Remembrances of Bookstores Past

Myles Friedman’s excellent post about the lack of bookshops reminded me of all those wonderful bookstores I had the luck to visit during my years living in New York City. I took them for granted. It never occurred to me back then that bookstores were about to become extinct. If I happened by one, I’d go in. Simple as that. I seemed to find them easily, or they found me. I don’t remember the exact location of the original Murder Ink bookstore, but I do remember it was tiny, on a side street, and terribly intimidating. The only impression I remember was the owner wasn’t all that friendly. Apparently, that characteristic spread to many others who followed in the first Murder Ink’s footsteps. (The person I encountered was apparently the second owner, the original had already sold by the time I entered–20 or so years later, after many various booksellers, including myself, it closed. No, I wasn’t responsible for it going, ha. (maybe the last owner’s contempt of the genre he was selling had something to do with it–“After 10 years of owning Murder Ink, I was sick of mysteries, having felt as if I’d read every possible permutation of perfect crimes and brilliant, but flawed, detectives.”)

Further down from the West Side 90s was the famous Shakespeare and Company, a store I avoided like cooties after my one and only experience. On the surface, this store should have been an oasis, a paradise for the usual normal book lover and reader. Filled with classics and all new books, one couldn’t help but feel you were in a ‘real’ bookstore. Unfortunately, sellers thought they were intellectually above the average patron. And made no attempt to hide their contempt.  So many people told me stories of bad experiences within the book shelves, I wondered how the store  survived long enough to be put out of business by the big Barnes and Noble that moved across the street. That scenario was the basis for the film, You’ve Got Mail. Instead of a lovely children’s bookstore,  Shakespeare and Company was eliminated. When knowing their history, it’s understandable. (The B&N has now succumbed as well, gone gone gone)

I did my theatrical purchases at The Drama Bookshop. That place had everything and anything that hinted at the stage. Every play published, compilation of audition monologues, puppetry how-tos, set design, all aspects were covered. At any given time, actual paid performers would rub elbows with me as we both searched for a particular piece to use for the same upcoming audition. (It still exists)

A little narrow used bookshop was on broadway in the lower 80s or upper 70s, and if lucky, is there still. I loved that place–one never knew what one may recover from under piles or boxes scattered throughout. They also had a book finding service, and I utilized it for a title long gone from my memory banks–they located whatever it was fast–I was very impressed.  I found a few gems hidden in the shadows, but the most fun was searching through, hoping for some great discovery–like a first edition worth tons of money. Never happened, but one could dream. (My husband remembers the name–The Gryphon Bookstore–he believes it exists under a different name)

The Coliseum Bookstore was simply the best indie in New York. It covered all the bases. New fiction, nonfiction, history–you name it, they had it somewhere within their large inventory. Plus, in the basement were discounted titles, and remainders. Not much on atmosphere, they made up for it in volume. I found many a book there, in fact, the store kept me sane during a brief crazy attempt at having a real job with Gallop poll company, located across the street. It could have been on the moon with how foreign this type of work was to me. I thought we’d be relaxed at a phone calling random people asking opinions and such. The reality was more like a prison camp–Gestapo agents patrolled the aisles and aisles of employees checking if phone was to ear, how many calls were made, how many surveys completed, and if you dared scratch your neck or pick your nose. Every lunch break I’d shoot across the street and spend my few moments breathing in the paper scented air, and bought another title. Essentially, whatever I earned in the 3 whole weeks I managed through, was eaten up by book purchases.

My first foray into The Mysterious Bookshop was interesting. I heard that there were collectible mysteries up the winding staircase, and was curious. It was a Saturday,

Books of Wonder

which unknown to me, meant the owner sat godlike at a desk on the upper floor. As your head would poke up, he would spot you and bark–something along the lines of, “what do you want” or “what are you looking for” making it obvious he didn’t know you, you probably weren’t going to buy anything, so get out. I think I persevered enough to check out the Dell Mapbacks, but only for a few seconds. Back on the first floor, I was looking for something unusual, different than what I usually read. I’d never read any of the cat mysteries by Lillian Jackson Braun, and decided to ask the guy at the register. From his reaction you might have thought I’d asked about child porn. My second question, about a title on the counter supposedly starring both Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers as themselves detectives was met with a snort and distain. I think I bought both books, just as a defiance in the face of disapproval. As the door closed behind me, I kept asking myself, ‘how the hell do these stores stay in business? I returned many times after and found it a must pleasanter experience, but I tried to avoid both upstairs, and speaking to anyone within the walls of the building. (Since that long long ago experience, many booksellers have come and gone, and the store itself has moved–from all accounts, it has a wonderful staff.)

