- Bookshop Memories
In American cities today, the decline of bookshops ranks high among the losses that plaintive bloggers, urban nostalgists, and literary fuddy-duddies ascribe to soaring commercial rents and the impacts of the internet. When I moved to New York City more than thirty-five years ago, I spent inordinate amounts of time in bookshops of all kinds. There were the famous temples of print on and just off of Fifth Avenue. Scribner’s at 48th Street (where my future wife worked when she was a graduate student in philosophy), Brentano’s, the two Doubleday stores (of which the larger, at 56th Street, was excellent), the old Rizzoli, and, farther down, at 18th Street, the main Barnes & Noble, inelegant, where you had to stash your bags in lockers, where a coffee bar was a laughable notion, and which was superbly stocked. Off the avenue, amid the diamond dealers on 47th Street, was the legendary Gotham Book Mart. Elsewhere in Manhattan were Coliseum, one of the best-run bookstores in America, on Broadway and 57th Street, and Books & Company (“the best bookstore in New York City,” said Susan Sontag), owned by the daughter of the head of IBM, on Madison Avenue next to the Whitney Museum. I caught the end of the Eighth Street Bookshop in the Village, where future Nobel laureate Bob Dylan used to shop.
And then there were the secondhand shops. Gotham sold both new and secondhand books. The Strand was on Broadway and 12th Street, Academy on 18th off Fifth. A store I loved was Isaac Mendoza on Ann Street, in the Financial District. Dauber & Pine creaked along on Fifth Avenue and 12th Street. And fabled Book Row, on Fourth Avenue below Union Square, had not yet expired, though was a ghost of its former [End Page 357] self. Pageant, which began on the Row but had moved off it, with loads of good books and prints, made a star turn in Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters (1986).
Specialty bookshops abounded. In the art capital of America, Hacker (Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning shopped there), Wittenborn, Weyhe, and Jaap Rietman sold nothing but art books. The superb Urban Center Books sold only architecture books, in many languages. (I worked there once.) Cinemabilia was a cinephile’s dream come true—always making me think of the scene in Day for Night when Truffaut opens a box and out tumble monographs on all his favorite directors. New York Bound Bookshop (I worked there, too) specialized in new, used, and rare books about New York, as well as maps and prints. It is where I met Joseph Mitchell.
Academic bookshops naturally clustered near Columbia: Book Forum, Salter’s, Papyrus, all of them on Broadway within a block of Columbia’s main gate. Need an eleventh edition Encyclopaedia Britannica or a Webster’s Second? You could, as I did, walk right into Literary Mart, upstairs on Broadway and 31st, a specialist in old reference books, and walk out with them. On West 89th Street was the New Yorker Bookstore, owned by Peter Martin, who was the son of the Italian anarchist Carlo Tresca and who had co-founded San Francisco’s City Lights Bookstore with Lawrence Ferlinghetti in 1953.
Of these bookshops, which ones are with us still? Precisely one: the Strand.
The Strand, it must be said, is bigger and better, and brighter, than ever. In my time, it’s never had more good books, in better condition, at fairer prices. A few other shops have taken up the slack. Book Culture operates three shops, of which the biggest, on West 112th Street, is one of the outstanding bookshops in the world today. Other shops have opened, many with a bright cheerfulness that was not a feature of the old shops. McNally Jackson, on Prince Street in what used to be Little Italy, is a good example. It has a popular café, 55,000 well-chosen books, 50 employees, and an Espresso Book Machine (for print-on-demand [End Page 358] titles), and seems always to be filled to capacity with browsers...