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Thread: Bookstores in New York City

  1. #1
    NYC Aficionado from Oz Merry's Avatar
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    Oct 2002

    Default Bookstores in New York City

    When Books Mattered


    David W. Dunlap/The New York Times

    David W. Dunlap/The New York Times

    David W. Dunlap/The New York Times

    James Estrin/The New York Times

    Collection of Mark D. Tomasko

    David W. Dunlap/The New York Times

    One hundred years ago, the architect Ernest Flagg designed what might be thought of as the Apple store of its day: a sumptuous Beaux-Arts showcase for the retail business of Charles Scribner’s Sons, book publishers.

    The Scribner’s bookstore at 597 Fifth Avenue, between 48th and 49th Streets, presented a generous glass front, enough to intrigue passersby but not enough to reveal all the treasures within. One had to go inside. A sense of unfolding discovery was heightened by stairways leading to a variety of levels. The volume was far more ample and the finishes far more refined than they had to be. This space was as much about establishing a brand as it was about moving inventory. Sound familiar?

    Scribner’s comes back to mind because of a small show, “Ray Safford, Rare Bookman,” now on view at the Grolier Club, 47 East 60th Street. The club fosters the study, collection and appreciation of books and graphic arts. Shows are free to the public.

    Mr. Safford was the retail chief of Scribner’s in the 1910s and ’20s, when the release of books — not tablets or apps — could cause a sensation. Scribner’s closed in 1989 but its interior became an official New York City landmark. [The designation report is available as a PDF from the Neighborhood Preservation Center.] As a consequence, it has kept a lot of its original character. Even in its current incarnation as a branch of the Sephora cosmetics chain, it still feels like the kind of place where a purchase is a “great ceremonial event,” as Paul Goldberger wrote in 1978, when he was the architecture critic of The New York Times.

    What Mr. Safford would think of Ultraflesh, Smashbox and Bliss being sold in these aisles can only be guessed. The show — drawn from the collection of Mark D. Tomasko, 63, a club member — makes plain that the book trade was not always genteel. For instance, Mr. Safford sold a “perfect copy” of the First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays in 1903 only after the buyer, Emilie B. Grigsby, the mistress of the transit magnate Charles T. Yerkes, drove down the price to $12,500 from $14,000. And Henry Clay Frick — right, that Frick; the coke and steel magnate who built the big mansion on Fifth Avenue — sent a bill back to Scribner’s on Jan. 15, 1915, saying, “I think I should have a discount on the purchase of books made about Christmas time, for prompt cash — say 10 percent.”

    But it was Royal Cortissoz, the art critic for The New York Tribune, who proved to be the most colorful in his demands as a customer. Writing to Mr. Safford on June 13, 1911, for a set of Robert Louis Stevenson’s newly published letters, he concluded:

    If you do not send them to me, to round out my little edition of Stevenson, I will haunt you in the shape of a rattlesnake with the voice of a tiger, and I will steadily, for the next 18 years, put spiders in your tea!! So there!!!

    Respectfully yours,
    Royal Cortissoz.

  2. #2
    NYC Aficionado from Oz Merry's Avatar
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    Oct 2002


    Lost Booksellers of New York


    Charles Scribner’s Sons bookstore on Fifth Avenue in April 1984. Jim Wilson/The New York Times

    Walter Goldwater, who owned University Place Book Shop, in May 1981. Don Hogan Charles/The New York Times

    Shoppers at the Strand in July 1979. John Sotomayor/The New York Times

    Frances Steloff, left, and Andreas Brown at the Gotham Book Mart in 1975. Larry C. Morris/The New York Times

    Dauber & Pine bookstore in 1973. William E. Sauro/The New York Times

    Murray Dauber, one of the owners of Dauber & Pine, in 1973. William E. Sauro/The New York Times

    Outside a book store, in 1969. Jack Manning/The New York Times

    IN the fall of 1965, I arrived in New York City, flush with somebody else’s oil money, to purchase books for a bookshop I was managing in Houston. The shop was called the Bookman and had several eccentric features: Our safe was the boll of a Louisiana gum tree; there was a room full of rare tobaccos, though smoking was forbidden; and there was even a young Asian man to serve sherry to such bewildered hicks as straggled in from time to time.

    What we didn’t have were books, which was why I was in New York in autumn, walking up some dusty stairs to the famous Seven Gables Bookshop, managed then by Michael Papantonio and John S. Van E. Kohn, two of the most respected antiquarian booksellers of their time.

