ON THE ROAD (Episode# 4) "Wise Men Fish Here" (Continued)
In the last post, I discussed a key cultural attribute of a vibrant New York City--its love affair with bookstores. Actually, there were small book emporiums all over the city. Some of my favorite were up around Columbia University, and every time I took students to the Columbia Scholastic Press Journalism Conference in the fall or spring, I'd visit multiple bookstores. There was a little cubbyhole of a shop on Amsterdam Avenue. One day I found some critical studies of James Joyce in the stacks and was elated. I go to the counter with them and a fetching young woman starts to ring me up. She examines my purchases and gives a nod of approval before looking up at me. In a Lauren Bacall "whiskey and cigarette" voice she asks me: "Have you read The Wake"? (I knew that she was referring to the author's final work, the massive Finnegan's Wake, pretty much written in a language that Joyce, himself, created). I stood sheepishly, having read the author's other works: Dubliners, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and Ulysses. "Um...not yet", I mumbled, but as soon as I said I hadn't, she looked back down, dismissing me altogether, put my purchase in a bag, handed it to me, and continued with her work. I had proven unworthy of her attention. New York book lovers are a tough crowd!
Of all the bookstores in New York, I think the fanciest was Rizzoli's. Entering the store was a little bit like going to church. The design of the rooms was ornate, and the display tables focused one on man's greatest achievements in art and culture. The store on 57th Street is long gone, but Rizzoli's still exists in a spot near Madison Park, so you can check out what a truly beautiful bookstore can look like. I mean...chandeliers!
Still, I wouldn't want to dismiss the experience of hanging around in a niche store with no carpeting or vaulted ceilings. If you loved mysteries, you could meet other members of your fraternal order at the Mysterious Bookshop. You could find wonderful children's books at Books of Wonder. And I often visited Forbidden Planet in the Village for all things relating to science fiction and fantasy. It was a great place to find comic books to fill in the gaps of your collection before eBay came along.
But I think my favorite of all these stores had to be Scribner's, once located on Fifth Avenue between 48th and 49th Streets. I often brought my students there, and they were always impressed. First of all, it was the best-looking store in all of New York because the store's facade itself was an architectural wonder. Ernest Flagg designed the store, located on the first two floors of the Scribner's Building, in the Beaux-Arts style. The building was the home of the publishers of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe, Ernest Hemingway and many others. The legendary Scribner's editor Maxwell Perkins guided this Murderer's Row of literary artists to their greatest achievements.
In the more recent photo directly above, you can see the limestone exterior that Flagg designed in a series of five bays. You can also make out four medallions of the figures of famous printers, including Gutenberg and Franklin. The building, constructed in 1912 and 1913 is topped by a mansard roof. The store's glazed windows are set in ironwork with brass highlights. As you can see in this photo, though, it is the brand Sephora that is emblazoned on the awnings--not Scribner's. New York City retail space became too prohibitively expensive, and by 1988 Scribner's announced that they could no longer keep a bookstore viable. The following year, the bookstore was gone, replaced over the years by companies like Sephora and Lululemon. Fortunately, to protect against those who might want to raze the building and build from scratch, New York City named the facade an architectural landmark, preserving it forever.
My favorite time to go to Scribner's was the holiday season. In fact, I always planned one day of Christmas shopping in New York City just for the experience. I made it a point to buy some book gifts at Scribner's so that I could put them under the tree. Even if I could get the exact same books locally at less expense, I wanted these gifts to have Scribner's Christmas wrapping. I would wait at the gift wrapping counter as they unspooled a perfectly sized sheet of festive red paper--a thick, heavy paper of substance. The employee would wrap the book and then apply two inch-long, silver fanned "tails" to the front of the paper topped by a silver circle embossed with the Scribner's seal. It looked like a little silver ribbon--and indeed such a gift was worthy of a prize.