I was inspired by a comment on yesterday’s post to write this, but this is also a good time to mention Gotham Book Mart because it is finally making a long anticipated move to a new location after 58 years at the old site and 84 years in existence.
Barnes & Noble and Borders have vast shelves of books on seemingly every topic, practically decent coffee shops and a friendly staff. I have a well worn B&N discount card that I use at the “superstore” 3 blocks from my house whenever I need something quickly or it’s raining – and it rains all too frequently in these parts. Amazon is also amazing with its great prices and an apparently infinite selection of books; those smiley boxes (you know what I’m talking about) appear from nowhere on my doorstep as if manna from heaven. So why bother with any other book store?
I can’t honestly say. Perhaps for a sense of discovery? Maybe there’s an ineffable essence that one picks up in a bookstore where the buyer, the one who is responsible for every book on the shelf, is not stuffed away in a centrally located cubicle, but is the owner or manager standing close by to answer your questions. Could it be the randomness of the mingled used and new books stacked from floor to ceiling, some long out of print, others you’ve just never heard of before? Is it that hard back copy of The Magic Mountain or some other great novel that will live far longer than its $6.98 price tag would suggest? We could just chalk it up to all these, plus a bit of mysticism, but when it comes down to it, great bookstores have more than just books, they have soul and they’re not just a store, but a destination. Gotham Book Mart is one of those places.
Walking into the Gotham for the first time, you don’t immediately get the sense of history that goes along with the dusty stacks and the fat cat laying in the back (named Tom, after Pynchon). Unless you already know beforehand, you may not even realize it on your first visit. But then, as you linger over the shelves for a while, you begin to notice that most of the pictures of literary luminaries hanging on the scarce wall space were probably taken right there and the others are inscribed to the owner of the store. According to its web-site the store has counted among its customers W.H. Auden, Randall Jarrell, Gertrude Stein, Wallace Stevens, Anais Nin, Thornton Wilder, J.D. Salinger, Arthur Miller, and Tennessee Williams among others in an exhaustively famous list of literary lions (some are in the photo below, for a key to the faces, go the Gotham web-site linked at the end of this piece). Maybe some of these people would have gone to Barnes & Noble, but they never would have become a part of the fabric of any generic superstore.
Frances Steloff opened Gotham Book Mart in 1920 after selling books from her window with a sign that said “Interesting Books Selected by Myself.” Ms. Steloff lived for 101 years and in the store’s early years she was very much a part of the literary scene in New York City. According to the website:
The Gotham and Miss Steloff championed the experimental and challenged the censors over the years. She supplied James Joyce’s books to US readers as they were published, including those with legal difficulties from the US’s obscenity laws, a service she also provided for D.H. Lawrence and Henry Miller’s work. She was one of the founding members of the James Joyce Society, whose meetings continue at the Gotham, and Joyce himself occasionally ordered books directly from Miss Steloff.
Once at Gotham I saw a first edition copy of the Paris Review’s Writers at Work collection, the second in the series, published in 1963. This book had a famous interview with Ernest Hemingway, along with Boris Pasternak, T.S. Eliot, Ralph Ellison, and many others. I wasn’t interested in paying for the first edition (I’m a reader not a collector), so I asked Flip, the manager, for another copy. He dug that and others out for me, and the conversation evolved from there to talk about Joyce and Borges. Next thing I know, he’s making phone calls to find information for me on an exhibit of Borges books (sadly) brought from Argentina for sale. That’s what I call a Superstore.
But besides that book-culture thing you get from shopping there, which I’m sure will remain even after the move, Gotham is just a great place to browse. They really do have books stacked from floor to ceiling, many of them at great prices and the combination of new and used books jostling for your attention assures that you will always find something interesting. For all the books that they have laying around the store, a recent NY Times article says that there are 200,000 more in the back room, and hopefully some of those will make it out into the daylight at the new shop.
Gotham specializes in contemporary fiction, but besides that, they also have quite a few specialty areas, too numerous to mention. They tend to segregate books in interesting ways. Classics are together as well as Romantic period books, there’s a film section, a decent selection of literary criticism, and mysteries (if I remember correctly) and biography are segregated, and of course, there’s a special section for James Joyce.
The poetry section is bewilderingly thorough with all the familiar names intermixed with soon-to-be familiar names. Authors like Dante, Auden, Eliot and Yeats and Pound have their own sections, tucked away toward the bottom of the shelves. As a compliment to all the great books, Gotham has an incredible selection of literary journals. Because of the nature of these little slices of obscurity, there are often back issues laying on the shelves too.
Andreas Brown, Gotham’s current owner, sold the building where the store is located last year and just recently signed a long-term lease for the H.P. Kraus building a block away. I and other regular patrons had been asking about the move for some time, but the employees were mum. I had not been in for a while, so was surprised when I saw the notice.
I find it interesting that an independent bookstore is thriving among the price and inventory competition of the national chains. Those that are surviving must be offering something more, and I think Gotham Book Mart is exemplary of what a great bookstore can and should be. Long live Gotham!
I will conclude with the following excerpt from the August 4th New York Times article regarding Gotham’s move:
Both buildings have five stories, but the Kraus has about twice the space, Mr. Brown said. It is lined with bookcases, many of them antique. The second floor has a ballroom-size open area that will be used for publication parties and meetings of the James Joyce Society and other groups. At the old Gotham there was often an overflow crowd for such occasions. In the window at the Kraus building is a raised platform, which could be used as a stage for theatrical events.
The third floor, where Kraus and his wife, Hanni, held conferences and entertained important clients, will become an art gallery. The upper floors will be used for office and storage space and as a place to develop a Gotham Web site.
In the last few weeks Mr. Brown and his employees have been packing books and archival photographs and moving them to the new location. Regarding the clutter at the 46th Street store, he said that the old Gotham was messier when its founder, Frances Steloff, was alive. (She opened the store in 1920 and moved twice, staying within a two-block area.) When he bought it, he installed air-conditioning and tried to impose order on the books.
“The more I straightened things out,” he said, “the more customers complained.” They were apparently attracted to the chaos, hoping to stumble on some serendipitous find. That kind of environment appealed to Mr. Brown as a book buyer, but not as a bookseller.
The Gotham sign, “Wise Men Fish Here,” which was designed by the artist John Held Jr., will soon be placed on the facade of the new location. Will wise men still be able to fish for books at the new Gotham? “I think they will,” Mr. Brown said, and, thinking about the disorder in the old shop, he added, “but it will be more like a lake.”
(Photo: New York Times)
Gotham Book Mart is home of the James Joyce Society and the Finnegans Wake Society.
The new address:
16 East 46th Street (less than 200 yards from the old location)
Subways in order of proximity:
B, D, F, V 47th St.
4, 5, 6, S, 7 @ Grand Central Station
Link: Joyce Society New York (Gotham Book Mart)
New York Times “Where Wise Men Fish? It’s Moved Down a Block.” Thursday, August 4th, 2004.
Read widely, think well, and write often.