Sunday, December 28, 2014

159. Bookstores Used and Rare

     Used-book stores used to cluster along what was called Book Row, the stretch of Fourth Avenue between East 9th and East 14th Streets in Manhattan, most of them small stores staffed by the proprietor and one or two friends who viewed their stores as more hobby than business, prompted by a love of books.  The books were usually a jumble in no apparent order, obliging you to poke and poke about in hopes of finding something of interest.  There were old prints too – usually from the nineteenth century – and on occasion I bought one.  Somewhere I still have a picture of a dainty Victorian maiden celebrating May Day, so charming in its insipidity that I couldn’t resist.  And once I was looking for a print of a Putnam County mansion belonging to Wall Street financier Daniel Drew’s son, which I wanted for an illustration for my biography of Drew, and -- wonder of wonders! – I found it at the Pageant Book and Print Shop.

     The proprietor of the Pageant came to know my interest in nineteenth-century New York and, the moment I entered, pointed me to the relevant counters and bins.  Also from Pageant, and added to the “clothing” folder in my file of background material for my historical fiction, were two French fashion prints, one from the Journal des Demoiselles showing two supremely elegant young women in voluminous hoopskirts, and the other from Les Modes Parisiennes showing two more young ladies in elaborately decorated hoops.  Never was the female form adorned so lavishly and hidden so amply.  And of course there were the items I should have bought and didn’t, to my later vast regret, as for instance, also at Pageant, a dictionary of Homeric Greek.  Later, when I undertook to read Homer in the original (yes, I actually did!), it would have helped me hugely; without it, I had to poke through my lexicon of Greek to find the Homeric terms, which was frustrating and time-consuming. 

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Le Journal des Demoiselles, 1857.  Voluminous skirts, lacy finery, faces blandly identical.

     But the day of the Fourth Avenue bookstores is long since gone.  From the 1960s on, one by one they were forced out by rising rents, as the neighborhood was invaded by antique warehouses, art supply stores, and pricey coop apartments.  And forced out as well by mortality, as the aging dealers retired or died off.  But the old Pageant, my favorite, has survived; in 1999 it went virtual and is now housed in a website sponsored by the daughters of one of the original founders.  They boast of offering worldwide access to items formerly found by patient book and print seekers crawling up ten-foot ladders or sprawling on dusty floors flipping through drawers and boxes.  True enough, but the crawling and sprawling were part of the adventure of the old stores. 

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     In 1957 one of the old Fourth Avenue bookstores moved to another location and is a thriving enterprise today: the Strand Bookstore at Broadway and East 12th Street, which, founded in 1927 and run successively by three generations of the same family, claims to have 18 miles of new, used, and rare books, some on site and some in a warehouse.  No cozy little bookstore, this, but a modern enterprise with over 240 unionized employees and 2.5 million books on every conceivable subject, plus an array of gifts including coffee mugs, calendars, tote bags, souvenirs, and gift cards virtual and real.  And you don’t have to come to the store, since you can shop online.  As for rent increases, no problem: it owns the building.

Beyond My Ken

     I’ve often browsed there in the past, glancing at the outdoor stands of cheapies before pressing in to explore the tables and floor-to-ceiling shelves of books on three floors: fiction old and new, comic books, cookbooks, travel books, art books, science books, biographies and memoirs, rare and unrare books, bestsellers, children’s books, staff picks, recent arrivals and dusty old classics.  And a public restroom.  On the wall today, so the website indicates, is a sign: “IF  YOU  GO  HOME  WITH  SOMEBODY,  &  THEY  DON’T  HAVE  BOOKS,  DON’T  F**CK  ’EM.”  And they even hold weddings there: two confessed book nerds report online that it was the wedding of their dreams.  Most of the online reviews are raves, with one recent negative: “Horrible.  I went in there today and I was kicked out without being told why.”  There’s a story there, but who knows what it is.    In the reviews two small negatives recur: the store tends to be crowded, and there aren’t many places to sit.  My own experience there is, at best, mixed; more of that anon.

