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Thread: Bookstores in New York City

  1. #1
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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
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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 brick 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.
    Last edited by BBMW; September 21st, 2014 at 01:26 PM.

  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.

  5. #5
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    Oct 2002


    A Historic New Home for St. Mark’s Bookshop

    by Karen

    St. Mark’s Bookshop owners Bob Contant, left, and Terry McCoy pictured in the new store this week.

    Now in its fourth home, the St. Mark’s Bookshop has become a kind of movable landmark, so it’s fitting that the two-month-old store on East Third Street is in a landmarked building: First Houses, the first federally-funded public housing complex in America.

    Whether or not they were aware of this historic significance, the customers browsing and buying one sunny afternoon this week were going with the flow in the attractive new shop. One middle-aged man in a t-shirt and glasses asked a perfect East Village question: Do you have a Jarmusch section? (Yes, there’s a small one in back.)

    First Houses occupies the southwest corner of East Third Street and Avenue A, on land that
    Vincent Astor sold to the city early in the 20th century.

    Like their customers, co-owners Bob Contant and Terry McCoy are getting used to the place. The design is fresh – with a flagstone floor left from a previous tenant – and there are some empty bookshelves yet to be stocked, but regulars will be happy that obscure magazines still fill a window display, behind the familiar store logo. Contant, who’s been a bookseller practically all his life (except when he was a librarian), says of East Third and Avenue A, “This is more of a neighborhood.” The former location on Cooper Square/Astor Place became more corporate and student-saturated over the shop’s 21 years there, he said. (And college students don’t have time for recreational reading.) But this location has a real diversity of customers – including more of a constituency for kids’ books, what with plenty of young families in the area and P.S. 63 across the street.

    “Everybody’s welcomed us to the neighborhood. That’s been very gratifying,” Contant said.

    Residents’ Association President Brenda Santiago stands under three plaques behind an East Third Street gate:
    from 1989 (left), 1974, and a rare round medallion reading “Designated Landmark New York City.”
    Yet another plaque is on the building’s street facade closer to First Avenue.

    First Houses is thrilled with the new tenant, said Resident Association President Brenda Santiago (not that they didn’t like previous tenant Landmark Bicycles, which moved just across the street to the northwest corner of East Third and A). Santiago and her board would like to have an event to introduce the bookshop and the tenants in a celebratory way. A resident there since 2004, she has gotten to know the relatively small development very well. It has a lovely private back courtyard. The New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) is in charge of leasing the complex’s several retail spaces facing East Third as well as First Avenue, while Santiago stays more on top of the gardens’ condition and which roof needs fixing. NYCHA has been much in the news lately for its financial and maintenance problems, and while First Houses has significant needs, Santiago does not seem overly distressed about them.

    In a history of the East Village forthcoming from GVSHP, historian Rebecca Amato writes:

    The courtyard behind First Houses.

    First Houses was completed in 1935 and its first tenants moved into their new homes that December. Constructed from twenty-four rehabilitated tenements, the project was designed by Frederick Ackerman, a leading housing reform advocate, with Howard McFadden and George Genug, all of whom would later help design additional public housing in the city. It comprised eight total buildings, boasting 122 apartments with central heating, fireproofing, and modern conveniences like electric refrigerators and state-of-the-art stoves. Each building had a laundry room. The grounds between buildings offered manicured lawns and playgrounds. Indoor recreation rooms and meeting halls in First Houses were intended to build a sense of community. So attractive was the prospect of living in the project that 3,100 families applied for the opportunity to live there. The New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), which had been created the year before and was responsible for handling site selection, financing, design, tenancy, and upkeep for the city’s public housing, sent investigators to the home of every applicant, finally settling on a mix of families that represented what the New York Times called “a cross section of the wage-earning lower East Side.” These were bakers, garment workers, sales clerks, and painters, among others.

    First Houses has been rightfully acknowledged by historians, government officials, and preservationists alike as a turning point in both city planning and government intervention in poverty alleviation. The success of First Houses paved the way for further experimentation in public housing, particularly through increased federal funding for such enterprises. …Honored for its pivotal role in this history, First Houses was designated a New York City Landmark by the Landmarks Preservation Commission on November 12, 1974. Today it houses 192 low-income tenants in its current 126 apartments.

    You can read the LPC’s designation report here and see all designation reports in our neighborhoods through our web portal here.

    Contant and McCoy, who now live in the Gramercy and Union Square areas, respectively, founded St. Mark’s Bookshop (along with three other partners) in 1977 at 13 St. Mark’s Place, then moved across the street to No. 12 – which is also a New York City Landmark. That ornate building was built in 1888 as the German American Shooting Society, and still has “Deutsch-Amerikanische Schutzen Gesellschaft” emblazoned on the facade, as well as “Einigkeit Macht Stark,” or “unity makes strength.”

    Speaking of unity, the entire bookshop staff made the move to the new location, Contant said. Money is tight and staffers’ hours have been reduced, but the state’s little-known Shared Work Program has been a boon, he said. This enables “full-time” workers to work fewer than 40 hours per week, and have the state make up much (but not all) of the difference in pay, because it’s cheaper than paying full unemployment.

    Musing on the changes he’s seen in New York since moving here in 1972 and renting an apartment for $63 per month, Contant said of the store’s new home: “It’s more like it used to be on St. Mark’s Place 30 years ago.”

    St. Mark’s Bookshop, next to its new neighbor High Vibe. Photos by Karen Loew.

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