This is the latest installment of the Off the Grid’s series in which we highlight the people, places and events featured in our new book Greenwich Village Stories, available for purchase today. Visit our Facebook page for the latest on book contributors, release events and readings, and contest information.
To celebrate the release of Greenwich Village Stories, we chatted with Toby Cox, owner of Three Lives & Company, one of the West Village’s most beloved bookstores. Toby sat on the editorial committee of Greenwich Village Stories, and he and Three Lives & Company have long been supporters of GVSHP. You can visit Three Lives & Company today to pick up your copy of Greenwich Village Stories.
What first brought you to the Village? What kept you here?
My first visit to the West Village was in 1996 when I stumbled upon an amazing little corner bookshop, Three Lives & Company. I was working as a manager at a university bookstore in Rhode Island and thought, “If I ever had my own bookshop, I’d love it to look just like this.” A year later I was living in Brooklyn, working in publishing in Midtown Manhattan, but I would always return to the Village and make a visit to Three Lives to see the new titles, touch the books, and chat with the co-owner, Jill Dunbar. Three years later, when I realized I wanted to be back in bookselling, the owners of Three Lives had decided to retire and sell Three Lives. It was synchronistic: I wanted to somehow get involved in Three Lives and they wanted to sell the shop to someone that cared about the incredible space they created. I think we both got just what we wanted.
What is the most rewarding part of owning a bookstore?
Easily, the most rewarding aspect of owning Three Lives is being a part of an amazing community. It’s not uncommon to have neighbors and customers simply stop by to say hello and have a quick chat. Yes, they’ll find some wonderful books on our shelves, they’ll get wonderful customer service and recommendations from the staff, but I think the residents of the West Village also get a thoughtful, caring, engaged community center at Three Lives. I am grateful every day for what this neighborhood gives me and Three Lives.
What challenges have you faced?
Challenges to the bookselling community have come from online vendors, the advent of the e-book reader, and a challenging economy, but this community seems to truly understand what makes their Village special, what makes the neighborhood unique, and in order to sustain the commercial aspect of that equation, they support all their local, independent shops. Sure, I’ve wondered if the book will survive, or if there’s a place for a bricks-and-mortar bookstore, or if the recession of 2008-9 would take us down, but this community remained loyal and true to their neighborhood and always sustained me, and the shop, with encouragement, engagement, and support.
What makes the Village unique, in NYC and beyond?
I think the Village maintains something that seems to slip away more and more and that is the sense of a genuine urban community. It’s not just the shops and restaurants, it’s not just the residents, it’s not just the historic buildings and streetscapes–it’s all of these things coming together and existing together and working with one another and supporting one another. Sure, national retailers have moved into the Village, but they all have squeezed themselves into the Village scale rather than imposing their sense of space and usage.
Do you think it is important to care about neighborhood preservation?
Neighborhood preservation is very important. I do believe that a city such as NYC is also about embracing the new, the different, the forward-looking, but this can co-exist with the attention to and care for the old and the unique. The Village is certainly the latter, and it should be preserved with as much passion and interest as we also advocate the new and different.
What is your favorite spot in the Village?
We often get tourists in the bookshop asking us what they should do, where should they go, and I always recommend a nice stroll through the West Village that seems to epitomize the area: from Seventh Avenue, stroll up West Fourth Street (yes, it actually does intersect with West Tenth Street!) to see all the beautiful brownstones along the way; at the end of West Fourth make a horse-shoe left turn and walk down Eighth Avenue and then follow Bleecker Street back down to see all the shops and an energized commercial area. This walk allows one to see the residential and the business districts of the West Village. When I need a quick break, it is always fun to head over to Washington Square Park to do a few minutes of spectacular people watching, from the buskers singing Dylan tunes to the tourists taking photos of squirrels.
What do you hope to see happen to the Village in the next 10 years?
The continued well-balanced approach to sustaining the history and place of the Village.