Bookstores are something I know from, as my grandmother might’ve said it. I worked in some of the most famous bookstores in the world, and accumulated a large backlog of anecdotes and memories which have served me well since I moved on to other things. They are a constant source of material for my poetry, for one thing. But then again, so is every experience in a poet’s life. Take a recent example: the other day I was writing a poem on the kitchen table – which is my writing desk for all intents and purposes – and one of the lines became something about my grandfather’s prosthetic leg. My grandfather – who had been born in Vilnius (Vilna, in Yiddish) – died when I was eight, and I had only ever seen him infrequently. That is to say, I have no conscious memory of his fake leg. My sister, however, confirmed that he had indeed lost his leg to gangrene and used an artificial limb to walk. There is no end to the surprises we find out about ourselves, and sometimes in the most surprising ways.
The following memory was written in 2007, after the Gotham Book Mart had finally closed its doors. I hope some of the flavor of the place comes across. There will never be another bookstore like it anywhere.
Everyone’s mother has some tidbit of wisdom that stays with them throughout their adult life. Here’s mine: when a person dies, an entire library dies with them. Therefore, it stands to reason that when a bookstore dies, an entire fleet of readers dies with it.
The Gotham Book Mart was, by some accounts, an ordinary bookshop in the venerable old style. Founded by Frances Steloff in 1920, it was there on 47th St. in midtown Manhattan before the diamond and watch merchants moved in. In its final days, it was the only remaining oasis on the block, a place where one could duck in amid dusty volumes of forgotten poetry and tumbleweeds of orange cat fur in order to escape the rabble. It was also a haunted house of literary legends. It was there that Steloff may or may not have scolded Marilyn Monroe for climbing on a ladder in high heels. It was there that Ezra Pound reportedly refused to enter because Steloff was Jewish. It was there that Ulysses and Lady Chatterley’s Lover were sold under the counter when you could still get into trouble for such things. Rumor has it they used to assemble the loose pages of Joyce’s masterpiece copy by copy in the store, making it a kind of literary speakeasy. It was there that they filmed the bookstore scene in Rosemary’s Baby. It was there that Robert Crumb reportedly rode a woman down the stairs like a mule during his own book signing party…
As of 2005 the store’s bookmarks boasted “85 Years of the Best in Literature”, followed by a cascade of illustrious clients: Katharine Hepburn, Woody Allen, Jackie Onassis, John Updike. I can personally attest that the store’s Rolodex contained the very private addresses of Greta Garbo and Lou Reed, both of whom lived on the same block on the Upper East Side in the 1970s. All this was part of the fun. The Gotham swept up all kinds in its wake: writers, artists, culture mavens, gossip columnists, executives, bookaholics, even the occasional schnorrer with his handfuls of change and a rehearsed joke: “A rabbi walks into a bar…”
After decades in the limelight, times changed. Days could often pass in the presence of no one but a few old-timers and a gaggle or two of tourists straying from Times Square. Steloff died in 1989, at the age of 101. Up to its ears in debt in one of the most expensive neighborhoods on earth, the store’s second owner, Andreas Brown, was constantly under pressure to sell. Finally, having no choice, he did. In 2004 the bookstore moved from W. 47th St. to E. 46th St (just across 5th Ave., for those unfamiliar with Manhattan’s nexus of streets and avenues.) Away from the whirlwind of Times Square, Rockefeller Center, the Diamond District and – significantly – a very convenient subway stop, the store battled bravely on for another two years. It closed, almost without a word, in late 2006.
This is not the place to do justice to the Gotham Book Mart’s legacy. One day there will be a full-length book to do just that. Word has it that they are still “negotiating a deal” with some business bigwigs, which means – in newyorkspeak – that there is almost no chance of the store’s ever reopening its doors again for business. The loss of the Gotham Book Mart is one of those things one would like to blame on the internet or chain-style bookstores. We could even try to blame the fact that “no one reads anymore”, but then they never really did. The store was a kind of unofficial New York City monument, the kind of place one was proud to shop – or browse – if only to admire the signed photos of Dylan Thomas and Anais Nin, the creaky wooden floor and the thirty-pound feline named Pynchon lazing in the window. It was, as it still says on the bookmark (quote courtesy of Woody Allen): “…everyone’s fantasy of what the ideal bookshop is.”
Emmes*, as my grandmother might’ve said.
*Emmes is Yiddish for emet – the Hebrew word for “truth”. It means something like “damn straight”.