Vol. 10 No. 2
Please note: As web publication of the newsletter often does not coincide with actual publication date, some outdated items have been removed. Please refer to the printed version of the newsletter for those articles.
MWBH Board Minutes and Financial Reports will be found in the Members only area.
Morphing the Newsletter
Dear MWBH member,
This issue of the MWBH newsletter is the last to be mass-printed and distributed.The next and subsequent issues of the MWBH newsletter will be published only on the MWBH web site, 3 times a year: March 1, August 1, and December 1. An email notification will be sent to members once a new newsletter is available on the web site. Board minutes and financial reports will be posted on the site when they are ready, rather than being included in the newsletter.
Members that do not receive email can request that a hard copy of all reports and newsletters be mailed to them.
These changes will result in the newsletter being freed from space constraints. So if you have a lengthy article or review you’d like to submit, go right ahead and send it to me at email@example.com(smaller articles accepted as well!) Please send your article in the body of your email, as text — no attachments, please. Deadline is two weeks before the publication dates.
If you have an item that is time sensitive, and doesn’t fit into the timetable of newsletter publication, please send it via email to the MWBH Coordinator, Joycelyn Merchant, at firstname.lastname@example.org and she will put it up on the web site as soon as possible.
…And a Five-cent Sandwich
A review by Joel Hyde
Book Row: A History of the Antiquarian Book Trade
by Marvin Mondlin and Roy Meador. New York: Carroll and Graf, 2003. 400pp., hb. $28.00
This is the history of the dealers who sold used and rare books along and near Fourth Avenue in Manhattan, especially from about 1890 to about 1970, and whose stores came to be referred to collectively as Book Row. Mondlin, a book dealer since 1951, and Meador, a long-time writer on the antiquarian book business, have written an affectionate tribute to the men and women who ran shops on Book Row. Their story ends up being a meditation on what Jane Jacobs would call the death and life of a great American city.
In their heyday the Book Row dealers made a contribution to the life of their city that is difficult to measure. That contribution, for Mondlin and Meador, was inseparable from the idiosyncratic personalities personalities of those dealers, and I found the most enjoyable part of the book to be the author’s stories about Book Row dealers at work. Among the dealers they describe was the irascible Peter Stammer. When the young David Randall bought an inscribed book from Stammer, for a price that suggested Stammer had missed the inscription, Randall made the mistake of showing Stammer what he had missed. Stammer took the book out of his hands, tore out the inscribed page, and handed the book back to him. (He also later hired Randall to work for him.)
At the opposite temperamental pole from Stammer was Alfred F. Goldsmith, who once insisted on paying John T. Winterich what Winterich thought was a ridiculously high price for some books he mainly wanted to get rid of. While Goldsmith was not noted for his money sense, many people recalled the kindness and openness he showed them — especially when they were young, and found much of the rest of Book Row hostile to their presence. “ Goldsmith,” Winterich later wrote, “was the poorest—or possibly the best—bookseller of my acquaintance.
Remembered with similar affection was world-renowned cookbook specialist Eleanor Lowenstein, who “was never really interested in cooking,” and served canned Campbell’s soup to guests who stayed for lunch. She was also know for the doggedness of her book searches. A request for a book might result in a call or note from her more than a decade later.
Maybe the most precocious Book Row dealer was art book specialist Andrew Hacker, who sold discarded magazines to book dealers when he was in his mid-teens, opened his own bookstore at nineteen, and joined with a partner to open a store on Book Row at twenty-one. Through his business Hacker met the likes of Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock. He ended up championing their art in the late 1940’s when he moved his store to midtown Manhattan and added an art gallery.
Another specialist, Walter Goldwater—who sold left-wing literature and pioneered in the selling of African American literature — was recruited by Whitaker Chambers to become a Russian spy. Ironically, he was rejected because he knew Russian (and therefore might arouse suspicion). Like Chambers, Goldwater eventually turned away from Stalinism, but unlike Chambers, he remained on the Left and concerned with social change. He hired William French, who shared many of his concerns, at nineteen as an assistant, and later took him on as a partner. Of their partnership, Goldwater said, “I didn’t need somebody who did things exactly perfectly. I needed somebody who cared about the things he was working with.” After Goldwater’s death in 1985, French continued to operate their store, and when he finally closed the shop in 1995, Book Row had all but ceased to exist.
In its heyday, Book Row offered several dozen antiquarian bookstores within walking distance of each other, with several million books on their shelves. The dealers who ran these stores influenced the antiquarian book trade far beyond Manhattan. Generations of antiquarians learned the business on Book Row and many opened shops elsewhere. Even a brief contact with Book Row dealers could prove life-changing. MWBH member Jay Platt told Mondlin and Meador that his interest in the antiquarian book business dated from a visit to Book Row. Platt went into a Book Row shop looking for a scarce title, and the proprietor not only had the title, but knew he had it, and was able to walk directly to it and pull it off the shelf.
