The Long, Slow Death of Bookshops


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February 16, 1961, Vol. VI, No. 17

Book Row

By John Wilcock

In a leisurely age that seems not so long ago, husbands and wives could always find plenty to do in the area around Broadway and 10th Street. The big attraction was the splendid old store of John Wanamaker with its 10 floors of frippery and folderol designed to absorb hours of any fashionable lady’s time. And for the husbands, to make their wait not only palatable but actually pleasant, there were Fourth Avenue’s antiquarian book stores. That period – the 20’s and 30’s – was the golden age for Booksellers’ Row, and it’s a time, unfortunately, that has passed forever. Wanamakers is gone, burned down four years ago, and the promoters, speculators, and builders who have been laying waste to the whole region are now beginning to nibble at the edges of Booksellers’ Row itself.

Some bookmen have already moved out, their shops demolished or their leases transferred to other businesses able to pay the rising rents more commensurate with those of the rising apartment buildings which are beginning to fill the district. Of the shops that remain, at least half are living on borrowed time, paying their rents from month to month and always uncertain of how much longer their buildings will remain standing.

Twenty-two members still pay dues to the Fourth Avenue Booksellers’ Association, but wit one-third of these now situated either on Broadway or on side streets off the Avenue, even the name is no longer quite accurate.

There have been crises before, of course. Bernard Kraus, owner of the Raven Book Shop which six years ago moved into the 12th floor of a Broadway office building (no. 752) after 20 years of Fourth Avenue and 10th Street comments: “It’s a dying business all right; it’s been a dying business for at least 5000 years.”

As a matter of fact, it isn’t even the first time that the Fourth Avenue location has been threatened. There were a good many second-hand bookstores there at the turn of the century. They moved out when the city began building the subway and found a welcoming haven around West 23rd Street. But as business moved uptown, the sidewalk bookstalls caused increasing traffic congestion, and rather than abandon what had become a trademark, the booksellers moved back, one by one, to the broad sidewalks of Fourth Avenue.

Today, the indestructible stalls still line the sidewalks with their unlikely bargains – “Consumer Reports” for 1958, “Theodore Roosevelt’s Letters to his Children,” and “Icarus, or the Future of Science,” written by Bertrand Russell in 1924…

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