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The Strand basement.

     The Strand is a super modern enterprise and as such has survived.  But in this huge, sprawling city are there no small independent used-book stores such as those once found on Fourth Avenue?  Yes, but they aren’t clustered together.  You’ll find them at scattered locations especially on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and in Brooklyn.  The reviews of these places praise the books to the skies, and savor the atmosphere of books crammed in all over the place, so that even in this age of chain stores and the Internet, you can see, touch, and smell old books.  Some patrons complain of the utter disorganization of some of the stores, but others enjoy the serendipity effect, not knowing what buried treasure they may find.  Here, if anywhere, you can experience again the rich clutter of the old Fourth Avenue stores.

     But there is a catch: while some reviews praise the staff, others are resentful and caustic.  Consider these selections from online Yelp reviews of Spoonbill & Sugartown in Brooklyn, East Village Books and Mast Books on the Lower East Side, and Westsider Rare and Used Books on the Upper West Side.

Stood for almost two minutes in front of the girl at the cashier who was NOT in the mood to help me find a book. In short, great store for browsing but don't expect any service here. They lost my patronage.

The woman working behind the counter should stick to working with books and not with people.  The moment I walked in, I felt as though she was convinced I was going to steal something.  When I explained I was looking for something by Baurdrillard [Baudrillard], she corrected my pronunciation. I know how to speak French, bitch, but I'm not in France, I'm in Brooklyn: so cut me some slack.   Not that she had any books by him in stock, anyway, so a simple "no" would have sufficed…. Despite the mothball stuffed biddy behind the counter, this bookstore had a really great selection of harder to find books: new, used, first editions, etc.

The guy working here was incredibly and unnecessarily rude to us. They have a nice selection of books, but we walked away on principle. 

If I could give it zero I would, but one star for the cat.

Sometimes, the bored ex-hippie working the register is super helpful, and sometimes it's the bored current-hipster who doesn't like that you're interrupting his “inspiration time.”

Staff is sullen and unhelpful…. Books listed via their Amazon site are nowhere to be found. And better yet, their staff have no clue about that -- they're too busy surfing the web ... or something. 

I've been to many used bookstores in many places. This is the only one I would make a point of avoiding.

Completely inattentive employees--which seems to be the standard for NY establishments, in my experience--no greeting, no asking if I needed help, no "good-bye."  The one guy I saw working literally never looked up from his computer the entire time I came in.  Crappy/non-existent customer service aside the store is totally disorganized.

I came by to sell back some books about New York City history that I had. The man who worked there ignored me for about 5 minutes, and finally I got him to help out. He only wanted one of the books, one that was brand new and I probably paid $20 for originally. He took forever to look at them and then offered me $1. Even though I shouldn't have, I gave him the book because he was so weird and creepy that I just wanted to get out of there. I never leave reviews for places, but there was a hand-written note on the door asking customers to write a review on Yelp. So here's your review, jerk!

Today I bought a few books and I thought I was going to have to get the paddles on the guy who was working there, jump-start his heart. But at least he charged me correctly.

I typically have good experiences in this store, but I just left and am still feeling shaken up by the way I was treated by the saleswoman.  From the moment my friend and I walked in, she told us she couldn't help us find what we were looking for several times, and similarly told other customers in a rude tone of voice that she couldn't help them, couldn't take large bills, didn't know where anything was located, etc. After she rang up my purchase, I presented a 30% off coupon and she scoffed at me and condescendingly said, "Seriously?! You can't pay $4.36?!" When I smiled and told her that every penny counts, she said, "Yeah, for us too," rolled her eyes, and muttered expletives under her breath about me. I will have to be desperate to return here.

