Scientific Bookstores, RIP

A few days ago I tried to stop by the Barnes and Noble store here in New York at Fifth Ave. and 18th St., just to find that it had closed earlier this month. This was the first book store I had access to as a high school student that had a serious collection of math, physics and astronomy books, and I’ve been buying such books there for about 40 years. The huge 18th St. store dates back to 1932, and by the early 1970s was the only Barnes and Noble store, at the time that the company was revived and started its huge expansion.

With the closing of this store, there now are no longer any bookstores that I’m aware of in New York City that have a large collection of technical math and physics books. Other Barnes and Nobles like the Columbia bookstore have a smattering of such books, and the Strand has a large collection of used and remaindered books, but that’s about it (maybe a reader will tell me about a place I don’t know). At one point in a long-ago golden age there were several bookstores here devoted to scientific and technical books, including Book Scientific and the McGraw-Hill book store.

The same phenomenon is taking place around the country. Cody’s in Berkeley is gone, and if there’s a good technical book store in the Bay area now, I don’t know about it (but haven’t spent much time there in quite a while). Among the places in the US I regularly travel, the only bookstore I can think of that still carries quite a few math and physics books is the Harvard Coop (also some at the MIT outpost). Other countries may be doing somewhat better, with several such bookstores surviving in Paris at least (Gibert Joseph and Eyrolles for instance).

Of course the reason for this is the internet, more specifically Amazon and the online Barnes and Noble. These do have their virtues, and allow fairly quick access to a much more vast array of technical books than any physical bookstore ever could. But the loss of the experience of being able to spend an hour or so browsing through books, with the serendipity of finding something unexpected (something that Amazon’s finely tuned algorithms wouldn’t ever present to you) is a very real one.

RIP New York technical bookstores, I must find a way to get to Paris more often…

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56 Responses to Scientific Bookstores, RIP

  1. Mayer A. Landau says:

    David Derbes,
    $80 for a textbook published in 1964 is not a reasonable price.
    “Kids” don’t buy books anymore because they now have alternatives to being gouged by the publishers. That’s a good thing. Not sad at all.

  2. Dave Bacon says:

    If you’re ever in Seattle check out Ada Technical Books. I do miss Cody’s 🙁

  3. book sci says:

    In February of 1996 Book Scientific moved to 10 West 19th Street # 3B (though it kept their phone number according to my handy black book from when I was a graduate student, (212) 206-1310). I’m not sure what happened after that.

  4. Peter Woit says:

    book sci,
    Book Scientific was on 19th st at that 3rd floor location for several years, then finally closed for good. Oddly, before the move it was across the street from Revolution books, then Revolution books also moved to 19th st, across the street. Now Revolution books is on 26th st, I suppose I should try looking for a revived Book Scientific across the street somewhere…

  5. chris says:

    It’s not just NYC. Here in Germany they are also dying at a fast pace, with the surviving bookstores shifting their emphasis to toys and gifts.

    The real tragedy though is that the online bookstores – which would technically be extremely well equipped to offer you browsing through a vast variety of books, much better than any real book store – can’t do this because of the screwed up publication system still in place. With the 20th century bookstores dying off, I hope the 20th century business model of publishers will die soon, too.

  6. Richard Haas says:

    I am late to this discussion. I worked in Manhattan for twenty years and I want to mention a couple of other bookstores: There was Viktor Kamkin Importers on 21st and 5th ave which had a fine science and math selection, all Mir Publishers Moscow, mainly in English, some in Spanish. It also had such curiosities as the complete collection of Oz books bound in silver by “Lyman F. Baum” and albums including “The Soviet Choir Sings Negro Spirituals”.

    On Warren Street was Warren Street books. The collection was so random in might have been a cover for something else; however, on weekends Warren Street Books would set up at computer shows in NJ and sell Springer Verlag, North Holland, Birkhauser, etc. When a book was several volumes they were never displayed together.

    There was also in the late ’80s and early ’90s a father and son team that supplied street vendors (mostly Indian) with recently published books that they would sell on the streets of Manhattan from folding tables. They had 15,000 feet of wharehouse space in South Williamsburg and asked me if I could come up with a way of cataloging what they had with a bar-code scanner and a database, somehow. I had just quit a job on Wall Street and was not interested in going back to work. The new books were in large boxes on skids and there was no logic to how they were grouped. They did not tell me how they came by them.

    What books the Strand had could be “bursty”. One burst occurred when Louis V. Gerstner, Jr. closed IBM plants and offices. Their libraries ended up at the Strand.

    In Paramus, NJ there was for a couple of years a Barnes and Noble across Route 17 from a Barnes and Noble. And, actually, there used to be a Barnes and Noble Annex across from the 18th St. Barnes and Noble that sold old books.

    There is this about the Viktor Kamkin Store in Maryland:
    The article says, “Thousands of books, all in Russian and some still in plastic packaging, were taken to the trash transfer station at Shady Grove to be recycled.” In fact there was a large selection in English. Amazon does not do a very could job with these, see, eg:

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