It is incredible to realize that with the shuttering in January of Urban Center Books, New York no longer has a single bookstore devoted to architecture, urban design, and city planning. Like Chicago, which lost its legendary Prairie Avenue Bookshop in 2009, New York may have other stores that stock architecture titles, but it has lost a communal haven. These were places where architects from around the world would go to see what was new and exciting in the world of design publishing, bump into friends, and compare notes. I remember seeing Richard Meier and Philip Johnson in the tiny shop checking out each other’s purchases, and another time watching Bruno Zevi graze through new titles on a crowded book table.
Even in the best of times, selling books is not a gold mine for store operators, and Urban Center Books existed in its high-rent Midtown space as a special concession forced on the developer of the landmark Villard Houses, where the store was located. Harry Helmsley, who built the 51-story Palace Hotel behind the Villard brownstone in 1980, was required to rent the northern portion of the Madison Avenue structure at a much-reduced rent for 30 years. An umbrella organization was created to bring under one roof the Parks Council, the Architectural League, the New York chapter of the AIA, the Municipal Art Society, and the bookstore. The 30-year easement ended last year, and the organizations scattered all over the city. Urban Center Books, operated by MAS, had hoped to find another space in the city—perhaps with MAS in the Steinway building—and several plans were hatched to relocate the much-loved store into a suitable home. Apparently, this effort has come to naught. And with MAS reportedly no longer interested in carrying the store, Urban Center Books has died a lamentable death.
It may be hard to remember for people who now buy books online, but New York once had multiple shops that featured architecture books. The old Rizzoli store on 5th Avenue carried a healthy supply, and it continues the tradition at West 57th Street. And how many remember the tiny Perimeter books in its several Soho iterations run by Kazumi Futagawa? Other specialized shops abounded, often carrying esoteric titles on architecture: Wittenborn and Ursus on Madison Avenue, Hacker Art Books on 57th, and our favorite, Jaap Rietman in Soho. In a city where design, publishing, and media still intersect in an intense feedback loop, it is hard to imagine these stores are gone, and with them untold opportunities for serendipitous inspiration. Of course, there are still shops in New York that carry architecture titles like Spoonbill & Sugartown, Book Culture, Archivia, St. Mark’s, and the redoubtable Strand (especially its 2nd-floor rare book room). We should treasure and buy from these places before they also disappear. No amount of searching online can create the ambience and excitement of these shops, and the city is a poorer place without them.