Wednesday, May 18, 2011

manhattan bookstore melancholy

With BEA coming up fast next week, I’ve been thinking a lot about New York City, and how my love for Manhattan has always been tangled with my love for books.

Nobody I knew growing up in Milwaukee traveled there, save an aunt and uncle who went to shows and brought back photos of themselves at Sardi’s, and bags of hotel matches.

My first visit happened in 1967 when I was a high school student. No, it wasn’t a class trip to perform with the band or to visit museums. My father had improbably given in to my pleading to fork over parental permission and $30 for a bus ticket to the first big anti Vietnam war march on the United Nations.

Though the trip- including the march, rally and eighteen hour ride- lasted all of three days, I broke off from friends whose priority was finding a “head shop” to go to Eighth Street Bookshop instead. I'd read about it in the Village Voice. It was a revelation.

In subsequent years, I visited the city often for radical political meetings of various sorts, and I always found time for the bookshops.

The New Yorker on West 89th street- a cramped closet with an equally minute mezzanine- was a favorite, as well as the nearby Bookforum at Columbia. I had a mad crush on Laura Nyro at the time and stalked her West End Avenue apartment building, so both stores were handy.

Farther downtown, I loved the radical bookshops, the more sectarian the better. Every Trotskyist and Maoist grouplet seemed to have its own book operation. This was at a time when “China Books & Periodicals” was an insurgent enterprise.

But I mainly patronized the various Communist Party outposts, which exuded a kind of haunting authenticity (even though already a shadow of the glory days): the Jefferson Bookshop off Union Square, which felt like living history; the Universal Bookstore, a strange storefront on West 13th operated by an unpleasant ogre who buzzed you in only after sizing you up; and the spiffy Four Continents on Fifth Avenue, a stagy advertisement for the Soviet government with books in English of all kinds.

These small niche bookshops were intoxicating. And when you factored in all the larger new and used bookshops, a book lover could easily spend a week browsing through Manhattan, even well into the eighties.

In 1986, my sister Barb, who was living in Connecticut at the time, gave me a copy of the NYNEX Manhattan Yellow Pages for my birthday. (Yes, a bit weird. I was thrilled.) As I peruse this piece of faded glory 25 years later, I’m amazed and sad to re-discover the richness of the New York bookstore landscape.

The “Book Dealers-New” section has nearly 400 alphabetical listings, among them a couple dozen art and architecture stores. And the big footprint chains were Doubleday and B. Dalton.

All is not lost. There were several familiar contemporary retailers on that twenty-five year old roster, including Three Lives, Strand, and Saint Mark’s Bookshop, where I bought my first ever full price hardcover in 1980 (Douglas Hofstadter’s Godel Escher Bach).

But the ghosts are more numerous: Brentano’s, Scribner, Coliseum, Endicott, Gotham Book Mart, Hacker Art Books, the Oscar Wilde Bookshop- all fond memories.

I haven’t seen a 2011 Yellow Pages, but Yelp lists 327 Manhattan booksellers, new and used. That’s better than I expected. And there are still lots of wonderful stores in New York (and brave booksellers who keep opening them.)

But though I get to the city more often these days, the bookstore spell that Manhattan once cast over this Milwaukee kid is also just a hazy memory. Kind of like socialism.

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