Sunday, January 04, 2009

Bookselling Legend

I noticed on the NYTimes' PaperCuts blog some news about Gotham Book Mart's stock going to Penn, to archives there. It linked to a larger story from the other Times' blog City Room, which linked (and borrowed heavily from) the obituary of the Gotham's founder, who started the history bookstore in 1920 and passed away at 101 in 1989. The founder's name was Frances (Fanny) Steloff, and she sounds amazing, like the kind of integral individual figure, often overlooked, who makes reading, publishing, and bookselling important, exciting, and historic.

First, this is one of her most important contributions:
She championed the experimental and challenged the censors. Her courage in purchasing shipments of the banned ''Lady Chatterley's Lover'' directly from D. H. Lawrence in Italy in the late 1920's and in ordering smuggled copies of ''Tropic of Cancer'' from Henry Miller in Paris during the 1930's led to lawsuits and landmark decisions on censorship.

But what's of larger importance is her creation of a kind of literary greenhouse that allowed such figures to prosper. Tennessee Williams lasted less than a day as a worker there - "he couldn't get here on time in the morning and, also, he wasn't very good at wrapping packages.'' Allen Ginsberg and Leroi Jones worked there, while Theodore Dreiser, John Dos Passos, Stephen Spender, Marianne Moore and Saul Bellow shopped there regularly.

And her story is an incredible one, as someone who came from poverty, stopped formal education in 7th grade, and went on to create this landmark. Her thoughts on it show her true satisfaction with what she created:
''I used to feel bitter and cheated about not having a formal education. But why should I? How could I, no matter what my education, ever have had the wonderful chance to have Thornton Wilder and other people talk to me personally, and right here in my shop! As if they were in their classrooms! I couldn't ask for anything more.''

Amazing! According to the Anais Nin website (yep - another buddy), there is an autobiographical essay by Steloff in the Winter/Spring 1972 issue of Confrontation, but they do not provide a link. Instead, they have a link to a profile of her by Adele Aldridge. I suppose she may not demand a full-length biography, though I'm definitely intrigued.

The photo above had this caption:

The Gotham Book Mart was famous for its literary eminences. A December 1948 party for Osbert and Edith Sitwell (seated, center) drew a roomful of bright lights to the Gotham Book Mart: clockwise from W. H. Auden, on the ladder at top right, were Elizabeth Bishop, Marianne Moore, Delmore Schwartz, Randall Jarrell, Charles Henri Ford (cross-legged, on the floor), William Rose Benét, Stephen Spender, Marya Zaturenska, Horace Gregory, Tennessee Williams, Richard Eberhart, Gore Vidal and José Garcia Villa. (Photo: Gotham Book Mart)

It's a shame that obituaries lead us to these amazing booksellers. I had a similar reaction reading the obituary of Provincetown Book Shop owner Elloyd Hansen in 2007. This is a wonderful bookstore with charming employees, and Hansen's partner who took over after Hansen's death also had some great book and town stories for me when I chatted with him the summer after Hansen's death. But the obituary tells the story of the man who bought this store and ran it at an exciting time, and it led me to further research the store. At that point, I found this interview with John Waters, a personal favorite of mine and a mainstay still in P-town, in which he talks about working at the store one summer in the 1960s:

The third summer,1967, I came back and Elloyd Hansen and Joel Newman offered me a full-time job, which was weird because they were kind of competitors.They sought me out, I don't know why, but probably because I was passionate about books. I decided to work there because it was the only way I could afford the outrageous summer rents.

It was great because, as part of the job, you could have any book as long as you read it. I didn't abuse the policy, but I got free books that I'd never heard of in my life. I also got $100 a week, which was really a fortune then, more money then anyone I knew. But the greatest thing was that every winter they closed up, and I could go anywhere in the country and collect unemployment, and some of the early movies were financed by that.

When I showed my movies in P-Town, the Bookshop let me turn the window into a billboard. Elloyd and Joel were such good bosses they didn't care if my friends hung out. Mary Vivian Pearce and David Lochary would come in every single day.

These stores add more to culture than just sell books. That's important to keep in mind as we struggle with a new economic downturn. Support your local independent!

(It's also of interest to see this line in her obituary from 1989 regarding the store, technically open until 2007: "It is still thriving at 41 West 47th Street in Manhattan, an anachronism in a time of failing independent bookstores." Yep, that was 20 years ago, folks, and these stores are still going!)

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