Goodbye, Coliseum! Beloved Bookstore Breathes Final Gasp

I first saw Coliseum Books three years ago, just five minutes after an interview for an editorial assistant job at Condé Nast. I had taken the bus down from Cape Cod, where I was staying in a rented beach house with my extended family, and was wearing my Aunt Jane’s black, tapered pantsuit with shoulder pads, my Aunt Tracie’s pearls, and a pair of square-toed flats that my mother kept in her trunk for “emergencies.”

The interview was only eight minutes long. I talked about how my family had always revered Condé Nast, although in reality I’d never even heard of the company until my senior year of college. It was true that my mother had always kept a stack of Vanity Fairs in the bathroom, and that my father was crazy for New Yorker cartoons. But we are, and always have been, book people. The interviewer told me they’d be in touch, and I could tell I’d never hear from her again.

I had an hour before my bus departed, so I took a stroll down 42nd Street, past Bryant Park, and there the bookstore was—transplanted, as I would later learn, from an even more venerable location at 57th and Broadway, which closed down in 2002 when the lease expired and the landlord doubled the rent. Coliseum had bravely survived this calamity. Its windows were filled with novels I’d recently read, biographies I was thinking about reading, and political nonfiction I would probably never read, but might tell people I had.

I stepped inside, and the bustling sidewalk and screeching cabs faded away. I was home. I have always loved everything about books—not just the stories they tell, but the weight of them in my hands, the way they look piled up, the smell of fresh pages covered in ink. I could tell that Coliseum was created by people who felt the same way. The books were not just on sale; they were on exhibit. I strolled down the long aisles and stood for 15 minutes in front of a section dedicated to Manhattan, gazing at the paperback guides to the city and the large photography books with black-and-white images of the Chrysler Building and the Brooklyn Bridge. I’d heard many frightening stories about editorial assistants who subsisted on ketchup packets and had to share apartments in Astoria with six other girls, where they alternated nights sleeping in the tub, but for a moment my New York fear gave way to New York lust.

Before leaving the store, I bought a brownie the size of my head in the café, a copy of Atonement for the bus ride back to the beach, and The Devil Wears Prada as a gag gift for my mom, a sort of “My daughter went to Condé Nast and all I got was this lousy roman à clef.”

Of course, because life is the way life is, I got the job—and despite some trepidation, I took it. As I tried to navigate my new work-dominated life, parting ways with a much-older boyfriend, Coliseum was a refuge. I went there as the antidote to a tough day in the office, or to reward myself after a terrible date. On occasion, I cried in the aisles, out of loneliness or frustration, because I thought it was more dignified than crying at my desk, or in some fluorescent-lit bathroom stall. At my first New York snowfall, I decided to do without a new pair of gloves so that I could buy every Eudora Welty book in stock. I knew they would help me get through the long winter better than anything H&M could design.

When my dad came to town for a meeting, we spent an hour at Coliseum and arrived at dinner with several bright yellow shopping bags, bursting with new books. Once, discouraged beyond measure with my sixth revision of a story about Penélope Cruz’s workout regime, I dashed out of the office and ran down to Coliseum to repurchase Elizabeth Bishop’s The Complete Poems, which I had lent to some boy months earlier, because I wanted him to experience those beautiful lines: The art of losing isn’t hard to master. (I considered it one of life’s little inside jokes that I never heard from him again.) At that moment, I needed to have this book in my hands—to see its salmon-colored cover and read the same soothing, familiar stanzas I had copied into my journal back in high school.

Eight months ago, I got a new job at The New York Times, one block and 12 universes away from the Condé Nast Building, which was so sleek that it often felt like a rocket ship about to launch. Deeply comforting by comparison, the Times Building reminds me of an old public elementary school, with its sea of sensible shoes, its small, assembly-line-style cafeteria, and its rickety elevators that take 10 minutes to climb as many floors.

It was raining on my first day, and my new boss apologized, explaining that he was in desperate need of a book on Iraq and wanted me to run down to Coliseum and pick it up for him. Nothing else could have put me at such ease.

When I heard recently that the store had filed for bankruptcy and would be closing down, I had that same feeling I’ve gotten before, when other precious, beautiful things have vanished too soon. It was like the day J.F.K. Jr. died, or the year ABC cancelled My So-Called Life after just one perfect season. It was like losing a friend who meant the world to you, even though he never knew you existed.

In the age of Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble, there is little shock or surprise when an independent store like Coliseum goes under. As my boyfriend said when I told him the news, “The best way to make a small fortune in bookselling is to start with a large one.” And I must admit that I like Barnes & Noble. I appreciate Amazon for allowing me to buy embarrassing self-help books without having to look a salesperson in the eye.

But I will miss Coliseum dearly, and be forever grateful to the place for helping to ease me into a life I wasn’t sure I wanted, but am now mostly delighted to have. Unlike a lot of people, I’ve actually come to like Times Square. I look into the lights and bustle and the faces of tourists and, on a good day, I am actually energized by all of this. But I find myself worried for the next wave of nerdy post-college girls in ill-fitting suits who are new to midtown and seeking solace. They’re not going to find it at the Virgin Megastore.