When Books Mattered

By DAVID W. DUNLAP


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.

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