Aside from training and inspiring other dealers, the dealers of Book Row influenced the American antiquarian book trade in another important way, by demonstrating the useful-ness of joining together in an organization. In 1942, to fight a silly wartime city ordinance that threatened to hurt their business, they formed the Fourth Avenue Booksellers’ Association, the first antiquarian booksellers’ association in America. Seven years later this organization served as a model for, and some of its members helped found, the ABAA. In 1960 in Manhattan, the ABAA put on the first antiquarian book show held in America, with several Book Row dealers participating.
The New York City that Book Row catered to at its peak was a city on the make. Fortunes were being amassed, sometimes by bibliophiles like Henry E. Huntington, who believed (or were persuaded to believe) that they might be remembered for something other than ruthlessness and chicanery — if only they bequeathed their private libraries to the public. Often these wealthy collectors obtained their books from dealers like Book Row’s George D. Smith, whose piratical business practices easily matched their own.
Mostly it wasn’t the rich, though, who patronized Book Row. For millions of New Yorkers, most education was self-education, and for that to occur, it was useful to have a plentiful supply of good inexpensive books. Many of Book Row’s customers — Albert Einstein and Isaac Bashevis Singer among them — were newly arrived from abroad, and simply need to learn better English. Other customers, of course, were buying books not for betterment but for entertainment, to provide an engrossing escape from their workaday lives. The idiosyncratic diversity of dealers and stores and the sheer quantity of books available on Book Row were a response, as Mondlin and Meador put it, “to the book demands of an international city where human diversity is an indisputable strength.”
By the 1960’s, the world that supported Book Row had begun to disappear. Anchor department stores that had brought foot traffic to the Fourth Avenue area closed or relocated. Paperbacks, bought new, took over an increasing share of the market for inexpensive reading copies of good books. Most importantly, Manhattan became dramatically less of a place for people who were starting out, and more of a place for people who had already arrived.
There was a day in the early part of the century when a small retail space on or near Fourth Avenue could be rented for a few hundred dollars. Boards for shelving could be bought for a few hundred more. In the 1980’s a New York dealer described those days as having no relevance to the modern business environment. “It’s like talking about a five-cent sandwich,” he said. “No one knows what you’re talking about.” Or maybe everyone knows what you’re talking about, but they don’t want to hear it.
Of all the Book Row shops, only the Strand survived, even prospered, in the face of the changes occurring around it. Mondlin and Meador suggest that the Strand saved itself partly by moving to a building which it was eventually able to buy, thus sparing itself from the depredations of a landlord. They also think that it did a better job than other stores of keeping up with the changes in the book business. Their explanation of the Strand’s survival remains for me, however, the least satisfying part of their book. Maybe the fact that Mondlin worked for the Strand made it difficult for him and Meador to write frankly about its inner workings. At any rate, the continuing success of the Strand deserves a book in itself, and I hope Mondlin and Meador will write it.
Book Exhibits Online
If you haven’t already… stop by the SHARP web site: http://www.sharpweb.org. SHARP, the acronym for The Society for the History of Authorship, Reading & Publishing was founded in 1991 to provide a global network for book historians and to encourage the study of book history. Members receive a quarterly newsletter — SHARP News, the annual membership directory, and the hardcover journal, Book History.
You don’t have to be a member to access the web site, which includes links to: publishers’ records; research resources online; book history projects and scholarly societies; online exhibits; teaching resources in the history of print culture; programs in book history; notices and calls for papers; and selected journals.
The online exhibits section is a real treasure. During a recent stop to the site there were links to The Gutenberg Bible at the Ransom Center; Illuminated Manuscripts at the Bodleian; William Hogarth and 18th Century Print Culture (Deering Library, Northwestern Univ.); Unseen Hands: Women Printers, Binders, & Book Designers (Rebecca W. Davidson, Princeton Univ. Lib.); and Books Go To War: Armed Services Editions in WWII (Book Arts Press) among many others. It’s worth a visit!
George Ritzlin Maps and Prints Relocates
George and Mary Ritzlin are packing up shop in Highland Park, IL and preparing to move into a new gallery at 1937 Central Street, Evanston, IL 60201
The actual move is scheduled for August 29, but the new store won’t be open to the public until early September. The Ritzlins’ store in Highland Park will be open only by appointment during August.
The Ritzlins are looking forward to the new space, which is located in an older building with a tin ceiling, and a maple floor with a large section of old hexagonal tiles. George remarked that “the Central Street district has become quite active in recent years with an interesting mix of stores. Also, we’ll be much closer to Chicago and still will be readily accessible to suburban customers.”
Their new phone number will be: 847-328-1966; fax 847-328- 2644. Their email address remains the same: email@example.com
(Editor’s note; During the 1970’s, this same space, 1937 Central, was the home of The Athenaeum Bookshop, proprietors Mort and Sylvia Robbins.)
Keep Those Cards and Letters Coming
Do you have news, gossip, or a gripe that fellow MWBH members might benefit from hearing? Bookhunting stories? Ideas for improving the organization? For improving book fair publicity? Please send us news from your neck of the woods.
Pat Martinak, Newsletter Editor
Alkahest Books & Chicago Rare Book Center
P.O. Box 492
Deerfield, IL 60015