Each bookstore owner has a definition of literature promoted in his or her shop. For example, in Parnassus on Wheels, the fictional bookseller Roger Mifflin has his own interpretation of literature’s function in society. The character believes that the book is meant to enlighten, enrich, and connect its audience, stating, “there is none so grateful as the man to whom you have given just the book his soul needed and he never knew it” (Morley). In conjunction with this interpretation, many believe that the bookstore should be a place for people to learn which literature should be read and which has less value. Such was the belief possessed by Frances Steloff, who owned and operated Gotham Book Mart for forty seven years. Steloff fits this mold by influencing her customers to read what she sees as “real literature” in her shop. Steloff’s focus on modernist literature, which experimented with new styles and concepts, clashed with her Orthodox Jewish background. Steloff’s ultimate goal was to develop the book into a higher form of art and to educate those around her, which parallels her personal history as well as her business plan at GBM.
Gotham Book Mart was a hub for avant garde literature, in addition to being a center of culture. There were many factors that contributed to the success, popularity, and importance of Gotham Book Mart. Some of these include the literary climate of the early- and mid-20th century, its locations in the heart of New York City, the demand for banned books, as well as the need for a location for authors and artists to congregate. Frances Steloff, however, stands above these factors as being integral to the success of GBM. It would be misguided to suggest that one person could be the sole cause of Gotham’s success; there were many ingredients that went into the mix. However, Steloff’s combination of ambition, persistence, and business-savvy was the kingpin that held the pieces in place. Even after she sold Gotham Book Mart in 1967, the spirit of her bookshop largely remained the same.
Steloff was born in 1887 to a poor Jewish immigrant family in Saratoga Springs, NY. She attended school until the the seventh grade, when she was removed in order to work for a family in the Boston area. Although Steloff’s education ceased, her family kept her intellectually occupied by exposing her to literature. Her father, for example, was a lover of literature who passed his passion onto her. Steloff’s father loved books and would pour over them for hours. There is no doubt that this father fostered his daughter’s passion for reading with his behavior (Rodgers 30). Even when she was a child, Steloff’s relationship with books was certainly one of love and not solely function.
As if inspired by the strong female characters in the classic novels Steloff read after being pulled out of school, she left her family at the age of twenty to move to New York City. Steloff often turned to these strong women during her childhood, where she was faced “adult experiences before she ever entered the teens” (24). These literary and tragic moments “taught her to be independent” (24). By the time she was able to escape her family in Boston and move in with her aunt in New York City, it was 1907. The city itself provided her with a job selling corsets in Loeser’s Department Store.
The break in her education, the inheritance of a passion for literature, and her experience working at Loeser’s, as well as various publishing houses, inspired Steloff to open Gotham Book Mart in 1920. GBM’s first location, a basement-apartment-turned-store at the heart of New York City’s Theater District, became a defining learning experience for Steloff. Not only did she learn about various elements of theater by reading each book that she had in her stock, she also learned to base her business plan —from inventory to events—off of her customers.
GBM’s customers, like Steloff, cherished books on an intellectual and perhaps even spiritual level, instead of just in a utilitarian sense. Often, Steloff purchased the last of someone’s print run and stored those books in the cellar of her shop. She would keep them in storage until enough people deemed them valuable enough to purchase. Books weren’t valued for their practical worth, but for their literary value or ability to enlighten the reader. In this way, books were only valuable if someone ascribed value to them. In the same way her family members were literary guides to her, she was a guide to her customers. This role allowed for Gotham Book Mart to be so successful that it had to take on a newer, bigger location.
Gotham Book Mart spent three years at its second location on 45th St., where it erected its famous “Wise Men Fish Here” sign. This location was also where the tradition of Gotham Book Mart’s “garden parties” started. They began as a series of lectures but eventually became occasions for book releases. While Steloff quickly outgrew this location, her focus on educating her customers through modernist literature continued to define her business. This was not an easy task for a woman entrepreneur during this time, but can be compared to experiences of other female bookstore owners, such as Madge Jenison. Both Jenison and Steloff opened their bookstores in New York in the 1920s. In Madge Jenison’s Sunwise Turn, she talks about this same drive to influence the habits of customers and establish a bookstore. Madge Jenison’s bookstore, like GBM, was a place where people flocked, with the aim of becoming a part of an enlightened atmosphere. This modern-enlightened feel was emphasized by GBM’s contemporary inventory.
The traditions that GBM established in its first two locations carried over to its third location on 47th St. when it moved in 1946. This sparkling address in the Diamond District was where the store called home the longest. When she moved to the bigger and more spacious building in the heart of Manhattan’s Diamond District, her Jewish heritage became an advantage. When the German Nazis invaded the Netherlands as well as Belgium, thousands of Orthodox Jews fled to the United States and brought their diamond businesses with them when they settled in Manhattan. After fleeing from her Jewish heritage as a young woman, Steloff found herself surrounded by a Jewish community once again after moving GBM into the Diamond District. Although there’s no evidence that she attempted to connect with this community, neighboring Jewish store owners were welcoming to the female, Jewish small business owner.
