Do we really have to face the translation of everything into money? We may wish we could keep bookshops as places where we can look at books and buy them when we are inspired, but, in the real world, bookselling is a business, and profit is necessary. We all know that costs mount, especially as rents just keep rising — as they must in response to the laws of capitalism. Sure capitalism may have done us all a lot of good, but can’t anyone come up with a modification which would mean “good” things get a break? Or are we doomed to see all retail outlets operated by merchants of international schmattes?

Peter Glassman, owner of Books of Wonder has just announced the opening of a new store on West 84th Street in addition to their original location on West 18th Street. The New York Times quotes him “Given the rise in retail rents along 18th Street, I am not optimistic about our ability to renew the lease”, so the new second store is there as an insurance against the first one’s having to close. Just walk along New York streets and you’ll encounter a surprisingly large number of shuttered stores. (I guess real estate people take tax write-offs against their losses from empty buildings — they certainly don’t seem to be in any hurry to re-rent. Increases of 3 or 4 times the current rent are being proposed on lease renewals. Surely this can’t be sustainable.) The Mayor of New York City is seized of the problem. Hasn’t figured out what to do about commercial rents, but does recognize that having all the little shops shut down because they can’t afford to pay the rent is not “a good thing”. We just had an announcement that the City will now pay for legal representation for tenants faced with eviction from their apartment by landlords — previously a very uneven playing field. This expense will apparently be more than balanced by reductions in the cost of providing housing the homeless after the landlords have thrown them out.

People power can help. In our neighborhood we recently “saved” our local supermarket whose lease had been gazumped by a chain pharmacy. We all turned out on the street in front of the store; local politicians got involved; and eventually the pharmacy accepted that bad publicity didn’t really work; so we have our supermarket, for the next few years at least. I don’t know if we could turn out impressive enough crowds for a bookstore though! Still, somehow bookstores are still opening. Maybe some of those landlords are getting fed up with keeping properties empty. We obviously need to reinforce this behavior by changing the tax deduction for losses of this kind.

Why is it that landlords are the only ones who appear to be guaranteed to make money? (And this is a problem which long predates our current administration led by an über-landlord!) We all know that they are not making any more real estate; quite the opposite I fear. I suppose there’s no way to get to a world where land is a public good. As far as I can figure it, nobody has any basic right (other than force majeure) to own land. Just because your great-great-great, etc., etc., etc, grandfather bought it or even worse just beat everyone else to the punch, killed off all contenders, and grabbed the land in your home valley should not, in any sensible ethical scheme, allow you to collect rent from me for settling on a small bit of that valley floor. Calls for the socialization of land tenure are unlikely to meet with any kind of positive response, but at least let us allow it to flit through our mind. We need to consider for whose benefit this whole game is for, and whether that’s as it should be.

Jonathan Pie (a socially alert commentator portrayed by comedian Tom Watson) as usual hits it radically on the nose. Sensitive ears may want to be aware that his outspokenness includes lots of cuss-words. For non-Brits: Swan Vestas is a brand of matches.

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