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 most accounts, an ordinary bookshop in the 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 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 place legendary for 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 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 in the 1970’s. All this was part of the fun. The Gotham swept up all kinds in its wake: writers, artists, culture mavens, gossip columnists, execs, bookoholics, even the occasional schnorrer with his handfuls of change and a quick joke: “Rabbi walks into a bar…”
After so much celebrity exposure, 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 two blocks away to E. 46th St. and the other side of 5th Ave. Away from the whirlwind of Times Square, Rockefeller Center, 47th St. and, perhaps significantly, a convenient subway stop, the store battled bravely for another two years. It closed, almost without a word, in late 2006.
This is not the place to do justice to the bookstore’s legacy. One day there will doubtless 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 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.”