Friday, June 01, 2007



I can't let this week go by without a look back at Gotham Book Mart. Book-blogs hither and yon have the full story about its abrupt closing and subsequent auction, so I won't repeat the news. Instead I dedicate this post to the memory of the original proprietor of GBM, Frances Steloff, one of my heroes. The biography of her and her bookshop is a must-have item in any collection of books about bookshops, and today I brought in my copy from home: W.G. Rogers, Wise Men Fish Here: The Story of Frances Steloff and the Gotham Book Mart, Harcourt, Brace & World, New York 1965. The front cover of the dust jacket, with the outline of her famous shop-sign (the original of which was stolen - I wonder where it is now?):

Carl Van Vechten's photograph of Frances Steloff, on the back cover of the dust jacket:

Over ten years ago Ryan found this particular copy as a gift for me. He bought it from a dealer in California on Interloc (remember Interloc!), it cost $32.50 plus a modest shipping charge. The dealer included several newspaper clippings that had been tucked in the book - a few of the original reviews of this book upon publication - very favorable reviews, I might add - the first from Ann Geracimos at the New York Herald Tribune, Sunday, January 3, 1965:

The second from the New York Times Book Review, written by bookman John T. Winterich:

Of course Ryan bought this copy for me because it is a special copy - it is inscribed on the half-title page by Frances Steloff and also by W.G. Rogers, in the month of publication:

The book (and also the first newspaper clipping above) is inscribed to Virginia Horner, who was both a good friend of Steloff's and a bookworm; Horner noted inside the front cover on the pastedown: "Purchased at Gotham Book Mart 1-6-65" alongside her own signature. This copy is near fine in a near fine dust jacket. It occupies pride of place at home in the book room - center, eye-level, in the middle of the books-about-bookshops shelves.

Steloff opened her shop on New Year's Day, 1920, on West 45th Street in NYC, with a stock of less than two hundred books. She sold nothing the first day, but the second day she sold a book for fifteen dollars. She later moved to West 47th. The back garden at her shop became famous among literary folk for parties and impromptu lunches usually instigated by Steloff's dear friend Christopher Morley. Morley and his friends hung out at GBM a lot. If Steloff was busy and someone needed help Morley would often step in and pose as a shop clerk. Then the next time the customer came in and asked for that helpful clerk from last time, Steloff would tell them it was Morley.

Her long friendship with Morley aside (which endears me to her no end), she was best known for championing the "little magazines" and the work of James Joyce, Henry Miller, Gertrude Stein, e.e. cummings, Andre Breton, really, you name it as far as the avant-garde goes, she was there. One more note about Morley (I can't help myself): one part in the book relates how Steloff came to own her building at West 47th. She bought it from Columbia University, because publisher and bookman Mitchell Kennerley and Morley "apparently in league, had got the ear of someone at Columbia; the building could be hers and they wanted it to be. Columbia held it for her even after receiving a higher offer..." (p.177). So she got her building, which ensured the shop's sustainability for decades to come. Until very recently, in fact.

In GBM's latest digs, the former home of bookseller H.P. Kraus, the cost of doing business finally caught up with and killed the bookshop. I wonder what Steloff would have thought of having to pay $51,000 a month in rent (holy god). My heart goes out to current owner Andreas Brown, who has owned GBM since the late 1960s. When Steloff moved her shop, the first part of the announcement she mailed around read thusly, and I can't help but think it is a fitting epitaph for the shop today:

"The old must go -
Make room for the new.
Like everyone else,
So, Gotham, too."

I love when I buy an old book and it has an inscription or even just the original owners name and address.
I even love when they put notes in the margins. How sick am I?
What a lovely & fitting memoriam to Frances & GBM, Sarah. Love yer blog - keep 'em coming.
Dear sparrow - not sick, no, no! Marvelously healthy and interested in books and their people...

Hi there, fellow Mainah - thanks for the kind words. I had a great time revisiting the GBM book as I wrote this post, glad you enjoyed it. Do come by again!
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