Once upon a time in New York City bookstores mattered. The shingle “Wise Men Fish Here” dangling above the doorway of the Gotham Bookmart, on West 47th Street, in the heart of the Diamond District, said it all with a tongue-in-cheek tease at the gaudy glitz of its surroundings. Rents were low, poets were hip. Bookstores were the place to be.
But nowadays those depots of wisdom, where word-junkies like myself have long dashed in for a quick fix of fact and fancy, merit endangered species status. Real estate has a limited tolerance for the tenuous fruits of the unreal estate. Raging like a tornado, commercial rent has taken its toll. Gone are Doubleday’s and Scribner’s, once proud Fifth Avenue literary landmarks, and Mary S. Rosenberg, the foreign book dealer on Broadway, where you could hope to find Max und Moritz in German and Babar in French. Books & Co., an Upper Eastside browser’s paradise for more than two decades, closed in 1997. The Gotham Bookmart gave up the ghost in 2007. That same year Coliseum Books, the Midtown independent, likewise shut its doors. And St. Marks Bookshop bit the dust.
But there have of late been hopeful signs. The website of the Independent Booksellers of New York City (IBNYC), a loose alliance of the city’s booksellers, includes some 97 links to literary outlets in the five boroughs.
A bit of history. The first bookshop in New York City founded by printer William Bradford opened for business in 1693. One of his apprentices, John Peter Zenger, opened the second in 1742. Bookstores began to proliferate here in the wake of the American Revolution. The back room of one such shop at 167 Broadway, dubbed The Den, became the hangout of poet and journalist William Cullen Bryant, painter and inventor Samuel F. B. Morse (of telegraph and “Morse” code fame), and novelist James Fennimore Cooper (you know, The Last of the Mohicans).
In 1853 an enterprising Austrian immigrant, August Brentano, expanded his newsstand into Brentano’s Literary Emporium, the clubhouse of writers Henry Ward Beecher and Edwin Booth. Brentano’s subsequently spawned a chain of stores, successively gobbled up by Waldenbooks and Borders, which more recently went belly up. In 1917 William Barnes and G. Clifford Noble launched a bookselling business, later shifting their location to 105 Fifth Avenue, the future flagship store of Barnes & Noble, a veritable empire of books, soon to be gobbled up by Amazon and other online ventures.
A native New Yorker of bookish bent, my own bibliophile infatuation predates my ability to read. There was a rack of illustrated golden books in the back of a toy store with the magical name of Aladdin’s Lamp in Jackson Heights, Queens, where I grew up. Whenever I fell ill and had to undergo the prick of Dr. Goldberg’s savage needle, my sufferings were recompensed by a golden book.
I can trace my conversion to full-fledged “bookoholic” back to an adolescent fever, circa 1966, when, on the way home from the doctor, at a drugstore that also carried a couple of books, I plucked off the rack a purple paperback copy of Lady Chatterly’s Lover, which may not have stilled the fever but definitely mollified my malaise under the covers.
Bookstores have always been for me the loci of revelations.
I once walked into the old Eighth Street Bookshop, erstwhile clubhouse of the Beats, on Eighth Street in Greenwich Village. Hastily pulling off the shelf what I believed to be poems by Stephen Crane, when I got home I found, to my initial chagrin and eternal delight, that I had mistakenly purchased a volume of verse by a certain Hart Crane, one of which, “Van Winkle,” struck a chord that set the tone of my life:
“And Rip forgot the office hours,
and he forgot the pay;
Van Winkle sweeps a tenement
way down on Avenue A.”
Such a felicitous mistake would never have transpired on Amazon. The Eighth Street Bookshop went up in flames one night in 1979. The circumstances of the fire have never been established. Much as I mourned its loss, I managed to fish out and schlep home several hundred blackened, but still readable, tomes from a massive garbage bin parked outside on the street, and later wrote up and published my experience of inviting passing patrons to climb in and browse.
It was in the claustrophobic confines of another long gone little downtown book nook on East 7th Street named The Bridge, in homage to a book by Hart Crane, that I read from my English translation of Posthumous Papers of a Living Author (Nachlaß zu Lebzeiten) by Robert Musil, to a standing room crowd. I must have fired them up, for two audience members almost came to blows afterwards arguing over the title of the first published Yiddish book. It’s hard to imagine such a hot dispute taking place at Barnes & Noble.
