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Phantom Bookstores

7 February 2013

From The New Yorker Page Turner:

I used to work at Sotheby’s when it was on Madison Avenue, near Seventy-seventh Street. Often, I spent my lunch hour a block farther north, at 999 Bookstore. This was a bland, unimaginative space, with a big, unadorned window facing the street, and a low back wall, like a drugstore. Books were piled there at random. Inside, tall shelves stood along the walls, shorter racks down the center. In the back was a counter like a coat check. There was no décor. I didn’t care about décor; it gave me pleasure simply to enter a bookstore. Row upon row of other worlds, a silent reminder that reading was a way to live.

At that time, I hadn’t publicly declared myself a writer. I wasn’t, really: I wrote on the side, and mostly about art. So I went into the store disguised as a normal person. But I had declared myself a reader, and books were a kind of food to me. Bookstores were like soup kitchens, and I grew hungry whenever I approached one.

The clerk at 999 was a quiet, pleasant man in his fifties. He had a pointed nose, a lined forehead and bright dark eyes. His thick, graying hair was combed straight back into a modest pompadour. It was slightly oiled and showed the marks from the teeth of a comb. His clothes were neat and literary: a tweed jacket and tie. Only the hair gave a whiff of the dandy. He was quiet and courteous, with something silent about him—did he wear Hush Puppies? Because of his neatness and his oiled hair, I didn’t consider him a reader until the day I asked about an Edith Wharton book.

“It’s out of print,” he said, “but I can get you a copy.”

“You can?” This seemed like a miracle.

. . . .

At Seventy-fifth Street was Books & Co., slightly more literary and less glamorous. It was two-storied, and the first floor was slightly below street level. You stepped down to go inside, as though you were entering a student café. The walls were stuffed with books, and in the center of the room was a counter staffed by young geniuses. In the stairwell hung photographs of great authors who had read there, and upstairs were paperbacks: classics, poetry, belles-lettres, and a choice selection of literary porn. Everyone there loved books, and the young geniuses talked about Virginia Woolf or Gabriel García Márquez with equal ease. I gave my first reading here, and, as I looked out at the modest rows of my good friends (the only people who came), I thought I had reached the pinnacle of success: this what I had wanted most.

. . . .

I gave readings at Books & Co. until it closed. Jeanette Watson, its owner, reappeared later at the excellent Lenox Hill Books. This was on Lexington Avenue, just above Seventy-second Street, and it was a haven for me, because then I lived nearby. Jeanette still had readings by literary giants, and I heard Shirley Hazzard there, and Colm Tóibín. I used to go there in the afternoons with my dog, after going to the park. Once, Jim Harrison was there, signing books. Jeanette introduced us to him, and I bought a book, and Jim signed it to my dog.

All those places are gone now.

Link to the rest at The New Yorker


10 Comments to “Phantom Bookstores”

  1. “All those places are gone now.”


    There were 26 bars in the village where I was born in 1950.

    There’s two now, and the place is more stocious.



  2. “Madison Avenue Books became an antiques store.”

    How appropriate given the digital age we live in.
    As she bemoans the lost of these bookstores, I wonder if she is ever struck by the absolute miracle of having several bookstores in her pocket via her smart phone.
    These new bookstores, AMAZON, KOBO, etc, not only have a million more books than the old book stores did combined, but they can deliver them to you within seconds, and thousands of these titles are free.
    Can you tell that I don’t miss the old days at all?

    • @ Donald – I do understand the nostalgia, although I don’t share it. I always found used bookstores annoying, to be completely honest. I’m not a browser. I like to find what I want and head on out. So used bookstores drove me nuts.

      And I’m definitely with you about e-books. I would NEVER go back. Never, ever, ever. I LOVE e-books and their accessiblity, ease of purchase and prices.

      Not to mention storage.

  3. Boo hoo hoo. The wheel turns. Time moves on.

  4. I miss pneumatic tubes, but hey, Internet….

  5. Madam, you are a member of an ever-shrinking group: those who care about being cultured just for the sake of being cultured. Try reviewing the circulation of The New Yorker over the last 20 years.

  6. So? Kroch’s and Brentano’s, Stuart Brent, WaldenBooks, all those places are gone in Chicago. Man up, NYC. Culture exists in flyover country, and we’re all coping with bookstore and chain closures.

  7. Some days, the comments to PV come very close to groupthink. Today is one of those days. And I’ve found this instance of groupthink offensive & it makes me angry.

    The writer of this New Yorker piece was indulging in a bit of nostalgia. Expressing her feeling that something pleasant in the world has passed, never to return. Not ranting about how the world — or the Internet, or Amazon — stole something from her. She’s sad that something has gone, probably never to return. That’s something you find yourself doing, willy-nilly, when you get older. And one can indulge in nostalgia while accepting change — which is something you learn as you get older too.

    Yet every comment to this article prior to mine was written as if this were yet another rant about how the poor, misunderstood big six publishers were just not making enough money to be happy & needed legal protection from their stupidity. Or a government subsidy of some sort.

    I honestly doubt any of the arrogant commentators ever visited a real bookstore back in the day, when some existed that were a pleasure to visit & spend too much time in. Anyone who has experienced that, understands why the writer mourns their passing, & wouldn’t be writing the stupid & hateful things they wrote.

    I’ve said all I have to say on this matter.

    • I honestly doubt any of the arrogant commentators ever visited a real bookstore back in the day, when some existed that were a pleasure to visit & spend too much time in.

      Yeah. A blog where most of the commenters are professional writers clearly is full of yokels who never went into a good bookshop in their lives. We’re all a bunch of illiterate cretins, obviously. Oh, and ‘stupid and hateful’ to boot.

      Give your head a shake, Mr. Burling. Someone in this thread is being stupid and hateful, and it’s not who you think it is.

  8. Well, like I said to Donald above, I don’t share the nostalgia for these bookstores.

    That said, I thought this was a well-written, poignant article. It is hard to lose something we love.

    Especially as we age! There are many businesses I loved as a child that are gone now. It’s sad.

    On the plus side – I think there will be a niche in the market for speciality bookstores, so some may come back.

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