The Gotham Book Mart's Final Chapter?

How the literary landmark came tumbling down—and its hopes to live again

Could it have been just a Sherlockian "death" over the Reichenbach Falls? Was it a Tom Sawyer funeral after all? Did the renowned Gotham Book Mart never actually die? "Something's cooking," said one former employee, reached by phone last week, while another central source spoke optimistically of "important things happening"—implying the possibility of a settlement that would resurrect the store and erase its ugly end.

The obituary was ignominious. In the back of the Business section of May 13's Times, under an announcement for a clearance sale of bras and panties, appeared the notice for a "Marshal's Auction," with tiny print and the wrong name:

>>Tremendous Inventory Books, Furniture, & Memorabilia <<
>> Of The World Famous Literary Landmark <<
Gotham Book Store

Beloved by Joyceans, not landlords
photo: Patricia Sener
Beloved by Joyceans, not landlords

If the notice seemed a little crass—with "furniture" jammed in like a barker's bait, in case the books might be a turn-off—the auction itself made things even worse. Conducted by a city marshal as part of a judgment against Gotham Book Mart's owner, Andreas Brown, for over half a million dollars owed in back rent to the building's landlord, the proceedings were brusque, allowing book buyers only glimpses of hundreds of boxes without labels. "It was ridiculous," says Fred Bass, owner of the Strand bookstore. "There was no way for me to come up with valid prices. . . . Bang, bang, bang, let's get it over with." Unwilling to bid much on the unknown, those who remained to the end watched all of it go for $400,000 to the landlord's lawyer (whose last name happened to be Faust). Veteran auctioneer Eliot Millman offers little sympathy, conjecturing that Brown had been "a haphazard businessman" and brushing aside criticism of the proceedings. "The book market attracts a lot of collectors and quirky-type individuals that get enamored with this kind of merchandise."

How had it come to this? How had a temple of the literary world come tumbling down—a place visited and praised by luminaries, and owned by a man who's been recognized as one of the foremost estate consultants in American literature, a friend of Updike, Philip Roth, and Salinger, to name just a few? Was it simply another sign of the times—independent bookstores unable to compete with chains catering to a public that thinks The Paris Review covers a party girl? Or, as the auctioneer believed—and as some who've known Brown have suggested—had book-loving clouded bookkeeping?

Certainly, Brown and his staff's knowledge of books and authors has often seemed nothing short of miraculous. But all the expertise had not kept financial troubles from dogging the store, on and off, over the course of Brown's ownership. And the ballyhooed move in 2004 from the heart of the jewelry district, where the store had existed for decades, to a bigger, classier space only a short distance away on East 46th Street had not worked out as expected. In July of last year, a month before the city served its eviction notice, I overheard Philip "Flip" Ahrens, a longtime employee, having a conversation on the phone in the store. Under stifling heat (had the air-conditioning been turned off to save money?), he was describing the perilous situation: foot traffic was way down, they were selling very little, and they might rent out the upper floor and move the books somewhere else. Across the room sat Brown, examining a manuscript, and—seemingly oblivious to both the heat and the financial crisis- under discussion—cheerily humming.

"Like Nero," says Peter Soter, chuckling, when told the story. A former Gotham employee who now owns the Morningside Bookshop, Soter had earned Brown's trust and friendship over the years by volunteering to catalogue the contents of hundreds of unopened boxes in the former location. When Brown (who declined to comment for this story) started thinking about selling the place—purchased in 1967 from Frances Steloff, Gotham's founder—it was Soter who helped him search for a new building, urging Brown to head south or west ("midtown is dead for retail books"). "I found him a couple nice spots," Soter says, "one right across from the Flatiron Building, another across from the Chelsea Hotel." But Brown rejected them for various reasons and eventually became a tenant in the swank townhouse on 46th—a perfect match it seemed, having housed for 58 years the rare-book business of H.P. Kraus. The deal, which included an option for Brown to buy the building for a little over $5.5 million, was orchestrated by developer Edmondo Schwartz and former Estée Lauder chief executive Leonard Lauder, a billionaire friend with whom Brown shared a passion for early-20th-century postcards. (Soter recalls the two of them exclaiming over each other's collections "like kids in a candy store.")

But the new location, on a street that's more a passageway than a shopping destination, often stood nearly empty—a sharp contrast to the hubbub you might encounter inside the previous building. The sales falloff only compounded a problem that Soter had tried to correct by unpacking all those boxes: A lot of valuable material wasn't yet available for purchase. Soter recalls, for example, finding "a hundred copies of Transition magazine, mint condition"—Eugene Jolas's avant-garde publication from the '30s, where Finnegans Wake first appeared. A Web listing, ideal for unloading such rarities, hadn't gotten much beyond the planning stages.

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