16 E 46th:
The New Gotham Book Mart
What Would Edward Gorey Think?
Located between 5th & Madison Avenues
Revisited April 1, 2005.
For more information call Gotham Book Mart & Gallery
Side panel images by Glen Emil.
Black and white vignette images are from the 1987 documentary Frances Steloff: Memoirs of a Bookseller and used by permission. Visit www.directcinema.com for more information. Distributed by Direct Cinema Ltd.
©2005 DCL. All rights reserved.
15 April 2005 Special to Goreyography
The First Thing I like about the Gotham Book Mart is its’ name. The Second Thing is heaps of Edward Gorey books. The Third Thing – the Gotham is a writer’s bookstore with a history that doesn't quit. So for Goreyphiles, the new digs on East 46th St between 5th & Madison Avenues is the center of universe. For Goreyphiles who read other things – most do I suspect – the new Gotham Book Mart & Gallery is like the old, but with more books and the elbow room to find them.
What makes the Gotham Book Mart name so unforgettable, so spot on? Batman? John Held Jr. had a clue it seems. The famous illustrator who designed the Gotham Book Mart’s street sign knew this space was special, (possibly) using Washington Irving’s NY ‘Gotham’ moniker to invoke the ‘wise’ madmen of Gotham, the Fools of 16th Century Nottingham, with his “Wise Men Fish Here” proclamation. There’s so much in a name.
The piles of Edward Gorey books make it special. The in-print Gorey titles and Gund cats are abundant, greeting you right at the front door. But finding the little Gorey books is different now – no new surprises at the cash register like in the sunny days of the old Gotham, before April 2000. There is, happily, a large repository of interesting little Gorey items in the back of the store. The collection in this capacious Gorey antechamber feels larger than the old Gotham’s’, and it feels as if one has arrived. Gorey’s primary titles – the ‘A-list’ books are there for the asking. One can, say, buy a nicer envelope for Three Books from the Fantod Press II to supplant that tattered one at home. But it’s the mass of secondary or ‘B-list’ titles that fascinates, because visitors can see them in nearly every iteration, all in the same place. The effect is much more awe-inspiring than the 47th St shop endeavor. Nowhere else on Earth. To see the interesting Gorey stuff, one needs to find either Andreas Brown or Kevin McDermott; thusly it pays to call ahead to see if they’re in.
The Gotham as a writer’s bookstore grows obvious after one ascends to the Second Floor, where dozens of photographs capture a vivacious, foregone past. Blowups of Frances Steloff with groundbreaking writers of the 20th Century abound, along with artists like Dali thrown in. Holographic accolades, notes and autographs from D.H. Lawrence and others grace the walls and display cases, the likes of which Borders or Barnes and Noble will never see. For the most part, the historic ‘feel’ of the new shop is retained from the old.
It was Frances Steloff’s Gotham Book Mart that made 41 West 47th St a literary landmark, and it is Andreas Brown’s Gotham Book Mart and Gallery that pulled up roots and settled in nearby East 46th St, in the space of the former H.P. Kraus Antiquarian Book shop. The Gotham Book Mart was the child-creation of Frances Steloff’s, and is a story well known. She started Gotham Book & Art in 1920, and its’ association with modern experimental, now classic, writers is legendary. The Gotham’s reputation was the result of Steloff’s open-mind-open-door policy, and she championed and hosted then-fringe writers like Miller, Pynchon, Nin, cummings and Stein.
But that was then, and this is, well, another Gotham. Ms. Steloff’s rough-and-tumble child prodigy had grown into a well-dressed yet mature body of intellect and artistry – mostly due to the tutelage of Andreas Brown, himself a bibliographer and antiquarian book expert. It was Ms. Steloff, Mr. Brown tells me, who suggested to Mr. Gorey that he vend his ‘little books’ in small stacks at the cash register. This was how Andreas Brown was introduced to Gorey, who – in a way familiar to all of us - fell head-over-heels for those little books when he came by to shop. Years later, Mr. Brown purchased the Gotham from Ms. Steloff after she turned 80, but she continued to work and live there until she was 101.
The move from West 47th was prompted by the need for more shelf space, which the old shop was reluctant to deliver. As can be imagined, the move was arduous and painful – physically and emotionally – for everyone at the Gotham. It did come with a few surprises – Mr. Brown related how his staff found an unopened box of Fantod Press envelopes at the bottom of an old closet (this is the stuff I used to fantasize about if I ever found myself in the basement of an abandoned Doubleday warehouse). Certainly, the searing-hot real estate market didn’t hurt either; the sale was a well-timed maneuver by anyone’s standard. If you add the acquisition of the multi-ton bank vault located on the premises, a fitting place for the Gotham’s treasures, one feels the move was indeed a Move Up. Maybe the allure of the diamond trade underworld was an apt setting for the underworld of modern writers on West 47th St, but the ability to cruise more book titles on East 46th St is ultimately a plus.
The Gotham legend continues - living not only on its past, but on Mr. Brown’s conviction that the Gotham be an active, breathing entity in the literary arts. Unlike nearby antiquarian booksellers who publish shiny catalogs of rare 19th Century children’s books for sale (not that there’s anything wrong with that), the Gotham publishes and distributes poetry, stories and art books to read. When the Third Floor Gallery is complete, it will accept artwork from the likes of Edward Gorey (through the Gorey Charitable Trust, which Mr. Brown is co-trustee), poet-musician Patti Smith (watch here for upcoming announcements), and live readings of ‘Finnegan’s Wake’ by the Finnegan’s Wake Society of NY, an off-shoot of the James Joyce Society of NY (Ms. Steloff was a co-founder). The Gotham is still a happening place.
So come or come again. The Third Floor Gallery should be done by summer and the Gorey Gallery will blossom. Admire the fine woodwork left from the H.P. Kraus era, pick the staff’s brains for the latest on the street, scratch Pynchon’s head - Mr. Brown’s twenty-something pound tabby, buy a few books, and fondle some Gorey scarcities. Or not. The new Gotham Book Mart vibrates, grows, and moves.
Special thanks to Andreas Brown, Kevin McDermott and Michelle for their kind assistance.
©2005 Goreyography+WZP. All rights reserved.
View on main level, looking toward the back
Eclectic Abecedarium and QRV miniature editions for sale
John Held Jr's Wise Men Fish Here sign high above the street. Woody Allen expressed interest in the sign when 41 West 47th hit the market
Gund Gorey cats try to charm passersby in the street window display
Gorey and a large Doubtful Guest attend a Diogenes launch event
Stately woodwork adorns
much of the new Gotham, remnants of the H.P. Kraus shop
Postcards from Kevin McDermott's Elephant House for sale