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The richest man in town

A beloved bookstore announces its closure, then gets an It’s a Wonderful Life ending

The richest man in town

Westsider Rare and Used Books, an independent bookstore in the Upper West Side neighborhood of New York (Richard B. Levine/Newscom)

A New York moment: 

Last week a longtime used book store on the Upper West Side, Westsider Books, announced it was closing. Locals were heartbroken: another cherished shop driven out by rising rents. You might have seen the bookstore at some point on the big screen. The narrow, dusty shop has appeared in movies like 2018’s Can You Ever Forgive Me? and 2017’s Wonderstruck.

The owners announced they would be selling everything in the store for 30 percent off, so I made my way over to score a stack of books. When I arrived, the store’s tiny nooks were jammed with people—neighbors sharing memories about buying books there and complaining about chains moving in. A TV crew was jammed on the tiny staircase leading up to the second floor, interviewing staff about the bookstore’s legacy. The normally overstuffed shelves were partly empty, and a line stretched out with buyers.

It felt just like the scene in You’ve Got Mail where Kathleen Kelly’s tiny bookstore is going out of business (also on the Upper West Side) and having a final sale. The locals are packed in the shop, clearing out the shelves, crying over their book memories, and bemoaning big box stores. Nora Ephron, the screenwriter and an Upper Westsider, probably saw this scene play out many times in real life.

Then, another Hollywood moment came along. This time the scene was the ending of It’s a Wonderful Life. A neighbor organized a GoFundMe campaign for the bookstore, starting with his own donation of $10, and neighbors quickly piled in gifts of their own. The shop owner said if the neighbor raised $50,000, the store would have enough to stay in business and pay rent. Just a few hours after I visited the store, sorrow turned to jubilation—they hit the mark.

Worth your time:

A little late, but I’ve enjoyed the tradition of listening to Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech on the day honoring him, the speech he delivered the day before his assassination. What a remarkable speaker. Text here as well. 

King starts by asking himself what era of history he would want to live in: “Strangely enough, I would turn to the Almighty and say, ‘If You allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the 20th century, I will be happy.’ Now that’s a strange statement to make because the world is all messed up. The nation is sick, trouble is in the land, confusion all around … [but] I see God working in this period of the 20th century in a way that men in some strange way are responding.”

This week I learned:

Student debt has surpassed credit card and car debt in the United States. The Federal Reserve estimated that about 400,000 young people didn’t buy homes between 2005 and 2014 because of student debt. Maybe millennials are eating that $20 avocado toast because we don’t have a hope of a real investment. 

Culture I am consuming: 

A documentary of interviews from 1988 with director Billy Wilder, called Billy Wilder Speaks. Wilder, one of my all-time favorites, directed such films as Some Like It Hot and Sunset Boulevard. The documentary is a dry series of sit-down interviews with clips from his films, but Wilder is such a good storyteller that it’s engrossing. 

One clip from the Academy Awards is pertinent on the heels of this week’s announcement of Oscar nominations. The documentary shows Wilder and his longtime screenwriting collaborator I.A.L. Diamond winning the Oscar for their screenplay for The Apartment (1960). They got up to the microphone and this was their acceptance speech:

“Thank you, I.A.L. Diamond!” said Wilder. 

“Thank you, Billy Wilder!” said Diamond. 

Then they sat down. If only all acceptance speeches could be that good. 

Email me with tips, story ideas, and feedback at ebelz@wng.org