Bookshops, perhaps even more than other institutions that purvey culture, are the intellectual lifeblood of a city. Madge Jenison, who owned a bookshop in New York in the 1920s, wrote that bookshops are “more important than universities, than schools, than public libraries, because they cater to maturity and are in the thick of affairs and work.” Joseph Epstein puts it somewhat less loftily. Bookshops, he says, are the intellectuals’ equivalent of pool halls.
Every great city harbors its hard core of bookshop addicts. The historian Paul Johnson and the sociologist Edward Shils are among those who have likened their bookshop habit to an addiction. “My case is an extreme one,” Shils writes, “and there are perhaps few people in my generation, more or less in their right minds and heavily engaged with all sorts of duties, who have spent so much time in bookshops as I have.” If I can claim all too little else in common with these estimable men, I can at least claim to share their addiction.
I am a bookshop rat. One day I might be seen browsing among the back-date magazines at Ruby’s Book Sale on Chambers Street, the next perusing the calf-bound folios in a rare book room on 57th Street.
I also spend time in large general bookshops that sell a wide range of serious new books, including those of university presses and small presses. But bookshops like these, because they specialize in the finite realm of in-print books, reach a certain level and can go no higher. They are, to the bookshop rat, without surprises. Stores that sell used books, on the other hand, deal in infinity. Drawn by such a prospect, I will not stay long among the merely in-print.
Some people go on pub crawls. I go on bookshop crawls. I may start uptown, at 107th Street and West End Avenue. Pomander Bookshop is, as used bookshops go, a clean, well-lighted place. It is a small, serious shop of the variety that keeps only good books on its shelves, since there is too little space for junk.
MY next stop might be Gryphon Book Shop, on Broadway at 80th Street, which offers an outstanding and reasonably priced selection of “vintage” mass-market paperbacks. I must confess a certain weakness for 1950s and 1960s editions of Vladimir Nabokov or Graham Greene, in which these authors’ works are made to appear the most sensational potboilers, complete with lurid covers that seem always to include a woman in a bra.
A cab or the 79th Street bus will take me across town to York Avenue. Between York and East End Avenues, in the basement of the famously endangered City and Suburban Homes, is the Bryn Mawr Book Shop, one of a national network of used bookshops that raise money for the college. This damp, cavernous space holds a surprisingly large stock of used books in a variety of categories, and though there are few treasures to be found, this may be Manhattan’s least expensive used bookshop.
A few blocks down York, between 73rd and 74th Streets, is Appelfeld Gallery, the first “antiquarian,” as opposed to merely “used,” bookshop on my crawl. That is, it deals in high-end goods such as first editions, fine bindings, and complete sets of authors’ works. I have no interest in first editions or fine bindings, but I find Mr. Appelfeld’s selection of complete sets to be mouthwatering. Every truly bookish person fantasizes about bookshelves lined with uniform sets of his favorite authors’ works. At Appelfeld, complete sets, in unostentatious bindings, range in the hundreds of dollars, and it seems to me that the prices for full sets of Tolstoy, Ruskin, Dr. Johnson, or Trollope are quite reasonable.
I end this particular crawl at Argosy Book Store on 59th Street, between Park and Lexington Avenues. This well-staffed six-story department store of books is where I go for Americana, history, and biography. It also sells prints, and its general selection of old maps is probably the best in the city. The first floor has a large selection of remarkably clean, well-maintained used books, particularly strong in general belles-lettres. On a recent visit I found, for $15, an edition of John Ruskin’s Sesame and Lilies, published by A.C. McClurg of Chicago in 1885—the very edition that fired Midwesterners’ imaginations in the Ruskin craze of a century ago. Such a book, though it does not qualify as rare, is every bit the relic a first edition is.
A downtown crawl would focus on the Strand Book Store, on Broadway at 12th Street. The Strand is the largest, by far, of the city’s bookshops; in the style of McDonald’s, a sign out front boasts that the shop has over two million books in stock. The young, bohemian, sometimes surly clerks set an admirable tone: no mere politesse is allowed to stand between a man and the books he wantonly craves. (In this, the Strand is a microcosm of its city, though, to be sure, most New Yorkers’ wanton cravings are not for books.) Some bookshops are for gourmets of the printed word; the Strand is for gluttons. The best sections are literary criticism, history, and art. Downstairs, the collection of review copies of recently released books, sold at half price, is breathtaking. The general literary selection upstairs in the rare book room is commendable, and the prices competitive. A recent haul included several back numbers of Hound and Horn, the excellent literary magazine edited by Lincoln Kirstein at Harvard in the 1930s.