    Back then, single-page printed ads bound inside the covers of books, promoting other books by the same publisher, were thought to establish the priority and value of that edition. But we at the Bookman discovered they had no connection whatsoever to value when, some years later, I stupidly sold these same gentlemen a beautiful copy of Thoreau’s “Walden” for a mere $12, because I thought the ads placed inside the covers mattered.

    “Oh, we don’t pay attention to the ads,” Mr. Kohn said to me. Live and learn.

    From the Seven Gables, I strolled down the street to the famous Gotham Book Mart, where a sign hung outside the store announced, “Wise Men Fish Here.” Frances Steloff, still the owner and in her 70s, was up on a ladder, pricing works on the occult; she never came down while I was present, and she soon sold the Gotham to a young Californian named Andreas Brown.

    I imagine Andreas thought that if he bought the Gotham, he would acquire it, or at least acquire its aura. But Miss Steloff lived to a great age, and so did her grip on its aura. But those battles, if there were battles, were fought long ago. Frances lived nearly a quarter-century after she sold the store and died in 1989 at 101. The Gotham is now gone.

    The other powerful woman on the New York book scene at that time was the redoubtable Marguerite Cohn, of the House of Books Ltd., the first New York bookseller to focus on the condition of the books she sold and of the collections she built. Margie, as her friends called her, was explosive. I believe she once flung a copy of “Three Stories and Ten Poems” at someone: her husband, who was Hemingway’s first bibliographer; one of her husband’s mistresses; or Edmund Wilson. The record is not clear, but the book is currently worth maybe $75,000.

    Margie, on a buying trip to London, looked the wrong way, stepped off a curb and was killed by a truck. She may have had more disciples in the trade than any other dealer, the most impressive perhaps being Peter B. Howard of Serendipity Books in Berkeley, Calif. Both shop and shopkeeper are now gone.

    I next visited the Carnegie Book Shop, run by the amazing David Kirschenbaum, 80 years a bookseller in Manhattan. He took over his father’s book cart at the age of 8 and kept on trucking for most of the century. Across his desk passed some of the most notable books to be traded in recent times, including George Washington’s personal copy of “The Federalist.” The father of our country was also a reader, though that particular copy from his library had been in and out of the trade for nearly 100 years.

    My own first purchase from the Carnegie Book Shop was a 57-volume collection of the works of Maurice Baring, the author of a once famous commonplace book titled “Have You Anything to Declare?” Baring wrote a little of everything: novels, reportage, satire, trivia. Texans who frequented my bookstore proved not keen on Maurice Baring, but I enjoy him and have even improved my own collection a bit.

    From the Carnegie, I then traveled downtown to Dauber & Pine, to the Strand, to the original Barnes & Noble, and briefly to the Jersey suburbs, haunt of the accomplished book scout Ike Brussel, who claimed to be the last of the great scouts, though he wasn’t.

    I am glad I got to glimpse the legendary booksellers from this splendid generation. They were beginning to thin out even as I arrived. The Argosy Book Store and the Strand are still operating, but most of the rest are gone, felled not by the Internet, but merely by scoundrel time. Here is a brief honor roll of bookshops now vanished: the Seven Gables Bookshop; House of Books Ltd.; Scribner’s; the Gotham Book Mart; the Carnegie Book Shop; Dauber & Pine; the Eberstadt Brothers; University Place Book Shop; Ursus Books; House of El Dieff; and Parnassus Books.

    I was only in this Elysium for two days in 1965, but I was drawn back many, many times since and still go back, though now I feel as if I am visiting a city of ghosts.

    Larry McMurtry is the author of 47 books, including “Terms of Endearment,” “Lonesome Dove” and, most recently, “The Last Kind Words Saloon,” a novel.

  3. #3


    The concept of the brink and mortar bookstore is caught against a huge paradigm shift. Not only is Amazon crushing them on sales of old fashioned ink on paper book, but the market is shifting wholesale to e-books. I don't give B&N long to survive, unless they can stay in business on coffee sales. The little independents can hang on for awhile, especially if they specialize in used book sales. But given what rents are in NYC, I can't see enough margin there to keep them in business indefinitely.

  4. #4


    Maybe in addition to e-readers, there was just a saturation point with brick & mortars. When I was growing up, Waldenbooks and Paperback(?) Booksmith (They also sold hardcovers) were the two big bookstores. Then Borders and Barnes & Noble blew up. Borders kept adding and by the time things ebbed it was too late. Hopefully it's not too late for B&N, but it sure helps the independents. Btw I think I'll check out some of the titles from those pics on Amazon.

    This article came out in January, and I hope it's accurate.
    Last edited by mariab; May 13th, 2014 at 03:21 PM.

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