     To his credit, the owner of Westsider Rare and Used Books reads the reviews and sometimes comments on both positive and negative ones.  Responding to one negative one, he noted that many of the negative reviews were from disgruntled people trying to sell books that Westsider simply can’t use.  He also conceded that he and his staff, assailed constantly by would-be sellers, can be brusque, and understands the frustration of someone lugging books all the way across town only to have them rejected.  Finally, he pledged to be gentler with sellers from now on.  All of which may explain a lot of the unpleasant interactions in all the stores.  And to be fair, his store gets more positive than negative reviews.

     And now I’ll add my two cents about the legendary Strand.  Though it garners good reviews, I have to take exception regarding the staff.  I have bought and sold books there over the years, but only once in all that time did anyone thank me.  One young squirt had to be persuaded that it was acceptable to give a receipt for a sale, and then did so with thinly veiled hostility.  And the book buyers have always been joyless and soulless automatons, spitting out prices for the books without a trace of human feeling.  Worse still, one once suggested that I was trying to sell him one of Strand’s own books that I had just snatched from the shelves.  By calling to witness the guard at the entrance, who saw me come in with the book, I proved him wrong, but did the creep then apologize?  No, he just bought the book.  This was a while back, so maybe things are better today.  At least, they now have a separate entrance for anyone wanting to sell them a book, which might eliminate the problem I encountered.

     One bookstore that gets mostly rave reviews is Argosy Books at 116 East 59th Street on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.  Founded in 1925 (two years before the Strand) and now, like the Strand, in its third generation of family ownership, it has a six-floor building in midtown and a large warehouse in Brooklyn.  Even older than the Strand, Argosy specializes in old and rare books, prints, and maps, and therefore differs from the Strand, which offers a much wider selection.  

     Argosy also offers “books by the foot” for interior decorators, architects, model homes, TV and theater sets, and individuals in need of an instant library.  Their price for this item?  $30 and up per foot for cloth-bound books, and $250 and up for antique leather.  So for folks who want books around for atmosphere but can’t be bothered to read them, here is the solution. 

     Yet even Argosy gets an occasional bad review triggered not by the books but the staff, as for instance:

Have dealt with them in the past and my family has bought many books from them.  I called to get a second opinion on a first edition book we had an offer from Baumann Rare Books on, when I mentioned that to the older woman buyer she said that "We wouldn't be interested then." This is the second time I have spoken with her over the phone, she is very rude and condescending. I will never deal with them again!

With old rare books outside my price range and huffy and reluctantly helpful middle aged female staff, Argosy boasts the rude personnel, narrowish shelves, old New Yorkers browsing, and stuffy book smell of a true New York bookstore.

If there's anything off-putting about Argosy it might be the indifference of the people working there, but that's part of the experience. You don't go to a place like this for customer service, you come here to dream, gamble, and lose yourself. What treasures you find depend on the amount of digging you're willing to do.

     In fairness to all the stores, I’ll grant that everyone has good days and bad.  And since there are some positive reviews about staff as well, maybe it depends on who you happen to encounter.  And my one contact with Argosy, when they turned down an e-mail offer of three rare books, was not unpleasant; their reply, in fact, was courteous and considerate.  But the negative reviews of all the stores show real verve and spirit, and also prove that even in the age of ubiquitous chain stores and the Internet, there are readers who are happy browsing in little independent stores by the minute or the hour.

     And who exactly are these browsers, who come in to kill time or take shelter from the rain, or to look for some hard-to-find item, or simply for the fun of poking about among acres of old books?  Bookworms, no doubt, like myself.  From an early age I had my nose in a book, while other boys were out scrimmaging in vacant lots, or indulging in the raucous jubilance of baseball.  And for that preference – or should I say obsession? – I paid a heavy price, since the oddball reaps insults and scorn.  But we persist, we bookworms, and find our refuge, our fulfillment, our paradise in those grubby little stores crammed with musty, dusty books. 