Alas, in New York today no bookshop crawl is nearly so grand as was possible in the heyday of the Fourth Avenue used book district. With the Astor Library, forerunner to the 42nd Street Library, on the south (in what is now the Public Theater), and the offices of several major book publishers on the north, bookshops settled here because this is where the bookish people were. In addition, rents were low, since this was one of those well-trafficked but peripheral neighborhoods, filled with factories and lofts. At its zenith, in 1947, there were thirty used bookshops here, including such legendary establishments as Schulte’s and Stammer’s. By 1974 there were nine bookshops left on Fourth Avenue. Today, only the Strand and the Pageant remain of what once was America’s fabled booklovers’ mecca.
These days there is a feeling among booksellers and their customers that New York, the publishing and communications capital of the world, has become a second rate bookshop town. In the words of one crusty old New York bookman, “I tell you, New Yorkers don’t know books, don’t want to know them.... Of course there are our modern book collectors.... They buy books as an investment, just like pictures.... You can hardly call such people booklovers.” Plus ça change: the speaker is E. A. Custer in 1918.
Thirty or so years after Custer’s remarks, author Helene Hanff complained that she could not find clean, inexpensive, hardcover copies of numerous English literary classics in New York. I do not know how hard she looked, but she ended up sending away to London, and her decades-long correspondence with her London dealer, Marks & Co., composes her charming bestseller 84, Charing Cross Road. Most of the books mentioned by Miss Hanff in her letters are ones I, too, have sought—and have had no difficulty finding in New York. Could it be that New York today, to use Miss Hanff as evidence, is actually a better book town than it was during the heyday of Fourth Avenue?
Still, in recent years New York has been eclipsed by other cities as a book town. Now the best bookshop crawls are in Evanston, Illinois; Cambridge, Massachusetts; and Bethesda, Maryland. A person with a car can make as good an afternoon’s haul in the suburbs of northern New Jersey as in Manhattan.
If the decline of Fourth Avenue is the bookshop rats’ lament, low profits are the booksellers’ lament. “There is a special and curious situation in the book trade different from that which exists in any other undertaking where buying and selling are carried on. It does not support the people who do it,” wrote Madge Jenison in 1923. “Every bookseller is dying for his country.”
If bookselling has declined in New York, it may have less to do with rising rents than with rising expectations. Today, young people setting out for careers in the arts do not expect they will have to sacrifice much. “One tends to forget how much in the way of comfort and amenity artists and writers were willing to give up in order to live here even in the so-called good old days when rents were undeniably cheaper,” Hilton Kramer has written. “What has changed, of course, is not only the price of real estate but an entire attitude toward life.” Corporate and government largesse have transformed the arts from a calling for the few into a career option for the many. There once was a certain nobility to the slightly seedy lifestyle consecrated to cultural pursuits. No longer.
Bookselling, which has always required a great sacrifice of comfort and amenity, has not received the same consideration as other arts have. Sometimes I think it is the last calling that has not been thus corrupted.
Booksellers have, at times, petitioned for government relief. In the 1970s, the booksellers of Fourth Avenue petitioned the City to grant protective zoning, as had been done for the garment and theater districts. In the 1980s, booksellers were among the vociferous champions of commercial rent-control legislation. I should like to think such measures represent a kind of paternalism that self-respecting, fiercely independent booksellers would prefer to live without.
Booksellers do need the same help all small businesses need in New York: less crime, more-rational taxation, a sharp decrease in burdensome regulation. But bookselling is more than a business. “[Booksellers] don’t aspire to commercial success,” wrote Guido Bruno in 1918. “If they make a living and can read constantly, that’s their reward in life.” Or, as the proprietor of a used bookshop told Bruno, “A few pennies that we might gain might mean the perdition of lives and souls.”