In Grand Central Station, there is a bookstore still–or was last time I heard–an indie with new titles. (yes, still there–Posman Books) It does a brisk business catering to the commuters who travel daily through the historic landmark. How many of their sales are magazines, as opposed to paperbacks, I don’t know. And the little annex they had below that my bookseller friend Lou ran, is long gone. Location is everything, and when in that area, I would buy books. Again, no romantic atmosphere, but Shakespeare, Murder Ink, and Mysterious Bookshop had plenty of it, and little customer service. On Fifth Ave at one time, bookstores were supreme. The Scribner building still stands, with lovely scrolled title–but it’s some trendy chain store now. I believe a B&N was the store I once waited in line for Shirley Temple to sign a copy of her autobiography. This was early B&N, before world domination. I’d make the rounds of each store when in the area. There were any number of little indies around Manhattan–one on the East side near Hunter College, one father up on Madison catering to the rich, and richer, and one of my very favorite places to spend hours and hours browsing, Rizzoli’s Bookstore, on 57th Street between Fifth and 6th. Rizzoli’s still is in business with lush large coffee table books and even larger prices–most of their titles are worth the price tag. I have several gorgeous books from there, one a veritable history of fabric patterns, in stunning color. The photography is superlative, as is the beauty of the building. The only thing I have negative to say–they didn’t hire me way back before I worked at any of the mystery stores. I was too old to make the cut, I think, lol.

Partners & Crime, which recently closed, was another fine crime fiction bookstore, and although I wasn’t down in the Village that often, when I was I’d stop by and browse. I rarely bought anything,  only because I was managing another store and had access to stock. But I remember one particular time I was there, to see an author friend, and he sold me on an out of print title called Wilders Walk Away, and it became one of my Best 100 Mysteries of All Time. The store was modern, easy to maneuver in, and the staff always friendly. One of the owners became a great friend, and I was very sad to see  it close.

Foul Play was around the corner and in business longer than Partners, when I was manager there. I had tried to get a job at the store eons before and was arrogant going into the interview believing I knew everything there was to know about mysteries.  I was delusional,  new best selling authors were strangers to me, and after taking the quiz  I was embarrassed to find I wasn’t as high and mighty as I thought, lol. I didn’t get the job back then. Foul Play was a tiny little place in the 80s, and moved into a narrower but larger space by the time I was there–it had a hidden door behind a bookcase that housed the bathroom–that’s my kind of place! The owner was ill, and his death a year later ended not only my job, but the store.

My favorite bookstore was The Black Orchid, for a zillion reasons, but mostly because the owners, Bonnie and Joe were dear friends, and the BEST book people. They worked tirelessly to provide not only the customer the best service, but all authors who took time to visit their little store on the upper east side. Jam packed with all new titles upstairs presented in an orderly easy fashion, and a full basement of used books, the customer could never claim a lack of inventory. They were both geniuses at matching book to person. Going into that store was like visiting home, a home of comfort and good books. After 9/11 business changed and after trying their best for a good long time, they finally decided to close.

There are so many bookstores that came and went during the years I lived there, that it’s hard to keep track. One store down by city hall contained wonderful out of print gems. I bought a title by Jack Finney, Marion’s Wall, about the silent screen era. It’s funny what you can remember. A children’s bookstore that is still in biz,
Books of Wonder,  used to sit across from Barney’s–the upscale department store. It has the best in kid’s lit, with authors and illustrator signings. They sell original art from the leading artists, such as Michael Hague and Paul O. Zelinsky. Books Of Wonder remains an authority on the Oz series, and sell many first editions of both that and other classic tales. It was their booth at NY Is Book Country where I met Maurice Sendak, and the aforementioned illustrators.

Naturally, The Strand in The Village was a must any and every time I was down in the area. Milling among the huge stock, with remainders, old stuff, new stuff, all kinds of stuff, I could lose myself for hours. It’s still standing, and next time I’m in the city–I need to get there again. Just entering its portals gives one a sense of bookstores past. And present, and hopefully, future.






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