In celebration of the integral part indie booksellers play in the literary community, here it is: the first of our Indie Bookstore features! Housed in NYC’s West Village, not far from 3RP’s home base, is Three Lives bookstore. 3RP is dedicated to supporting the bookstores who support us so much, and so we talked with Three Lives owner Toby Cox about bringing books to a community, surviving the past year, and bringing together books and those who will love them. You can find Three Lives’ website here, and visit their temporary location at 238 W 10th St in Manhattan!
Three Rooms Press: Can you tell me a bit about your store, how you got started as a bookseller, and about the name Three Lives & Company?
Toby Cox: Three Lives & Company was opened in 1978 by three women, thus Three Lives. I bought the shop from the founders in 2001. From the beginning, the bookshop has been a place to celebrate the book, from the joy of reading to the thoughtful display of books, as well as a community center for the West Village neighborhood.
I began my bookselling career at College Hill Book Store in Providence in 1988. It was another hot, humid Rhode Island summer and painting houses was taking a toll, so I wandered into the local independent bookstore and got a part-time gig. Within months I became a full-time employee and after several years at College Hill and another six-plus years across the street at the Brown University Bookstore, I moved to NYC and tried my hand at publishing, working in marketing for Broadway Books, a division of the Bertelsmann publishing company.
It was during my time at Broadway that I became friendly with Jill, one of the co-owners of Three Lives, and would stop by monthly to chat books and browse the selection. It was during these visits that I realized I truly missed that end of the book business: where book and reader meet. Watching the enterprise at work, recommending and selling books, celebrating an event in a local’s life, handing out dog treats, that I realized this was a life well lived, the life I wanted to live. I wanted back in to the bookselling world. As it happened, this was the time when the founders were looking to move on and relocate out of NYC and in early 2001 I took over Three Lives.
3RP: What has been your favorite part of owning a bookstore? Are there any favorite memories that come to mind?
TC: I have been very fortunate to have had outstanding employees throughout my twenty years at Three Lives. They have been incredible companions on this bookselling journey. We share a lot of good times and a lot of history and tales. And, a lot of book recommendations that flow back and forth.
Though there are countless memories from across my time at Three Lives (Murakami Midnight Release parties, the publication of a customer’s first book, chasing down a book thief and retrieving the stolen item like a baton in a relay race in the middle of Seventh Avenue traffic, the frenetic, giddy madness of the holiday season), my favorite aspect of bookselling at Three Lives—besides the constant rearranging of the book displays!—is the simple act of pleasantries across the sales counter. I am so grateful folks make their way to the shop and choose to buy their books at Three Lives I want to acknowledge their presence and thank them for the patronage, even if it’s to simply wish them well for the day, make a comment about the weather, or exclaim over the book they’ve brought to the register. I get to connect with folks, fellow book lovers like myself, every day and throughout the day.
3RP: What challenges have you faced in the last year? How have you and your community made changes to deal with these new circumstances?
TC: Three Lives was perfectly ill-prepared for functioning during a pandemic shutdown. Our entire being was predicated on the in-store experience, the shopper coming into a beautiful space filled with books and surrounded by like-minded book-loving clerks and customers. We had no online presence, other than our simple website showing who and where we are, and no social media accounts. I learned long ago that the best promotion for a shop is the enthusiasm of a customer and to let them spread the word about the little neighborhood bookshop on a corner of the West Village.
When the pandemic hit and the shutdown began in New York State, we had to pivot entirely to a version of online bookselling, our version of an online bookseller. The staff cobbled it together in a matter of days. It was their astounding work that allowed us to continue operating after we shut our doors for eleven weeks. Without their commitment and dedication, essentially running the bookshop from their homes, spread out on their dining tables and across their beds, that kept the shop in business. While the staff was home taking and processing orders from customers, both around the neighborhood and across the country, I would come to the shop and behind locked doors process orders to ship or to deliver around the neighborhood. It was a hustle, as it was for every enterprise and business and individual during these unprecedented times, but the joy of bringing books to people during those very dark days in NYC was immeasurable.
Once the shutdown was lifted for retail in late June 2020, we reopened to restricted in-store shopping and have maintained that protocol ever since. Our customers have been incredible, supportive and appreciative and even more aware of the impact and importance of shopping local, shopping at independent bookstores. There is a whole new awareness of pre-ordering forthcoming titles, now a common request from customers. As trying and troubling and difficult as the pandemic era has been on business, it has generated a tremendous amount of goodwill and neighborliness, both at the shop and from customers all over the country.
In the midst of the fall season we also had to temporarily relocate the bookshop from our corner location to a retail space two blocks down the street. With the tremendous support of our landlord we were able to find a location, build out a temporary bookstore in a matter of days, and move Three Lives in one day. Our relocation space is terrific and has been a good temporary home for us while our old space, and the nearly two hundred year old building gets a total and much-needed restoration. The year has had lots of challenges but throughout we’ve had tremendous support from our customers.
I am so grateful folks make their way to the shop and choose to buy their books at Three Lives I want to acknowledge their presence and thank them for the patronage, even if it’s to simply wish them well for the day, make a comment about the weather, or exclaim over the book they’ve brought to the register. I get to connect with folks, fellow book lovers like myself, every day and throughout the day.
3RP: What are some ways people can support and order from Three Lives?
TC: While we have moved away from our Shutdown online order form we are always, always available to take phone calls or email inquiring about stock, requesting books, or to pre-order a forthcoming title. Special orders are a vital part of the bottom line for Three Lives; always an important part of our bookselling and business, it has grown exponentially during the pandemic. We place orders almost daily and the majority of books are delivered within a matter of days. And, our orders are combined with many other book orders so there is far less shipping material and environmental costs when ordering through a bookshop.
We are still very much a neighborhood bookshop. We don’t have an online selling structure, we don’t have a social media account, we don’t even have a computerized inventory system (what you can do with index cards and pen and paper!), but we are still a hub for the West Village to talk books, buy books, and support the neighborhood.