Gotham Book Mart: Small Beginnings to Grand Futures
Frances Steloff founded Gotham Book Mart on January 1st, 1920. Steloff was born in 1877 in Saratoga Springs, New York, and grew up very poor with little access to books. In 1907, she moved to New York City and found a job at a shop selling corsets at Loeser’s Department Store. Loeser’s also had a rare books department that was run by George Mischke. Mischke initiated Steloff into the world of first-editions and print books and later helped her set up her own shop.
In 1920, she bought the lease on a brownstone English basement that was being used as a tailor’s shop in the Theater District. The shop was first named Gotham Book and Art and was located at 128 West 45th Street. The rent was $75 a month and her stock initially consisted of 175 volumes. Her first sale after opening was to Glenn Hunter, who bought a costume book on his way to the Hudson Theater down the street. After his performance, he came back with his roommate and they each bought several more books. After that, many more actors would come into the shop in the evenings after their performances, which prompted her to keep the shop open until midnight. Her clientele dictated her stock and, because they were interested in costume, design, and art books, Gotham became famous for its ability to provide hard-to-get and expensive books on theater. Steloff also began an extensive mail order service, specializing in old and rare books, as well as new books.
One summer in the 20s, just as Gotham was beginning to get started, Steloff remembers, in her memoir In Touch With Genius, how she was afraid the slow summer business would be the end of her shop almost as soon as it had began. A man came up to the window then to look over the books and started making a pile of them. Describing him, she says, “his pants were baggy at the knees, his shirt was open at the neck, his hair was tousseled, and he didn’t look like he could afford to buy any books” but he picked out his books, asked for the price, and then asked for them to be taken to the Hippodrome Theater, where the cashier would pay for them. The books came to $299 and she asked a porter boy to take them down to the theater. After he left with the books, she panicked that she would lose both the money and the books and then the shop would be done for, but the boy came back with all the money. After tipping him a dollar, she had $298 dollars, her customer had been R.H. Burnside, the Stage Director at the Hippodrome, and her bills would be paid.
Like Christopher Morley’s wandering bookseller, Roger, Steloff stocked and sold book based on what the people in the area wanted. While just starting out in the Theater District, her customers were mostly actors and playwrights who were interested in books pertaining to theater and who got off work late into the night. Like Roger’s ability to predict what kinds of books might appeal to what people, Steloff also adapted her stock to fit the clientele. She was also an incredibly shrewd businesswoman in that she had the almost uncanny ability to predict future sales of books. Often, she would buy out what was left of someone’s print run and hold onto them for years until there was a desire for them and they could be sold.
After marrying and returning from her honeymoon, Steloff moved to a larger building at 51 West 47th Street in 1923. Here, the shop’s name was changed to Gotham Book Mart and the famous sign with the phrase “Wise Men Fish Here” hung over the door. Steloff was among friends and other booksellers at her new location. In the same neighborhood were Bretano’s Bookstore, J. Ray Pec, Mischke’s new shop, and Charles P. Everitt right next door to Mischke. The Beacon Book Shop and Chaucer Head Book Shop were also nearby. Cresswell’s simplest explantion of place is “a meaningful location” and, amongst all of these other literary minds, Gotham Book Mart made itself a meaningful place for many different writers and lovers of literature (7). Steloff stocked, sold, and fought for books that had been accused of being obscene, championed small magazines, and helped to gather financial support for writer’s in need, and authors returned Steloff’s admiration by making her shop a place of pilgrimage for literary figures. Christopher Morley, Dylan Thomas, Arthur Miller, Susan Sontag, and Galway Kinnell are just a few of the authors that came in every now and then for books, attended parties, and relaxed in the back yard.
Another point Cresswell talks about in Reading “A Global Sense of Place” is that place is a social construct and that places don’t just exist but are always being shaped by external social forces (57). Steloff travelled Europe buying books and also stocked expensive, limited, signed editions from new publishers. She sponsored lectures on writing, sometimes as many as 40 a year, and also hosted readings after going into publishing their own titles. Gotham Book Mart’s parties were probably what made it into the famous store people know it as. The party for Edith Sitwell is the most famous, as Life magazine heard of it and showed up to take pictures. The James Joyce Society was also founded and held meetings at the Gotham Book Mart. Every one of these things shaped Gotham into the place it was, as well as the people that bought books from there, attended the lectures and parties, or ate lunch in the yard, as Henry Miller and his friends did.
In 1945, Steloff lost her lease and moved to the shop to a brownstone in the Diamond District at 41 West 47th Street. The shop was still a meeting place of intellectuals, and students who wished to understand more about James Joyce were sent to Steloff by their teachers in order to learn more. When she couldn’t answer all of their questions, she was inspired to found the James Joyce Society.
In 1967, she sold the store to Andreas Brown. Though she was no longer the owner, she continued to live in the apartment above the store and still worked in the shop as a consultant until her death in 1989 at the age of 101.
Brown sold the building in 2003 for $7.2 million dollars and opened up the store a few blocks away in 2004. The newly dubbed Gotham Book Mart & Gallery was now at 16 East 46th Street, the previous location of H.P. Kraus, a rare books store. Only a few years later in 2006, Brown fell behind on his rent and was evicted. Gotham Book Mart’s roughly $3 million inventory was auctioned off in one large lot that sold for only $400 thousand in 2007.
Since Gotham Book Mart’s beginning in 1920, Frances Steloff made the shop a kind of sanctuary for her customers where they could find what they were looking for and what they loved. Her determination and love of literature earned her many friends that would contribute to Gotham Book Mart’s legendary status in the literary world. A small basement store in the Theater District grew into a Mecca and meeting place for literary minds. Even after selling the store, she retained an active role in running it, and its continued success was greatly in part to her still being there. The kinds of books Gotham specialized in and the parties that were held there made it famous, but it was Frances Steloff who made people feel welcome there, kept them coming back, and supported them in their work.
“Wise Men Fish Here” Sign – <http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/jacketcopy/2009/01/keeping-the-got.html>
Window Display – <http://forbookssake.net/2011/05/20/the-gotham-book-mart/>
Frances Steloff – <http://www.mhpbooks.com/slideshow-turn-of-the-century-bookstores/>
Cresswell, Tim. Place: A Short Introduction. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub, 2004.
Hauptman, Robert and Joseph Rosenblum. “Frances Steloff.” American Book Collectors and Bibliograohers: Second Series. Ed. Joseph Rosenblum. Detroit: Gale Research, 1997. Dictionary of Literary Biograohy Vol. 187. Literature Resource Center.
Morgan, Kathleen. “Introduction: Frances Steloff and the Gotham Book Mart.” Journal of Modern Literature, Vol. 4, No. 4, Special Gotham Book Mart Issue (Apr., 1975), pp. 737-748
Steloff, Frances. “In Touch With Genius.” Journal of Modern Literature, Vol. 4, No. 4, Special Gotham Book Mart Issue (Apr., 1975), pp. 749-882