This month West Village Originals is doing something different: focusing on a long-time neighborhood business instead of a particular resident. Of course, the venerable bookstore Three Lives & Company can’t speak for itself, so we spoke to current owner, California-born Toby Cox. Toby lives in Fort Greene, Brooklyn and travels into Manhattan every day to manage the store.
In 1978, at the corner of Seventh Avenue and Tenth Street in the West Village, three women opened a bookstore called Three Lives and Company. A few years later the shop—whose name is a riff on Gertrude Stein’s first novel Three Lives—moved a block away to the corner of 10th Street and Waverly Place where it remains to this day.
Jump to 1997, when Providence bookseller Toby Cox was wandering this neighborhood, stumbled upon a little corner bookshop, and opened the door. “I probably gasped,” Cox says. “I thought, ‘This is the store I would have!’ I was so enchanted. The space that those three women created was magical. It really celebrates the book.” Six months later, Cox moved to New York (Brooklyn, to be exact) to work in marketing for Random House. He made his way back to the Three Lives & Company, met the owners—now down to two, named Jill and Jenny— and became friendly with them. “I would pass through here at least once a month and touch the books,” he says. “It was just one of those places that acted like a magnet to me, drawing me back.”
Three years later, Cox looked up the ladder of the publishing business and decided it wasn’t where he wanted to spend his life. “I wanted to be at the end where the book meets the public,” he says. “I realized the book selling is truly what I love to do. One night I was in here with Jill and just as an aside I asked her, “Do you guys want a partner?’ Right at that time she and Jenny were deciding to retire and I was actually someone they wanted to approach about taking over the shop. It was this nice moment of serendipity.” Eventually Cox worked out the transfer and took ownership in February of 2001.
What’s it like having a business in the West Village? “It’s an amazing neighborhood,” Cox admits. “People are so supportive of not just their little independent bookshop, but all of the other shops as well. There’s a very strong sense here about what makes their neighborhood special and a real community; it’s not just the residents, the beautiful architecture, and the tree lined streets but also the health of those commercial enterprises that are part of that neighborhood.” It’s this sense of community that makes Cox feel lucky to be a part of this store. “We have people who come into the shop four or five times a week,” he continues. “It’s really just a place for them stop and talk about the weather or the news or the last book they loved. Or bring their dog by to get a biscuit. It’s that kind of thing. I feel like, yes, I’m the owner. But in a sense I’m just the caretaker of Three Lives and it’s my position to maintain this space for the community.”
Cox feels that the independent bookstores have weathered three storms—chains, Amazon, and e-readers—and they’ve settled down somewhat. “There is a place for the smaller, well-curated, dedicated-to-community and nimble little bookshop now,” he says. “It’s not uncommon for me to say, ‘I know who would like this book.’ I think our customers and the interactions we have with them are definitely the key to this bookstore’s longevity. People tell me where all the other bookshops were in this neighborhood before my time and it makes me happy that we’re still here.”
When asked if Three Lives & Company could exist in any other part of New York, Cox makes the distinction. “I think a 650 square foot bookshop could exist in many places in the City,” he says. “As for the personality that is Three Lives & Company on the corner of Waverly and West Tenth Street, no. That’s very specific to the West Village. Of course, New York City is full of passionate, engaged, and curious readers. But I don’t think you could duplicate the shop—the full essence of it if you will—anywhere else in town. It just wouldn’t be the same.”
Photo of Toby Cox by Maggie Berkvist.