Monday, March 20, 1995
Tales of the Booksellers' Row, Part I 3/20/1995
The other day, walking on 9th St., East of 4th Ave, across from Cooper Union, I was thunderstruck to see that Pageant Bookstore had disappeared from the face of the earth. I don't know why I should have been - rising real estate values have driven out all of the 20-odd antiquarian booksellers who flourished in the early 1950s in our area, mostly along the 4th Ave Boooksellers' Row, south of 14th Street. Pageant was the one which stubbornly clung to the territory, moving only around the corner from 59 Fourth Ave, where Sid Solomon and Chip Chafetz had originally held sway in a unique operation. They purchased, at auctions, damaged copies of incunabula (books printed before 1500 AD) and other typographical rarities, tore them up and sold them page by page for framing. Ditto pages of missals on vellum, maps and picture books. I still have somewhere pages of the Hartmann Schedel's Nuremberg Chronicles (1493-97), a particularly beautifully printed and woodcut-illustrated folio, of which Sid and Chip must have chopped up a dozen copies.
The partners cleverly recognized that there was a living in reprinting out-of-print scholarly books in limited but steady demand by college libraries. New colleges were springing up to accomodate the baby-boom generation. They studied want lists of titles and generated a compendium of books worth reprinting, as soon as they would be out of copyright (many of them were already). That was in the days when publishers did not guard their back-lists. The boys formed Cooper Square Publishers, and their bibliography series editor for a while was Dr. S.R.Shapiro, a scholar of firm opinions, who once tried to buck the venerable American Book-Prices Current, auction price publishers, by issuing a mammoth rival, showing all books sold in auction for more than $3, of which I have the one 5-year volume (1940-45) that was published.
Up the block from Pageant, at 57, was Biblo and Tannen, who specialized in fiction and also had a major scholarly and Edgar Rice Burroughs reprint series publishing house, Canaveral Books. I remember my wife's aunt, who lived on limited funds, once discovered that B&T had reprinted one of her late husband's Dr. Max Hamburger's books on Aristotelian philosophy. She called them, and Alice, the office manager, thereafter faithfully sent her minor royalty checks. She had less luck with the other American and German publishers who reprinted Uncle Max's works.
On the next block, between 10th and 11th Sts, was Ben Bass' Strand Bookstore, a smallish room. Ben and his son Fred really had to be brave to move, late in 1963, to the cavernous sales room and basement that they presently occupy at corner Broadway and 12th. But it worked, and they now have more floors, more workers (160) and more books (2 1/2 Million) than all the members of 4th Ave Booksellers Association combined had in their heyday. It is also one of the two NYC bookstores with a 3rd generation member of the founding family on staff.
The other one is Samuel Weiser's Occult Books, now on East 24th St. near Lexington Ave., once one of the 4th Ave. mainstays. Their space on 4th near 14th St. was tiny, and the dapper Sam, never seen without a small cigar between his lips, bought heavily, so books had to be turned over fast, and many an 18th Century calfskin volume of Addison and Steele's essays as well as older French and German books ended on the 35c stand outside, bookscouts' favorite hunting grounds. Someplace I have a small disbound German woodcut book of saints, with a rhyme for each, which I think could be an incunabulum, bought for 35c from Weiser's. But that purchase was around 1952.
The construction of an apartment house forced Sam to move to a huge, main floor and mezzanine store on Broadway between 13th and 14th Sts, with a basement from which his son Donald conducted their Occult book reprint and catalog business. The store stayed open late, and it was there that we after-work book afficionados gathered to shoot the breeze and exchange book arcana with Sam's brother Ben. It was there that I lost a nice "sleeper" - a thin appreciation of Ezra Pound (N.Y., 1918), written anonymosly, which I knew to be the second published book of T.S.Eliot's. I had left it by the cash register, and it was gone. I fussed no end, and one of the regulars, Bruce, an older man, commiserated with me, and helped me look. Bruce had once lost consciousness, due to anemia, while browsing in the Americana section on the Mezzanine, and greeted Ben downstairs the next morning. A year later Robert Wilson of the Phoenix Bookshop on Cornelia Street published a letter in a trade publication, The Antiquarian Bookman, about a knowledgable thief of first editions, and the description fitted Bruce, who had meanwhile disappeared. This explained my Eliot, and certain losses that Ben had experienced. But that was not the last of Bruce, as you will read in another installment.
The Booksellers Row was a wonderful institution, a bazaar, a school in book lore. Bookdealing attracts a lot of offbeat people, ranging from savants to hucksters. I came to the world of books as a youngster, and stayed close to it, but not as a real part of it, for many years. Tales abound of H. P. Kraus and A.S.W.Rosenbach buying expensive books from impoverished European monasteries and noblemen and reselling them to rich collectors. That is not the environment of the collectors, book scouts and rascals I'll write about. My peers were there for the thrill of arcane knowledge, discovery and possession; to match wits with the pros, and to make incidental gains when they could bear to part with some minor rarity. But the romance! Consider accidentally discovering in a thrift shop a copy of the anonymously printed Tamerlane and Other Poems by a Bostonian (1837), Edgar Allan Poe's first book, and paying off the mortgage with the proceeds from selling it! By the way, beware, Tamerlane has been reprinted in exact facsimile, and copies found today are from that source.
Wally Dobelis adds that the Pageant, run by Sid Solomon's daughter Shirley, has moved its pages of incunabula to 110 East Houston St.