Lust for Lit


On April 15, 1987, a huge crowd filtered into the century-old brownstone that housed Books & Co., Jeannette Watson’s eclectic bookshop on upper Madison Avenue, to hear Walker Percy read from The Thanatos Syndrome. “Everyone tried to get upstairs to get closer to him,” Watson recalls midway through Bookstore, Lynne Tillman’s elegiac chronicle of Books & Co.’s turbulent history. “I felt like the bouncer at Studio 54.”

A decade later, doomed by a prolonged real estate battle with the Whitney Museum of Art and an increasingly homogenized book trade geared toward chain stores and digital commerce, Books & Co. would close for business, vanishing into the mists of New York literary history. For 20 years, however, it was home to an unlikely cross-section of Upper East Side society, lit crit junkies, Hollywood celebrities, writers on the cultural fringes, and the international literati whose readings and frequent appearances helped put the store on the map.

Presented as Watson’s autobiography and interspersed with comments from friends, floor clerks, writers, and clients, Bookstore belongs to the genre of Manhattan society oral history best exemplified by George Plimpton’s biographies of Truman Capote and Edie Sedgewick (the latter cowritten with Jean Stein). It’s a narrative strategy that occasionally misfires. Unlike Plimpton, who shaped his oral biographies around the meteoric trajectories of Capote’s and Sedgewick’s flaming careers, Tillman has chosen a far more diffuse subject. Sweeping the reader into the cacophony of cocktail party chatter, publishing shop talk, and literary discussion that defined the saloniste ambience of the place in its heyday, Tillman hovers outside the text, allowing the occasionally tedious logorrhea of some patrons to eclipse the story of Books & Co. “I’m what’s called an intellectual,” Richard Howard tells us in a long digressive account of his own family background, which he punctuates with a poem he wrote about a bookstore where Hart Crane used to shop. Fran Lebowitz is given too much space to ramble about the advent of chain bookstores.

But Tillman has amassed a wealth of juicy, and often sharply juxtaposed, vignettes from the bookstore’s past. Allen Ginsberg clips his nails at a reading by Gary Snyder and Harold Brodkey has his hair cut in the back; Michael Jackson piles out of a van with a team of bodyguards and buys $1000 worth of books and Dustin Hoffman stops customers cold with an impromptu poetry reading; anthropologist Tobias Schneebaum brandishes two human skulls at a reading of his work on cannibalism in the South Pacific; Watson sneaks off to visit a swing club.

Tillman also provides a tart account of the store’s beginings, opening with Watson’s privileged childhood in Greenwich as the daughter of the larger-than-life Tom Watson, head of IBM and a U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union. In 1978, with seed money from her father and a business partner in freewheeling, free-spending, Strand used-bookstore guru Burt Britton, Watson leased two floors of a dilapidated building owned by the Whitney.

The store almost immediately floundered in the wake of a rash of naive business decisions, ranging from an extremely lax bookkeeping system (Tillman is quick to underscore the irony that this scion of the IBM empire never learned to use a computer) to the overstocking of signed editions, which couldn’t be returned. Bailed out by her father, Watson bought back Britton’s share in the store, and built a staff of shrewd book buyers who were so loyal that when two of them decided to marry, they held the ceremony upstairs-and then returned to the cash registers.

Lacking a computerized inventory, Watson’s staff treated the hand-selling of books as a tactile art form, as reponsive to the needs of the neighborhood as to the predilections of such regular clients as Susan Sontag, Albert Murray, Jeanne Moureau, and Woody Allen (who contributes a slim preface to this volume). Given a free mandate to pursue their own interests, book buyers like Peter Philbrook routinely took gambles on obscure European authors, placing massive orders for new books by Umberto Eco, Thomas Bernhard, and Peter Suskind long before they were popular stateside.

In a neighborhood saturated with international fashion emporiums whose rents were upwards of $400,000 a month, Watson fostered a retail environment that became, in the words of Whitney and Guggenheim employee John G. Hanhardt, “a curated space.” At Books & Co., bestsellers were concealed under the stairs, while an entire room was devoted to philosophy and criticism. At a time when monolithic superstores were appearing in affluent neighborhoods across Manhattan, Books & Co. became famous for its idiosyncratic architectural touches, including a giant horseshoe-shaped counter and window displays featuring stuffed coyotes, a bed draped with Watson’s own lingerie, and, in the case of an Iggy Pop reading, a hotel room littered with razor blades and dollar bills.

Despite the glittering facade, the store continued hemorrhaging money. Books & Co.’s struggles to renegotiate its lease with the Whitney were played out in the New York media as a David-and-Goliath war between two major cultural institutions: one a forbidding, windowless fortress and art-world PR machine, the other an impoverished literary oasis, whose Victorian ambience and archly highbrow inventory merrily defied the zeitgeist.

Though the Whitney trustees were characterized as cultural slumlords, Tillman hints that the real situation was far more complicated. It’s hardly surprising, given the museum’s position as a nonprofit in an art world whose government funding has been sharply curtailed, that few of its trustees warmed to the idea of becoming the business partner of a company that would never pay market rent. If today the international shopping clientele traversing Madison Avenue never pause to remember Books & Co., it’s not least because the store itself was always a slightly enchanted lost world within a rapidly shifting corporate environment. Recalling the sacred aura that books held for her as a child, Susan Sontag tells Tillman, “books were the great passport elsewhere. Each one a magic carpet.” As Tillman’s intimate history makes clear, this is an adroit description of Watson’s bookstore itself.