     And of course we end up with too many books: shelves and shelves of them, and sometimes boxes and bins as well, and even that last resort, the oven.  No, I and my partner Bob haven’t appropriated the oven, but we are so overloaded with books that we’ve agreed to sell some 250 to 300 of them, which will still leave us with hundreds more.  And to whom will we sell them?  To the used-book stores, if they're interested (so far, they aren't).  And what they don’t take, we’ll donate.

     Bookstores like Argosy that specialize in rare books constitute a category all their own, and the king of the trade in New York is surely Bauman Rare Books at 535 Madison Avenue, with branches in Philadelphia and (do people really read there?) Las Vegas.  Founded in 1973 by Natalie and David Bauman, the store offers highly personalized service by experienced professionals, and over 4,000 books, maps, and prints from the fifteenth through the twentieth centuries, all of them thoroughly researched, so that collectors can purchase with confidence.  Their website photographs show a spacious, elegantly appointed interior with dark wood-panel walls and shelves housing beautifully bound old books behind glass – a striking contrast with the cluttered little bookstores mentioned earlier.  And among the offerings are first editions of Chaucer or a Shakespeare folio.  I contacted them once about three rare books I wanted to sell – the same three I offered to Argosy, and admittedly a long shot.  The books weren’t right for them, but they answered in a courteous and helpful letter, suggesting where I might learn the books' current value and sell them.  The gentleman – or gentlewoman – of the trade.

     One might assume you don’t go to Bauman just to browse, unless ready to spend a small fortune on books, which is why, to date, I have never set foot on the premises.  But the online reviews prove me wrong, for book lovers of modest means tell of visiting Bauman’s hushed interior the way one goes to a museum, and even having the glass doors unlocked so they can touch the treasures within, while being well received by a friendly and well-informed staff.  Still, I’m not tempted; my focus has always been on a book’s content, not its packaging – that is, not on the binding, the date, the edition, and all the other things that make a book rare or unique.  I want a book to be an old friend that I can handle with ease, not a treasure to be enshrined on a shelf and rarely touched.

Beautiful to look at, but I wouldn't buy.

You never know what you may find inside an old binding.
     Finally I’ll mention another store that I just discovered in my neighborhood: Left Bank Books at 17 Eighth Avenue, a short ten-minute walk from my apartment.  It specializes in hardcover literary first editions, especially fiction, poetry, drama, and literary nonfiction, but offers quality used books, mostly hardcover, on many subjects, in what one reviewer calls “an organized sprawl.”  Why first editions?  Because, the owner explains, they give you a feeling of being there when the book was new.  It’s a small store where four or five people browsing are almost the limit, but a chair in back offers refuge to a browser with time to kill.  You don’t get the musty smell of old books so beloved of bibliophiles, since the books tend to be of fairly recent vintage, but there are treasures to discover.  Often seated near the entrance is the owner, Kim Herzinger, who fields queries and buys books in a courteous and knowledgeable way, and with a sense of humor.  Thanks to him, I suspect, Left Bank Books gets uniformly good Yelp reviews, in contrast to so many of other stores where the staff leaves much to be desired.  I have browsed there recently and sold him two books, and hope to be back soon, delighted to find such a store within easy walking distance.

    Left Bank Books NY
    Left Bank Books
  • Left Bank Books NY
  • Left Bank Books NY
    Cozy, but crowded.
    Left Bank Books
     Note on me and WNYC:  The holiday season is a time for giving ... and for soliciting givers.  As viewers of this blog know, in my modest way I help support two listener-supported local radio stations, WBAI and WNYC.  WBAI is in the throes of yet another financial crisis and, as a result, is constantly changing its programs, for better and for worse.  When in need of calm and stability, I take refuge with WNYC.  But when their most recent plea for donations came, it occurred to me to ask if they take money from Monsanto or Goldman Sachs, two outfits I don't approve of.   So far, no response.  And therefore, so far, no donation.  So it goes in the world of nonprofits.

     Coming soon:  Divorce, New York style.

     ©  2014  Clifford Browder