And how can I ever forget the tingling pride I felt a few years later upon seeing my own first book of fiction, A Modern Way to Die, in the show window of The St. Mark’s Bookstore, the ultimate downtown literary hotspot. I felt like I had finally arrived, though I would subsequently be disabused of any such naïve illusion. In New York subway trains arrive, writers go nowhere.
But here is my prognosis.
It started as signifying grunts and doodles on the walls of a cave.
It moved from cuneiform incisions in stone to meaningful streaks and splotches on animal skin.
Guttenberg mechanized the transfer of thought to paper.
The computer and word processor transformed the sentence into liquid form.
Kafka had, of course, already foreseen the mechanical transfer of the (grammatical and juridical) sentence and its incision as a talking tattoo on the skin of the condemned man in his prescient tale “In the Penal Colony.”
Books will keep metamorphosing from tablets to scrolls to pulped trees stained with words sandwiched in between cardboard lined panels covered with tanned animal skin to electronic blips on a screen. A bit like bird sanctuaries, bookstores may not survive in their current iteration as the embattled last refuge of twittering endangered species.
But stories, the need to tell and listen, will last at least as long as homo sapiens haunt the planet earth, because we need them like we need air and water.
I’ll tell you how I know this.
In 1975 I experienced a crisis of consciousness, one of many at various stages of my life, at this time suspecting that art and literature, the pursuit to which I intended to devote my life, might be just so much costume jewelry to adorn the void and disguise the futility of life.
That year I returned to Vienna, the city from which my parents had fled, to dig up the history that had sent them packing. I set out to interview survivors of the concentration camps. And in the course of my inquiry, I asked repeatedly if anyone they knew of wrote poems or stories on the threshold of death? Most of my respondents pooh-poohed my question with a swish of the hand. “We were too busy staying alive,” they said. But somebody in Krakow, Poland, told me about and introduced me to the late Aleksander Kulisiewicz.
As a young man, Alex had fallen for a lovely acrobat and joined a circus be close to her. The romance didn’t last, but he did meet a Master Memory, like the character in Hitchcock’s “the 39 steps,” and learn his mnemonic device. When the Nazis invaded Poland, Alex, a young student at the time, dared anonymously satirize the dictator, highlighting the shortage of food in a student newspaper, writing “Heil, Butter! To Hell with Hitler!” He was arrested and sent to Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp, here in a suburb of Berlin.
And there he functioned as an underground camp troubadour, writing and performing his own songs, and memorizing those of other prisoners, who knowing of his powers of memorization, passed their songs on to him, thinking he had a better chance of making it. Alex was neither Jew nor Gypsy nor Communist nor homosexual, not one of those targeted for extermination.
And though the SS injected him with bacilli to shut him up, he miraculously managed to survive until liberation. Lying on a sick bed infected with TB, where doctors assumed he was dying, they paid him no notice, but a nurse somehow understood, got a pad and took dictation. Alex who also thought he was dying, recited some 700 poems and songs he had committed to memory. Again, Alex survived, and those songs became the foundation of an archive of songs from the ghettoes and concentration camps, which preserved and performed around the world. Together we produced an album “Songs from the Depths of Hell” with Folkways Records.
I put my faith in those disembodied voices. They are the stories that survive.
The most independent bookseller I know in New York prefers not to be identified by name and location. Rent is not an issue. His roof is the sky. His walls are virtual. His shop consists of several folding tables, with boards stretched between them, pitched like a nomad’s tent outside one of the city’s major universities. As a young man he read hundreds, thousands of books. “I’m not so attached to books per se these days,” he insists. “It’s the content that counts, and the effect they have up here,” he taps his head, “and here,” he taps his heart. “Still, there is something very deep in humans that books can potentially develop. I say potentially. Germany was the most educated and well-read country in Europe,” he nodded. “It obviously didn’t do them much good.”
The latter point can be disputed. One could argue that a country and culture that goes so far as to burn books must really care about (and fear) their contents.
Embattled bastions perhaps, but New York’s independent bookstores still seem to serve a need. Consider Mercer Street Books and Records, at 206 Mercer Street, a trading post of sorts for second-hand books and records. “It’s one of the few places I can imagine working,” says store manager Chris Sholk with a deadpan Buster Keaton look, “where Schopenhauer could be the punch line to a joke, and somebody will actually get it and laugh. There’s never a dull moment. Just yesterday a young lady in her early twenties came in and said, ‘Here! Take my books, I don’t need any money, I’m moving to Berlin.”
© Peter Wortsman, 2018
An earlier version of the text originally appeared in the webzine Ragazine.