There are some 750 books on display in Bravo’s Book Nook, the only theater bookstore in New York, and possibly the only one open in the country. That’s not a lot of books for a bookstore; it’s as if even the books are social distancing.
“We’re planning on stocking about 2,500,” explains Jory Southurst, the shop’s general manager and sole employee, as we talk inside the store. The two of us are maintaining social distance, but it isn’t easy: Bravo’s Book Nook measures about 250 square feet, which is smaller than the smallest studio apartment in Greenwich Village. That’s where Bravo’s Book Nook is located, on MacDougal Street, in the lobby of The Players Theatre.
It surely seemed a fine idea late last year when Michael Sgouros and Brenda Bell, the owners of the 200-seat theater, decided to turn its lobby into a theater bookstore. For the first time in a century, there was no other theater bookstore in the city, because of the closing of the 100-year-old Drama Book Shop in January, 2019. Making their theater lobby into a tiny bookstore meant that there would be no rent, and a ready-made stream of potential customers.
“Many of our shows are based on literature so a bookstore is a natural fit for our lobby,” says Brenda Bell. “Additionally we like to promote self producing artists and the bookstore is a place for them to showcase their scripts and musicals.
“The bookstore is named after our dog Bravo who is the guest relations manager for the theater and pretty much the heart and soul of the building. Bravo helps with the selection of dog themed books.”
They hired Southurst away from Book Culture near Columbia, and he began in February, organizing the newly opened store and scheduling a conversation and book signing with the authors of “How To Raise A Reader,” the first of what he planned to be several such events every week.
A week after that first event, all New York stores were ordered closed to slow the pandemic.
In late June, when the city entered Phase 2 of the reopening, Bravo’s was back, albeit in the lobby of a theater that will likely remain unused until next year.
Bravo’s Book Nook has become the only theater bookstore in New York, because Covid-19 also derailed the plans of The Drama Book Shop, which was supposed to re-open in March 2020 a block away from its old midtown location, under the new ownership of Lin-Manuel Miranda and other members of the “Hamilton” creative team. I’ve heard no word about a new re-opening date.
I passed by Bravo’s shortly after it reopened in June, but — confession – I was initially too nervous to stop in and chat with a stranger in such an enclosed space (even though the door is kept wide open, and the manager was wearing a mask.) Instead, I e-mailed him.
What kind of traffic are you getting?
Jory Southhurst: We’d been open for just 3 weeks prior to COVID, and have now been reopen for two, so we’re still building our presence in the area and in the industry, but the foot traffic has been steady. And hopefully as we build up our selection we will become a destination for people looking for books about the performing arts, as well as a curated general-interest selection.
We’ve also been streaming musical storytimes each Tuesday at 2pm on our Facebook page, and have had a good reaction to those, with people requesting books to be read next.
What (if any) are the biggest selling books at the moment?
There’s obviously been a run on anti-racist books, so How To Be an Anti-Racist by Ibram X Kendi, So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo, and The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin, among others, have been selling really well.
Aside from that, we’ve been building up our biography and memoir section and have had a good early response for our books about actors, directors, and writers.
What three new theater books do you recommend?
1) On the same topic, Slave Play by Jeremy O. Harris is vital reading right now. You can learn as much (if not more) from art and literature as you can from non-fiction, and this play will spark reflection and discussion about race, gender, and society. It’s necessary that people make themselves uncomfortable- with the status quo, and with their own assumptions-to ensure positive change and this play will definitely do that.
2) It’s now been out for a couple years, but Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics by Stephen Greenblatt is still current, especially leading up to the Presidential election. It uses examples of tyranny, politicking, and leadership in Shakespeare’s plays to analyze the global political climate. I’ll leave it to you to decide if it’s a relief or a stressor to know that we’ve been grappling with these issues for 400 years.
3) A is for Audra by John Robert Allman is an alphabet book celebrating Broadway’s leading ladies. The rhymes are charming and witty, and the biographies of the women at the end of the book are a great introduction for kids to these legends. He also handles the X, Y, Z issue better than any other alphabet book I’ve seen!
It took me a month, but mask and hand sanitizer fully employed, I walked down a MacDougal Street now graced with one makeshift street café after another, and entered a lobby transformed by wood bookcases, and tables tastefully adorned with relevant titles. (When the theater reopens, one of the tables will have to be removed, so theatergoers can get to the box office.)There was a cart on the sidewalk, and a bucket filled with “vintage Playbills” carefully preserved in clear plastic sleeves.
I asked for an update. The store, whose hours are 11 to 7 Tuesday through Saturday, has seen traffic and sales increased since the first time we talked, Special orders are also on the rise. (The store also takes online orders, but that hasn’t taken off yet.) Anti-racist books are continuing to do well, as are literary works by Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, and Audre Lorde. “But our biggest selling book the last few weeks has been Dolly Parton from the Little People, Big Dreams series. People are buying it as a gift for both kids and adults.”
Dolly Parton is not, perhaps needless to say, a theater book. About half the books in stock have nothing to do with the theater.
“Our sales are skewing toward the general interest books, but that’s understandable,” he said. “The theater isn’t currently open, and NYU students (who tend to buy a lot of our theater books) aren’t in class at the moment.”
What are the best-selling theater books at the moment?
What is his personal favorite?
“Theater for Beginners,’ he answers, by Obie-winning playwright and director Richard Maxwell.
“It’s not a guidebook; it’s little anecdotes, a meditation on being in the arts.” The title is not a coincidence, as he admits: “I am a bookstore person. I’m not a theater person.”
I suspect this will soon change, surrounded eight hours a day, five days a week by 375 theater books (and, sometime soon, more than three times that number.)
Three books rest face forward on an oversized shelf of the biggest bookcase, above a sign that says “Upcoming Performance.” Two of them are coffee table books about Hamilton and Wicked — and yes, I thought, these are undoubtedly upcoming; they will certainly return. But Southurst laughs and says the sign is only meant for the third book, which is a script by Bear Kosik of the play that is planned to open next in The Players Theater, whenever that turns out to be. The title strikes me as a good summary of late July, 2020 in New York City: “Between Panic and Desire”