Q+A: Susanne König, Powerhouse Arena
Powerhouse Arena is everyone’s favorite bookstore in the shadow of the Manhattan Bridge, but did you know that the shop started out as a publishing house, and their present space is their third location since their business began? We sat down with the Powerhouse’s director, Susanne König, to chat about the origins of the business, her favorite author events, and why the subway train on the Manhattan Bridge doesn’t bother her anymore.
Why did you originally open the Powerhouse Arena Bookstore?
The story behind Powerhouse Arena is that we have a publishing company, powerHouse Books, which existed first. The publishing company was originally located in West Soho, and in addition, we had a public showroom in the front of the office space. It was really unique and we liked it because we were able to talk to the public about the books we published.
When we had to look for a new office, my husband said, well, it'd be nice if we still had some public or gallery space that could be part of our publishing company business. We looked in Tribeca and elsewhere, but we could not find anything. We lived in Brooklyn at the time and we thought, why not look at the waterfront, there's all of these old warehouses and empty spaces there, maybe we could find something. We stumbled upon Two Trees Realty, who owned a lot of empty, big, beautiful spaces. They led us to our second location on the corner of Water and Main with a 10 thousand square foot space.
The original plan was to split the space in half, but we said no, we love it like that, we want to keep the whole space. So in the end, we were looking for an office with some public space, but we wound up with a large public space and a small office area.
The public space was so big and beautiful that we had to make more out of it than just a showroom. My husband said, you're in charge, do something, so I started building some inventory, and we did one author event that led to another author event, and then we added more and more books until eventually it grew into a real bookstore.
Why is it called Powerhouse Arena?
The story behind the “arena” aspect is that the old space in DUMBO [on the corner of Water and Main Streets] had two levels- one for the bookstore, and one for the publishing offices. The levels were pretty far apart, and there was no connection between them. We had just come back from the south of France where we had visited some old Roman arenas that had steps that were worn down, and made of limestone or sandstone. We really liked that look and so we talked to an architect about it and asked if we could replicate that in our store to combine the space between the publishing company and the public store space. We kept the name when we moved locations!
What's your favorite part of this unique storefront? After all, it has the Archway right outside the front door and the train goes by overhead every few minutes....
At first the train aspect was challenging, but now we like it. A few authors have commented on it, for example Patti Smith, who did a book signing here. When she left the store a train rumbled by and she said, "This is so great, I want to play my music under here! This is so New York!" The visual backdrop of the Manhattan Bridge and the Archway is also great for readings, especially at night when the bridge is all lit up and you can see the Empire State Building; those are some really iconic features that are very DUMBO. What's really nice about this space other than just the beautiful scenery, though, is that even though our space here is smaller than it was at the original store, it looks more contained. It looks a little more like a traditional bookstore, and the floors in our new space are really nice and not so raw; the whole space is neater and softer than the original. Even the window panes were originally huge slabs of glass in the original location, but now we have divisions between the smaller panes of glass, so it looks quainter and more organized. We like the two levels in this space, too.
Is the second level used for author events?
This is actually the space where the AudraRox music classes are held! We are also doing more author events up here, since we have a bar where we can offer small bites and liquor or wine tastings. We haven't really figured out yet what to do with this space permanently!
You mentioned Patti Smith coming to the store for a signing-- who have been some of your favorite authors who came for readings?
There have been a few good events that I remember. The big one was Al Gore, which was a very sudden event that we only had two weeks to prepare for. I was also a bit flabbergasted when Salman Rushdie came here, it was weird to see someone with such a well-known name walk right into your store; he was such a natural, nice guy! I love Anthony Bourdain and we are so glad that he does all of his events with us. Patti Smith was great, she never did an event but came in twice to sign books, so it was more personal, and she would just sit here and talk to us.
I have to ask-- what are your favorite books?
I adore Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan Novels. I think those are the only books that have come out in the last few years where you read of the books, and when you’re done you think, what else could I read that would ever be that good? It’s a really good series. The books are intense, and they are very dark and heavy, but they include a lot of Italian history in the 50s and 60s, and they are very well written.
What's your favorite part of running this business?
I think it comes down to the fact that it's something I'm doing for others, and it brings a lot of joy and entertainment to the public. It’s very basic, but the things I do here are also things that I really like to do in my personal life, like hosting and cooking for people. Hosting authors and illustrators in our little "house" here at the bookstore is really enjoyable, especially when people come and join us here.
Especially recently, I feel like people think that bookstores are a place where you can go to feel safe and warm; the bookstore has become a safe haven for people, and it has become more than just a retail store in that sense. Ultimately, my favorite part of running this business comes down to the fact that I was able to do something for a career that I already enjoyed doing in my personal life; that is a very fulfilling feeling.
What's your favorite place in Dumbo?
I really love Superfine. This has always been our classic, it's been around forever. When we started our business and worked late, that was where we went to eat every single night; for the first three years or so Superfine was always there for us. I also love Almondine-- I lived in Paris for a long time so eating their eclairs is a treat. I like One Girl Cookies, their murals and the presentation of their cookies are absolutely gorgeous.