The Last of NYC’s Independent Magazine Shops
Step inside Casa Magazines.
As a writer at a digital media company, I’m the first to admit that 99.9% of the content I consume is online. It’s not that I even prefer it. In fact, I’d argue that I would much rather leaf through the glossy pages of a magazine or smell the words coming off freshly printed paper than squint at a small screen. But while print may be my preferred method of consumption, more often than not I opt for convenience over principle
When I first arrived in Manhattan, fresh out of college and still delusional in a way that was innocent and almost cute, I wanted nothing more than to work for a big magazine. I have more copies of Vogue stacked up than I’d like to admit, and my dorm room doubled as a bodega overrun with stale issues of fashion and art catalogs. There was nothing sexier to me than the idea of walking into Hearst Tower or Condé Nast, and while I’m dating myself with this next clause, the concept of working at a digital media company hadn’t yet settled into the mental roster I had of possible jobs in the industry. Fast forward six years, and the phrase print is dead is so frequently used that I’ve even seen it on t-shirts and tote bags and advertised around the city.
Three apartments and over half a decade later, my faith in not only the print industry, but also in the city arguably known for breathing life into it, has been restored. Nestled comfortably around the corner from my new apartment sits Casa Magazines, a corner store that is just that — a magazine mecca. Stacks of publications ranging from Time to Interview pile high, and the overwhelming number of options is nearly enough to incite panic. Run by the definition of a true character named Ali for over twenty-two years, the shop carries over 2,500 titles ranging from fashion to art and niche interests. Does he own the shop? “No, but I run the show”.
I ask Ali if he has any frequent customers, and he looks me dead on and says “everybody except for you”. His regulars (and close friends, to boot) include Julianne Moore, Liv Tyler, and Sarah Jessica Parker, and nearly every customer that enters the store greets him by name. Ironically, much of the shop’s success is owed to the very digitization of content that causes shops like his to struggle in the first place. Their Instagram account went viral, amassing nearly 40k followers to date. The account regularly posts new and exciting titles to enter the shop, as well as photos of Ali posing with his favorite articles and customers (including the late André Leon Talle). The shop has been open for almost eighty-five years, and closed for only one day during COVID. Ali mentions that he has even slept on stacks of the magazines five or six times, when weather made it too hard for him to get to and from his home and still open on time the next day.
Standing in the shop, it’s hard to believe in a world without print. Each title emits a unique energy, with faces from the Hadids to Barack Obama staring up at me from the covers. I ask Ali which cover star leads to the most success, and he says Madonna without missing a beat. His favorite publication? Playboy, of course, but now it’s out of print. And what does he do with everything he doesn’t sell? “Inside news, nothing to lose. If I don’t sell it, they give me three months to send it back, no cost”.
Ali tells me he’s even started taking smaller publications on consignment, carrying 10 copies and returning them if they don’t sell. He’s helped many smaller publications get their name out in a world frequented by high profile customers and celebrities. Just as he’s explaining this process to me, another regular walks in the door. Ali asks him to tell me what he does. “I work for a very well-known musician who you probably know”. I ask who, and he sizes me up, figuring out whether or not I’m cultured enough to be worthy of the answer. “Bob Dylan”.
After the man pays, Ali is quiet for a minute as he puts on music, and Willie Nelson starts blaring from behind the counter. I ask him if being downtown, especially amid a pandemic, has led to any incidents for the store. “Quite the opposite”, he says. The development of the West Village has unexpectedly increased the sales of the shops, bringing in customers willing to spend the extra dollar on content they could otherwise find online. Willie Nelson abruptly cuts out to give way to Drake’s Hotline Bling — appropriately his ringtone. A call from his brother in Pakistan, which he quickly takes before resuming the interview until receiving a second call moments later. A woman on the other line is asking if they carry GQ Mexico, to which he replies no. He pauses. “If you give me a plane ticket, I’ll go buy it for you”, he says.
As Ali continues answering my questions, I realize that nearly 70% of our interview has been life advice, and much-needed life advice at that. “Any time you are bored, stressed out, any problem you want to share with me — your boyfriend leaves you, you can take my shoulder to cry on. I have so many customers like that. I try to say listen, no matter what problem.” I realize that while this tiny store carries 2,500 titles, nearly all of them brilliant publications, Ali may be the most insightful resource in the room. We wrap the interview, but not before he requests a few selfies with me, which I’m dangerously close to having framed. I left the shop with one big smile on my face, three new publications in my hand, countless life lessons and, most importantly, a friend. Yes, friends, print is still very much alive.