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The new, spacious building was physically larger, but it remained stacked high with books. Additionally, the shop was still a meeting place and sanctuary for literary minds. The homey, yet educated atmosphere created a type of safe haven, a sanctuary, in which readers and writers were able to escape mainstream literature in an effort to further enlighten themselves with contemporary, repressed books.
Steloff’s childhood influences were apparent in the layout of GBM’s third location. The sanctuary was organized into three categories: new, secondhand, and rare. New books were displayed towards the front of the store. These were typically literary magazines or books by new artists that Steloff believed in and thought deserving of some help in starting their careers. Meanwhile, rare books were kept in a locked case, and customers weren’t allowed to open the case or handle the books without employee supervision. Keeping “high value” books in cases and not allowing people to touch them was a tradition Steloff learned from her father. When she was a child, her father “forbid her” to touch the books he saw as having a high value, and also kept them in a case for his own use. While her father’s shelved books were religious, such as the Torah (29), Steloff placed this value on contemporary literature.
Along with contemporary literature, Steloff firmly believed in stocking banned or censored books. These books wouldn’t have necessarily been the kind of books that were read or promoted by the typical Jewish woman. Steloff, though, was by no means typical, and put herself on the line with the law for the kind of literature she believe should have a chance to be read, regardless of its controversial content.
According to Brown, there is a difference in value between what he calls ‘objects’ and ‘things.’ Those who frequented GBM, such as W.H. Auden, Marianne Moore, and Dylan Thomas, would consider books to be objects as opposed to things because “as they circulate through our lives, we look through objects (to see what they disclose about history, society, nature, or culture-above all, what they disclose about us), but we only catch a glimpse of things” (Brown 4). Books can be used in order to look deeper into ourselves and to understand something about society that we can’t get elsewhere. Therefore, the book collector/purveyor has “a relationship to objects which does not emphasize their functional, utilitarian value—that is, their usefulness—but studies and loves them as the scene, the stage, of their useful fate” (Benjamin 60). During her adulthood Steloff, then, was seen as the director who showed customers the books in which he or she could find this insight.
Additionally, Steloff was deeply invested in fostering the growth and promotion of up-and-coming artists—she shared Tebbel’s belief that “as the middle [wo]man…the bookseller is not only the conduit between author and audience, but in the conduct of business [she] is in a position to influence that relationship profoundly, whether for good or ill” (17). Steloff thought of literature as knowledge that connected people, catering to intellectual thinkers and societies. This speaks to the culture that GBM also embodied. This culture being that the customer should be enlightened by the literature he or she discovers in the store. In order to accomplish this, Steloff saw herself as a guide to introduce what she considered “real” literature.
Today, the narrow building at 41 W. 47th Street in the Diamond district is no longer Gotham Book Mart, but continues to cater to the community’s needs. GBM’s former location hosts a jewelry store and a kosher Middle Eastern restaurant. The success of these businesses parallels the area’s demographic, which is mostly Jewish white-collar workers. The reason these workers reside and shop in the district is its close vicinity, a two block walk, to Rockefeller Center, Madison Avenue, and Bryant Park. These locations are like where this population works. As a restaurant and jewelry store, GBM’s former location continues to act as a place of service. However, instead of serving education, it provides food and jewelry. The Middle Eastern restaurant advertises “speedy service,” which fits the needs of business people in need of fast service, close to work during their brief lunch breaks. Meanwhile, the diamond store provides a place for white-collar workers and tourists to purchase fine jewelry. To this day, the building hosts small businesses with Jewish owners.
Altogether, GBM’s culture of serving customers via enlightenment and education found in books spotlights the reason for the bookstore’s early success that started at the first location. GBM was “the material setting for social relations-the actual shape of place with which people conduct their lives as individuals… It is clear that places almost always have a concrete form… Places then, are material things” (Cresswell 7). In that way, it became a place where people could come together for social interactions and learning. Truly, GBM was a community and “a physical place and a set of ideals juxtaposed to the world…implies social bonds based on effective ties and mutual support” (Miller 119). Customers in societies, as well as Steloff herself, supported each other’s learning in this social space. Due to this mutual support between Steloff and her customers, GBM was able to be successful. Upon opening her first store, Steloff asked a dear friend how she would know what books to sell. His reply was one that created GBM’s definition of literature, and ultimately the culture of her bookstore: “Your customers will educate you.” This advice, and lifelong pursuit of education, shaped Steloff’s role as well as the purpose, culture, and goals of GBM.
Book / Articles
Brown, Bill. “Thing Theory.” Critical Inquiry Vol. 28, No. 1. p 1-22.
Cresswell, Tim. Place: A Short Introduction. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub, 2004. Print.
Madge Jenison. The Sunwise Turn.
Miller, Laura J. Reluctant Capitalists: Bookselling and the Culture of Consumption. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006. Print.
Morley, Christopher. Parnassus on Wheels. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1955. Print.
Rogers, W. G. Wise Men Fish Here: The Story of Frances Steloff and the Gotham Book Mart. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1965. Print.
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