ON THE ROAD (Episode # 3) "Wise Men Fish Here"
I had written recently about trips with students into NYC, primarily to see theatre. But I often added museums or movies to the trips and sometimes even shopping--especially when we would head into midtown during the Christmas season. We'd check out the windows in Sak's or Bergdorf's. Maybe run in for a little gift shopping. "Meet me at this door in twenty minutes," I'd command.
I often made it a point to take my students to some of the legendary New York City bookstores because they had such an impact on my life. Sadly, most of these institutions are no longer with us. I'll talk a little about a handful of them in these connected blog posts.
A cultural landmark in New York City was the Gotham Book Mart, which had three iterations in the mid 40s in midtown Manhattan from 1920 to 2007, when its doors sadly closed for the last time. If I took a group of students here, it was tough to get them all into the venue. You pretty much had to crawl over other visitors to get where you wanted to be in the constricted space. It was the equivalent of a Parisian literary salon, but in New York. Though I have never visited Shakespeare and Company in Paris at 12 rue de l’Odéon, I have often read of the times Hemingway or Joyce or Stein or Fitzgerald or Eliot or Pound or all of them together shared an espresso in the cafe or confided in Sylvia Beach, the bookstore's legendary proprietor. I imagined that the Gotham Book Mart was a little like that when my current literary heroes showed up at any time: Saul Bellow, Woody Allen, Don DeLillo, Philip Roth, J.D. Salinger, Dylan Thomas, and John Updike among many others. Tennessee Williams even worked there for almost a full day! James Joyce was a god to me then, and this was the home of the James Joyce Society and the Finnegan's Wake Society! I could imagine myself sitting around listening to the scholars after hours. Frances Steloff, an iconic New York personality, was the Sylvia Beach on this side of the Atlantic, and she nurtured all the crazed egos of countless scholars and artists. Unlike most bookstores, the Gotham Book Mart specialized in books about art and culture. Only a tiny percentage of its collection could actually find room on the shelves, but if you asked for some obscure tome, often they had it in their extraordinary private holdings. It was not uncommon to encounter cats (named for famous writers) in the aisles or on the shelves. It was pretty much their turf. (Below: Shakespeare and Company, Paris and a poster of the Gotham Book Mart felines in repose)
Growing up, I could only indulge my interest in reading at the whim of the local public library. But once I was old enough to visit New York City on my own, by taking the Long Island Rail Road to Queens and then to Penn Station, New York, the possibilities were endless. I suspect my first encounter came when I was about fifteen at the Southeast corner of Central Park and Fifth Avenue. I probably had gone in to see a film and as I walked over to Fifth Avenue there was a series of kiosks with patrons lazily leafing through reading material. They were from someplace called Strand books. I couldn't believe that I could buy used copies of books by Bellow and Malamud and Styron and Wilder and Saroyan for a buck or two each. Cloth-bound books with dust jackets--not the paperbacks I usually had to settle for!
Opposite the book kiosks were long tables with sketches, lithographs, loose pages from art books, etc.--ideal for decorating one's teenage room. My incipient personal library hungered for more. I noticed the booths said to visit the main store at Broadway and 12th Street, so I headed to the Village on my next trip in to the city. There, my life changed again. At the time, the Strand Bookstore boasted only 8 miles of books on its countless shelves, but 8 miles was enough for me. I made regular pilgrimages. My knowledge of cinema had been limited by the handful of library books I could borrow--old and uninteresting books for the most part. But the Strand regularly had collections of essays and reviews by all the major film critics and theorists--biographies of directors and actors--studies of genres--and so much more! My head pretty much exploded. My collection of novels by modern American authors flourished. Every time I was tantalized by a new interest--an artist, a sports figure, an historical presence--the Strand fed my desire to learn more about him or her. Dorothy Parker! William Saroyan! Ray Bradbury! I was living the dream.
I don't know how often I have visited. Whenever I took students to the Public Theatre or the Classic Stage Company or the Irish Rep, a trip to the Strand was also usually in store for them. Sometimes you'd see the proprietor Fred Bass behind his counter as some New Yorker or other would bring in boxes of books for him to peruse. When people die in New York, their collections are often sold to the Strand. First printings and First Editions and Signed Copies could be found in locked bookcases with glass doors. (Below: Fred Bass)
When I visited, I often stayed for a couple of hours. My biggest concern was trying to limit myself from lugging home too many books. It was difficult enough to negotiate subways and trains without burdening myself with forty pounds of books! Just a few years ago I took a group of AP students after graduation into NYC to visit the Strand. We took the train from Little Silver and ate in a restaurant in Union Square before heading over to 12th Street and Broadway. Instead of spending hours in the store, though, we went up to the fifth floor and sat on folding chairs in a loft space with large windows. Soon, the guests of honor entered the room--novelist Paul Auster, playwright Edward Albee, and a close associate of Samuel Beckett as interlocutor! Auster and Albee then proceeded to discuss Beckett's influence on them and on writing in general. What a joy! It's on YouTube if you'd care to see it. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oywUVlLo1Zs