawford and her husband John Doyle had another ongoing task that night: comforting customers upset at the loss of a bookstore in the neighborhood.

“This is bittersweet,” Crawford acknowledged. “We didn't want to wait until we were forced to make a decision.”

One staffer, Emma McNairy, said it was weird to see the store being physically dismantled. “It's like a wake,” she said.

Customers came from near and far. Maureen Berescik lives in Connecticut, but showed up for the farewell because she treasured her memories of the shop, which she used to visit when her daughter lived nearby. “This was my favorite place to be,” she said. “So I had to make the closing night. It's so worth it.”

Marjorie Hilton, an Upper East Sider and self-described “interior decorator to the stars,” described how a friend of hers, during a difficult time, visited the store every day. “She felt safe here,” Hilton said. “That's the kind of thing people need to know.”

As booklovers mingled, another fan of the store asked Doyle, “Was it profitable? I know you owned the space.”

“Bookstores are never profitable,” Doyle quipped. “It wasn't meant to be.”

The store, he explained in an earlier interview, was really a post-retirement exercise after his years working for IBM. “I was 59 at the time,” said Doyle, now 82. “We thought we could maybe do a 10-year project at that time. A bookstore sounded like a good idea, so we got it going. Time passed and the store's done pretty well.”

The store's final day would be Jan. 10, but Doyle plans to continue selling first editions and unique books out of his home.

“We have a library attached to our apartment on 90th Street and it's accessible to the public the way it's built,” he said.

Manager Thomas Talbot was a key reason for the store's success, Doyle said. Talbot and his team offered advice to customers. “That's the difference with the chains or even Amazon,” said Doyle, pointing to the interaction between booksellers and customers.

New Yorkers think of themselves as sophisticated and steeped in literary tradition, but the city has provided a challenging retail landscape for independent bookstores over many years. While Doyle says such stores will “never play the role they once did,” he heralds his location between 81st and 82nd streets. “For any retail business, it starts with the location,” he said.

Even without Crawford Doyle, there will be independent survivors. The Corner Bookstore, north on Madison Avenue, may inherit some Crawford Doyle customers. Shakespeare & Company survives to the south on Madison Avenue, near Hunter College. On the West Side there are three Book Culture shops, owned by Chris Doeblin.

“Indie bookstores are having a moment and several, even in New York, are expanding,” Doeblin said. He explained how Crawford Doyle was aided by Doyle's having purchased his retail space, but insisted there was another secret to success: “John's love of books and his ability to select the people that could run the place. They probably deserve a great deal of credit.”

Doyle said he's hoping to send some of his staff members to Doeblin and Book Culture. On the night of the closing reception, though, Doyle took a moment to wonder about the future. He looked down from his upstairs office to the bookstore below, customers bustling, and thought about what would come next for the space.

“It will be full of women's clothes or perfume,” he predicted.