Guest Blog: Elena Bowes visits Three Lives & Co in New York

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Our regular guest blogger Elena Bowes has been out and about discovering hidden gems in New York for us, this week it’s Three Lives & Company, if you are visiting this year, be sure to bookmark this charming little store. Over to you Elena…

There are bookshops and there are bookshops. Three Lives & Company on the corner of West 10th and Waverly Place falls under the latter category. The much-loved, well-curated corner gem serves as much as a haven for readers as a hub for the community.

Three Lives has been around for nearly forty years. It was originally started by three women, hence its name taken after American writer Gertrude Stein’s first published book. ( Tender Buttons on the Upper East Side is another NYC shop honouring Stein with its name).

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When the women wanted to retire they sold Three Lives to its current owner and friend of the shop Toby Cox in 2001. Originally from Marin County, Cox was doing marketing for Random House in Manhattan at the time. He realised that his true passion was selling books to readers, not stores. He is still very much behind the till, choosing and arranging books and serving customers.

Toby Cox right and staffer Troy Chatterton left

Toby Cox right and staffer Troy Chatterton left

Cox attributes the shop’s longevity to three things: “The beautiful space these women created, the books on display and the people that work here.

Cox moves books around constantly, every day to keep the space looking fresh and dynamic.

“You move one book and it changes everything. I then have to change the whole look to the annoyance of everyone here. A book that was just on the front table has moved to the back of the shop.”

A passion for reading is shared by all of the eight-strong staff plus Cox. Toby Chatterton explains: “We love reading and we get really excited about turning people onto books that we’re reading. I think we’re known for giving recommendations and we build relationships with customers.

Below are some of Chatterton’s top picks.
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Carol Wald, one of two employees who has worked at Three Lives since before Cox took over, reads a book a week and would work here for free.

“I get to talk to smart people, interesting people all day long about books that I love and about culture and every two weeks I get paid. Seriously, I get my pay-check and I’m like ‘Oh!’ I would do this for free.”

Three Lives isn’t big or flashy. It barely promotes itself, and it hasn’t changed much over the years despite the advent of chains, Amazon and e-readers. Instead Cox works hard to maintain the essence of this jewel box.

When Hanya Yanagihara, author of A Little Life – shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and a National Book Award finalist – recently spoke at the shop, Three Lives softly advertised the event with a mention in its newsletter and a small poster in the window. Instead, the staff focuses its energy reading and recommending books to its loyal clientele, as well as newbies, like me. I did not leave empty-handed.

The shop has very little signage to encourage browsing and conversation. When I was there, a regular spent a good twenty minutes talking to Carol Wald about books, hopping from one title to another in bookworm-ese. And when Wald recommended “The Sellout” by Paul Beatty to me, a fellow customer chimed in.

“It’s so so good. It’s really funny, and it gets into your gut at the same time. Beatty is saying things that are so important. I just finished it so I am very excited by it.”

Chatterton manages the ‘Book of the Month Club’ where he meets with the person who is giving the gift or signing up for it. Chatterton chats with them, sees what kind of reader they are, what they’re looking for and then sends them a book every month.

“We send them a new book, and it’s always something that either we’re really excited about or that one of has read and loved.”

Of course, like any thriving community focal point, the staff are just as happy to discuss the news or the weather, as what terrific book they’ve just finished.

Three Lives & Co Bookshop is at 154 West 10th Street, New York. Read more from Elena on her blog here.

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