People Who Make NY Special

The Man Who Is Saving Drama Book Shop, One Celebrity Tweet at a Time

The owner of the Theater District’s favorite bookstore talks about the tough business of play publishing and serving a loyal community.

Photo by Thea G/Yelp

When news broke in October that Drama Book Shop was going to close, countless actors, directors, writers, and producers reacted as if a beloved relative were on their deathbed. It was impossible to imagine the New York theater without the brick-and-mortar retailer of plays, industry guides, showbiz magazines, newspapers, and other stage-related publications. Gratefully, we won’t have to.

drama book shop
Photo courtesy of Drama Book Shop/Facebook

Soon after Allen Lee Hubby, vice president and manager of the store, announced that the skyrocketing rent endangered the existence of the company, a small army of celebrities and civilians stepped up. Lin-Manuel Miranda tweeted alarm and signed books (update: soon after our story was published, the Hamilton creator went even farther and bought the place!); city officials phoned; and now Hubby is searching for a new address for the business, which turned a century old last year. (The store’s lease is up January 31, and as of this reporting, a new home had not been found.) In a time when people get their books by tapping a button on their phone, or have done away with paper altogether, the physicality of Drama Book Shop is inspiring and reassuring.

drama book shop
Photo courtesy of Allen Lee Hubby

We sat down with Hubby in his adorably cluttered office to discuss the past and the future.

What Should We Do: So everyone heard that the store was going to close, but…?
Allen Lee Hubby: But then with this outpouring of interest and support, a lot of, like, big people want to try to save the shop. I’m very optimistic now that we are going to be able to carry on. We haven’t signed anything, but it looks like we’ll be able to move. We’ll have to close first, go into storage, and then build a place to reopen. 

WSWD: What tipped the balance? Was it Lin-Manuel Miranda stepping up?
Hubby: Lin-Manuel, of course, is a big supporter of ours. He came here when he was a kid fresh out of college. We gave him a home for a while, and he’s been so grateful. But also, the head of the city council called me. Our state senator called. The mayor’s office called. 

WSWD: So you haven’t decided on a place yet.
Hubby: We’ve got some potential investors who are willing to help us out. So it looks like we’ll probably go into storage sometime in January and have a new store by Labor Day.

WSWD: When did you first start working at Drama Book Shop?
Hubby: When I was in college, 1978. I was a cashier at first, then I came back and did receiving, which is kind of a fun job, because you get to see all of the books fresh out of the box. Then in 2001, I became manager. It was just as we were moving into this space, so we designed and built it and moved it. That was my return engagement. 

WSWD: Seventeen years and counting.
Hubby: I can’t believe it went by so fast.

WSWD: Would you consider moving to Brooklyn or downtown?
Hubby: A lot of people in the community have told us that they would love us to be in Brooklyn or in Queens or on the Lower East Side or wherever. But we feel like we need to be where the actors are, and they still come to this part of town. This is where the auditions are, this is where the classes are, this is where there are a lot of theater companies. And it’s close enough to the schools that they can all hop on a subway and come here. And our investors agree. They’re looking in the 40s or 50s on the West Side.

Lin-Manuel, of course, is a big supporter of ours. He came here when he was a kid fresh out of college. We gave him a home for a while, and he’s been so grateful.

WSWD: What makes something a hot seller? If it wins a Tony?
Hubby: It depends on so much. A play like A Doll’s House, Part 2, sells hundreds, but then another play that’s just as interesting, we might not sell any at all. I thought The Jungle would sell really well! We’ve had three copies sitting on the shelf for weeks. Also, any plays that have young roles, they tend to do well with our customers. A lot of people who come into the store are young—they’re acting students or actors just starting out. A Doll’s House, Part 2 is being done all over the country, so everybody wants to audition for it, right? 

WSWD: The place has a very youthful vibe, I’ve noticed.
Hubby: Yeah, there’s so much energy here. Around the holidays, it’s very quiet for us. But come back in January and it’s so full and crowded and lively—people having production meetings and rehearsing and reading scenes together and just hanging out, meeting each other. It’s a great environment. 

WSWD: Since play manuscripts is your business, do you ever think, Ah, I’m not going to bother seeing it; I’ll just read it.
Hubby: No. Never. 

WSWD: You still like the live experience?
Hubby: When you read a play, you’re the actor, the director, and the designer. It’s a limiting thing, really. But when you go to the theater, somebody else has put it together, so you’re seeing their vision. That, to me, is what’s really interesting.

WSWD: What kind of features will you have in the new Drama Book Shop?
Hubby: We would love to have a rehearsal room, a theater, a café, and a gift shop. That would be the best thing in the world. If we could find some way to work with the city where it could give the landlord some benefit, and the landlord would give us reduced rent, we could get a nice, big space like that. That would be ideal.

It would be a really important resource for the theater community. We could be a play incubator and community center for the theater. I think the city needs it. The bookshop is a good draw for a café, and a café is a good draw for bookshops. I think we would bring in a lot of people.

WSWD: If I were to visit your apartment, would I see a ton of books…or no books?
Hubby: I buy a lot of books. Too many. My husband says for every new one I bring in, I have to take out two.

WSWD: Before you close the doors in January, is there going to be a big party?
Hubby: I think I’d do a bring-your-own-bottle this time. We had a big party for our 100th anniversary, but it cost us a lot of money. But we’ll have one last day of fun. It’s been a great space. We’ve really loved being here.

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