Saturday, April 23, 2011

Olde New York, 1999.

One of the things I miss in our the modern world is that there are fewer and fewer bookstores and less and less time to browse in them. My New York, the New York I grew up in and aged in, is the story of these places disappearing. Sometimes I take a long walk home from work and it's like working past old girlfriend's houses. That's where Books & Company was, that's where Colosseum was, that was the home of Doubleday, Scribners, Bretanos.

One of the best of those now-malled (mauled) bookstores was Gotham Book Mart, just about the only non-diamond-seller on 47th Street between 5th and 6th--the center of New York's Diamond exchange. Gotham had the great advantage of being family owned, and they owned the five story building they had cluttered with books and memories. You could spend the day there.

Outside of Gotham there was a sign, shown above, designed by the great artist/cartoonist John Held, Jr. "Wise Men Fish Here," it reassured. And they did. The store was populated by many great writers who made it their home away from home in New York. (Starbuck's made a big thing about people needing a "Third Place," a location that wasn't home or work. For many people the Third Place used to be stores like Gotham.)

Gotham was the closest bookstore to Ogilvy when Ogilvy was on 8th and 49th. It was still a schlep, but whenever I had the time, or was feeling shitty or needed inspiration, I would head over there. There was a bookseller at Gotham called Flip, Phillip was his proper name, but it was always Flip you looked for.

Over the years Flip and I became friends. I was writing a book on pirates in the late 90s and Flip was one of the world's experts on pirate literature. As the saying goes, he had forgotten more about pirates than I'll ever know.

I thank Flip frequently for turning me onto the fiction of the great Raphael Sabatini, who wrote "Captain Blood," "The Sea Hawk," and of course, "Scaramouche."

"Scaramouche," Flip told me had the greatest opening sentence in English literature including "Moby Dick." "He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad."

Gotham closed around 2005 and moved to nicer, smaller quarters on 46th Street between Madison and 5th. They never fit in that location. Instead of the mayhem and serendipity of their original location, they were neat, oaky and organized. They went out of business in a great auction of their stock that I had to miss.


Anonymous said...

Colosseum across from Bryant Park. I remember it well.

geo said...

Oh, no Anonymous. It was originally on Broadway and 57th. Before it closed for good it moved to 6th and 42nd.