A Look into the Past of Bookstores: Gotham Book Mart
Frances, also known as Fanny, Steloff was the owner of Gotham Book Mart. She was born in 1877 in New York, specifically Saratoga Springs. Her love of books eventually led her to open her own bookstore, which she named Gotham Book Store. In John Tebbel’s piece A Brief History of American Bookselling, he says “In essence, bookselling is a marrying of minds, not only through the ideas and emotions that books convey to readers and sellers, but among all those literate people who make, sell and buy books. In an unhappy world, they may be the happiest fraternity remaining among us” (Tebbel 25). This is definitely true of the owner of Gotham Book Mart, Frances Steloff and her customers. She “married” her mind to her customers, their needs, as well as their interests, and what products would suit them.
Gotham Book Mart
The bookstore was in business starting on January 1, 1920 and eventually closed in 2007. Throughout the life of this bookstore, it moved locations four times. The first location of Gotham Book Mart was a basement space on 128 West 45th Street near the theater district. It outgrew this location and moved to its second location, 51 West 47th Street. It then moved to its third location, in the Diamond District in Manhattan, 41 West 47th Street. The bookstore stayed on this site for the longest period of time. It finally made its fourth, and final, move to the setting of 16 East 46th Street.
Gotham Book Mart’s Original Location
The original location of Gotham Book Mart, also referred to as GBM, was a small basement space on 128 West 45th Street near the theater district in New York City, New York. It was originally called Gotham Art and Book Mart. The space for the store was on the right side of the street, Hudson Theater was a couple of doors away, Lyceum Theater was across the next street, and next door to the original shop was Claire’s dress shop.
The first inventory within the store was described by the owner, Frances Steloff, as “only the west wall of the room had shelves-that was all I could afford. On the opposite side, next to the fireplace, was a bookcase which I had brought from my own apartment, and there was a rather long table spread with books” (Steloff 755). Eventually, Gotham Book Mart outgrew the space that it was housed in, and moved to its second location. This was the first of three moves for Gotham Book Mart. In its history, Gotham Book Mart was housed in four locations.
Gotham Book Mart’s Main Location
The main location of Gotham Book Mart was in the Diamond District in Manhattan, 41 West 47th Street. The new location was on street level, whereas the original location was in the basement. The building was bought from Columbia University in 1946 by Steloff. According to the owner, “the new location didn’t have a single modern building on the block. In fact, this one and only a few others had been remodeled for business. Some houses still had lawns in front and garden furniture. GBM had been doing most of its business evenings and kept open until midnight. But it was certain that there would be no evening business here” (Steloff 763). Gotham Book Mart became the place where, “for the next 23 years, this was the site where the avant garde congregated, talked, borrowed money, and enjoyed seeing their works displayed, and in the center of all this was Frances Steloff, fussing and crabbing with her stuff, friendly and open-handed with her customers-devoted to the writers and artists who frequented her shop” (Morgan 740). In this location, “GBM had a backyard with outside book stalls…it was open and spacious, with the RCA Building as a king of back-drop” (Morgan 743).
Gotham Book Mart as “Place”
What makes a space a place? In Place, Tim Cresswell writes, “What makes them all places and not simply a room, a garden, a town, a world city, a new nation that and an inhabited planet? One answer is that they are all spaces which people have made meaningful. They are all spaces people are attached to in one way or another” (Cresswell 7). This statement is true for Gotham Book Mart. Not only did Fanny Steloff make this space meaningful, her clientele did as well. Not only was meaning applied to this space, but the owner and her customers also became attached to it. Cresswell goes on to say that, “if we think of space as that which allows movement, then place is pause” (Cresswell 8). Again, this statement is true for this specific bookstore. Many of the customers who frequented the first location of Gotham Book Mart were casts of theater productions in the immediate area. “Most of the cast soon discovered the little Gotham Book Mart, and they would come over in the evening after the performance-this was how I came to keep the shop open until midnight” (Steloff 753). Frances Steloff created and provided a space for her clients to pause, a place. In this place, her customers were able to take a few minutes, or hours, to have some down time, to take a break from the grind of life. One of Cresswell’s last statements is that “place is not just a thing in the world but a way of understanding the world” (Cresswell 11). Gotham Book Mart is a place where customers can come and learn about the world, not only through literature, but through the place as well.
Gotham Book Mart’s Destiny
“Miss Steloff continually asserts that there was no planning, no overview guiding Gotham Book Mart’s destiny. Rather it was one thing leading to another, with her merely there acting much like a catalyst for what happened. As she helped her friends, they returned in kind. She stressed the communal aspect of the shop, how all gave to each other…one of her closest friends, helped make GBM a literary hang-out because she allowed him and his friends…to eat their lunch in her garden” (Morgan 744). The fact that she loved the communal aspect of her career, reflects what Miller says, that “stressing their local ties and contributions to the common good, the independents began to describe the bookstore as not simply a place in which to purchase books, but as a community center that provides meaningful services and enjoyable diversions” (Miller 115). However, Frances Steloff could not foresee the financial difficulty that lay ahead for her new owner, Andreas Brown. Andreas Brown had to eventually sell Gotham Book Mart due to the fact that he was behind on rent in 2007. The inventory was eventually auctioned off. Gotham Book Mart remains an ideological bookstore in the history of New York. It helped project countless careers of today’s famous artists, authors and poets. Many will never forget the place of Gotham Book Mart in the community.
Cresswell, Tim. Place: A Short Introduction. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub, 2004.
Miller, Laura J. Reluctant Capitalists: Bookselling and the Culture of Consumption. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006.
Morgan, Kathleen. ”Frances Steloff and the Gotham Book Mart.” Journal of Modern Literature, Vol. 4, No. 4, Special Gotham Book Mart Issue: Indiana University Press, 1975. 740-745.
Steloff, Frances. ”In Touch with Genius.” Journal of Modern Literature, Vol. 4, No. 4, Special Gotham Book Mart Issue: Indiana University Press, 1975. 749-755.