While so many bookstores have cut back on inventory, McNally Jackson Books have gone deeper with their book catalogue
Renegotiating the lease
The McNally Jackson bookstore café does not have Wi-Fi – which keeps freelancers and neighboring NYU students at a distance, making for an ever rare view: people talking to each other and enjoying immersion in a book. The wallpaper is made of book pages, and a dozen books hang from the ceiling. Books take up space, however, which in Manhattan has become expensive enough to amount to something of a retail crisis. There’s pending city legislation that would give small businesses more security, including the right to a ten-year lease, and the chance to negotiate rent increases with the help of an independent arbitrator, yet McNally Jackson encountered issues revolving this. In 2018 McNally Jackson saw a $500,000 raise in rent at its Prince street location. The store’s annual rent increased 60 percent from $360,000 to $850,000. This brought the store to near-move. When the news broke online that the store would be leaving the Prince Street building it had always occupied, panic spread on Twitter. After weeks of negotiations and lots of online speculation, McNally managed to make a deal with the landlords and renegotiated a lease.
No longer a branch
In a time and place where independent booksellers are disappearing, McNally Jackson in New York is growing. The bookstore was founded in New York in 2004 by Sarah McNally, a former editor at Basic Books and daughter of Holly and Paul McNally, the owners of the Canadian McNally Robinson Booksellers chain. At first, the store operated as a branch of the Canadian chain, but after a few years, McNally, along with her then-husband Christopher Jackson, decided to make it independent and renamed the shop, McNally Jackson.
McNally Jackson’s flagship store is located at the corner of Mulberry and Prince Streets, in Manhattan, in the heart of Nolita – or NoLIta (for North of Little Italy), a small neighborhood squeezed between SoHo, Little Italy, the Lower East Side, and Chinatown. The area displays the meeting of high and low culture: luxury fashion boutiques sit next to same-day service laundry shops; pizza parlors next to artist studios, gyms and wine stores. Nolita is also the heart of ‘foodie’ New York, offering brunch spots, award-winning restaurants, and cafés.
The neighborhood’s streets are busy on any day of the week with locals, tourists, and young professionals. On weekends, street vendors sell hand-made jewelry and artwork line Prince Street. On Mulberry Street, between an Italian leather shop, a tailor, and a cowboy-boots outlet, sit two smaller McNally Jackson stores, although not books. McNally partnered with Goods for the Study, a stationery company, and opened two stores identical in size and décor. One is entirely dedicated to pens, and the other entirely to notebooks.
A large catalog
McNally Jackson’s location in this trafficked spot was a critical decision for its success, since the founder’s business model is built on brick-and-mortar browsing. The main bookstore sits just around the corner from St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral, and directly across from the Do Kham Tibetan boutique, with jewellery, fashions, accessories and antiques from the Himalayas. Expanding over 3,250 square feet on the ground floor, McNally Jackson’s bookstore includes a café, an in-house printing press which publishes hundreds of novels a month, and an Espresso Book Machine, which creates and binds a book on-demand.
While so many bookstores have cut back on inventory, to concentrate on events, stationary, or other branded merchandise, McNally Jackson have gone deeper with their book catalog. It is estimated that the Prince Street bookstore has 14,000 books in the literature section alone. The bookstore caters to all kinds of readers— whether you would like to educate yourself in Arabic poetry, or read about the theoretical and practical implications of AI.
McNally Jackson arrange their literature by geography, which is not a common practice in bookstores. You can browse from the Mediterranean shelves (which is a mix of Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and Greek writers) to the neighbouring Irish and British shelves within the same gaze. French literature has its own bookshelf, as does Russian. American literature abounds. In addition to the poetry collections, the classics, and well-published poetry names, the corner also features a chapbook selection. Indie publishing houses, and small presses are on display.
In January 2019, McNally Jackson debuted a new location in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Housed in a former steel factory, the Brooklyn bookstore is a collaboration between Sam MacLaughlin, a former bookseller for the Prince Street bookstore, and McNally Jackson founder Sarah McNally. The Williamsburg outpost has already gained a good following in the months since its debut.
In addition to the Nolita and Williamsburg locations, McNally Jackson is also at The Shed, the new arts center at Hudson Yards, on Manhattan’s west side. The Shed shop features a catalog of books responding to art center’s programming, with selections of international literature in translation, contemporary poetry and essays, continental philosophy, issues and politics, and art and art theory.
The shelves also include recommendations from the Shed’s artists, curators, and program team. McNally Jackson’s latest location addition opened in September 2019 along the waterfront at 4 Fulton St. in a 7,500-square-feet space. The bookstore saw some delays in the opening, initially planned for August 1st due to renovation delays and longer bureaucracy obtaining the liquor license.
Text Enrica Barberis
52 Prince St.
New York, NY