In 2001, as they approached their twenty-third year as owners of the West Village literary beacon Three Lives & Company, owners Jill Dunbar and Jenny Feder began thinking about retirement. Eastern Long Island beckoned, but who could take over their bookshop? They wanted someone who understood the store’s spirit, someone they could trust to keep the best-curated selection of literary non-fiction, fiction and poetry in lower Manhattan alive on the corner of W. Tenth St. and Waverly Pl.
They thought of frequent visitor Toby Cox, then marketing manager at Broadway Books, who also had 10 years of experience in the bookselling business under his belt. It was Cox, however, who approached Dunbar and Feder first, to inquire about the possibility of signing on as a partner. Dunbar’s response: “Let’s have lunch. Tomorrow.”
Cox bought Three Lives, a transition that was tough for some longtime customers. There was shock and there were tears; others, though, were just thrilled that the shop would live on.
Tall, lean, and bespectacled, Cox seems to use his love of books as many shy people do, as a way of connecting with the outside world. After graduating from Brown University with a degree in history, he needed a job, and stumbled into one as a clerk and then promotions manager at the now-defunct College Hill Bookstore in Providence. “It never felt like a career,” Cox says. A publishing job in New York, he thought, would legitimize the path he was on. After close to three years in book marketing, though, he realized it was really independent bookselling that he loved.
It is midday in the 31-year-old shop packed full of books, the warm glow of incandescent lights on the hardwood floor augmented by sunlight from outdoors. Cox, dressed in a plaid shirt, jeans and sneakers, perches on a short metal librarian’s ladder in the store’s poetry section and tells his story to the accompaniment of the grinding and groaning of what is possibly the loudest and most assertive radiator in the Village.
He made only minor changes after he took over in 2002, such as expanding the section on books about New York from one to two bookcases, a nod to the increasing number of tourists visiting the shop. The core of his clientele is local, the rest from all over the city and world. The locals are “very engaged and energized readers,” says Cox, many of whom are connected to book publishing. “They know what’s coming out, or they come in to ask about books they’ve read about in the New York Times or New York Review of Books, or have heard on [WNYC talk show] Lenny Lopate,” he says.
Two of the shop’s four employees, Joyce McNamara and Carol Wald, stayed on after Cox bought the shop; both have been at Three Lives for over ten years and help account for its staff’s reputation as highly literate and eager to share their enthusiasm with patrons.
The expansion of big-box and online book retailers such as Barnes & Noble and amazon.com over the past ten years “had a very big impact on Three Lives,” Cox admits. The good news, though, is that he has noticed a growing momentum behind the “buy local” and “buy independent” movements. “People understand what it is that makes a community, a neighborhood, what value [local retail] brings to a neighborhood,” says Cox. “They understand that how they spend their dollars is a vote for the kind of community they want.” The day before, he had received an email from a new customer who wrote, “I don’t want to buy from Barnes & Noble and Amazon anymore; will you order books for me?” Cox replied, “Of course, we can order any book that’s in print and available.”
At one point in Cox’s chat with WestView, shopper Holly Shaw, a 40-year resident of the West Village and a poet who makes her own books by hand, breaks in to laud Three Lives and The Strand bookstores for the “special and wonderful” qualities they bring to the Village. She leaves with four new books.
He has the good will and support of his community, but Cox admits that in “a city full of readers” like New York, the more difficult issue facing small bookstore owners is whether or not they can afford their rents. “Right now, we’re okay,” he says, but declines to discuss the details of his agreement with his landlord, or the long-term future of the shop on W. Tenth St.
Cox and his staff read voraciously, and freely recommend an international roster of novelists, often trying to match the tastes of regular customers with authors new to them. One regular customer drops in to discuss an A.S. Byatt book. Recent staff favorites include Running, by French novelist Jean Echenoz and The Lieutenant, by Australian writer Kate Grenville. Another of Cox’s favorite authors is American novelist Joan Silber, author of Household Words and Ideas of Heaven.
Cox’s plan for the future of Three Lives is to stay true to Three Lives’ mission of searching for “a good story, well told,” and providing a place where people can come to share their passion for books. “It’s the sort of place,” says Cox, “where people come in, put their elbow on the counter, and say, ‘I need a book. What do you recommend?’”