In late 1919 Frances Steloff came upon a vacant basement store front on 45th Street in New York City. That day, she went into work at Fredrick Loeser’s Department store in the rare books section and told her boss, George Michke, that she was going to rent out the space and sell her own books. Upon saying this, she asked him what kind of books she should have in her shop, his reply became the format of her business plan for the following eighty six years: “Your customers will educate you” (Steloff 756).
Gotham Art and Book Mart was opened on January 1, 1920, at the once vacant storefront at 125 West 45th Street: “It was a brownstone English basement, three steps down, which was set back between two remodeled buildings” (Steloff 749). The store was situated in the Theater District, more specifically beside Claire’s Dress Shop, across the street from Lyceum Theater, and a couple of doors away from the Hudson Theater. Due to this location, the store’s primary customers were actors, musicians, artists, and those involved in performances. Steloff gracefully adapted her store to this clientele in multiple ways. One of these was to by adding books on theater, costume, and design to her inventory. A second way was by changing her store hours to be from 8am to 12am, so actors and directors could stop by the shop for literature and conversation after work. Third, Gotham Art and Book Mart began a mail-order business, in which second hand books could be mailed to reader’s homes across the country. This addition made business boom, thereby making the space too small for GBM’s inventory.
After outgrowing the first location, Gotham Art and Book Mart became Gotham Book Mart (GBM) on 51 West 47th Street. At this location, GBM gained a logo, as well as a reputation.
The logo “Wise Men Fish Here” followed GBM across each location. The sign, created by artist John Held Jr, was made of cast-iron and hung outside of the second and third locations. Not only did it become a way to remember the bookstore, but it served as a definition to what kind of customer Steloff had gained at her new location, educated and wise literature enthusiasts. In an effort to maintain these customers, Steloff began a variety of traditions that, like the sign, followed, as well as defined, GBM throughout each location.
One tradition was the start of GBM’s “fight for books accused of being obscene” (Hauptman 2). The bookstore was known to carry out-of-print and rare books, including those on the banned books list. While this attracted customers, it also caused tension with the New York Society Prevention of Vice in June of 1928. John S. Sumner, a representative of this organization, seized 500 of her “banned” books and fined her $250 for having them in stock. These books included Ulysses by James Joyce, Decameron by Giovanni Boccacio, and My Life and Loves by Frank Harris. While having books taken off her shelves was an inconvenience, it became the start of a long tradition of new writers coming in to have their books sold at GBM. Multiple writers saw Steloff’s quick defense toward books she saw as valuable, and hoped she would think the same of their own. Steloff, and GBM, became a haven for writers, where they could write, publish, and read whatever they wanted. Soon, Steloff sponsored writers by providing them money to travel and write about their experiences. Once their books were complete, she referred them to publishers, and sold their work in her store. These writers included Theordore Dreiser, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, Tennessee Williams, and Anais Nin, among others.
Another tradition was the creation of literary lectures, later turned garden parties. In 1930, Samuel Putnam gave a lecture at GBM to promote his magazine, New Review, which published contemporary French writers. Shortly after his lecture, other writers, publishers, and readers came to GBM to give and hear lectures and readings. Upon moving to the third location, these lectures turned into garden parties, held in the third locations yard, and art exhibitions held in the second level gallery. Some evenings also became host to “Writer and Artist Dinners,” with a 25 cent admission charge. These became GBM’s way to give back to the customer and literary community. GBM became a venue of education through this tradition. In addition, the frequent guests of the lectures and garden parties became close friends, and created a community within the bookstore. Although people within this community appreciated the conversation, it made some customers feel unwelcomed and unworthy. This was especially apparent in the third location.
The community that was carried over from the second location came to define the third location of GBM on 41 West 47th Street, the Diamond District of New York City. This location, purchased from Columbia University for $65,000, was much larger and had a backyard where Steloff could host her garden parties: “There GBM had a backyard with outside book stalls…it was open and spacious, with the… Building as a king of back-drop” (Morgan 743). The space increase allowed more people to come into the garden parties to speak and learn about writers. Many members of these parties soon became members of the James Joyce Society, which was founded at GBM’s third location. James Joyce Society was founded at Gotham Book Mart located on 41 West 45th Street. The secretary Philipp Lyman, and vice president William York Tindall, taught the first Joyce course at Columbia University. Steloff was the treasurer of this society, that met at her shop for its quarterly meetings. GBM built a reputation to have a “cult-like” following for James Joyce.
Steloff sold this location to Andeas Brown, a longtime book lover and GBM customer in 1967. Although she sold the shop, she continued to live in the apartment above it and work within it until her death at age 101. In 2001, the third location closed and Brown moved GBM again to 16 East 46th Street. Not only did this location lack the cast-iron side outside of the shop, but it dropped the name and became known as Gotham Book Mart & Gallery. Before Brown’s purchase of the location, it was home to H.P. Kraus Rare Book Store, which had gone out of business. In order for Brown to afford the building, Leonard Lauder, the executive of Estee Lauder beauty company, bought it for $5.2 million and leased it to Brown. Unfortunately, in 2007 GBM closed due to financial trouble. Although many blame it on health problems faced by the new owner, some pin the problem on Barnes and Noble, which moved in around the corner soon after Brown’s move in 2001. Although GBM is closed, the communities created by this place, such as the James Joyce Society, continue to thrive. In addition, GBM’s $3 million book collection has been sold through a variety of actions. 200,000 books alone were purchased anonymously, and donated to the University of Pennsylvania library.
Businesses, like GBM, shape themselves around their clientele. By doing so, the businesses let themselves be defined by this locale: “By locale, Agnew means the material setting for social relations—the actual shape of place within which people conduct their loves as individuals” (Cresswell 7). GBM proved to do so by changing hours at the first location to fit the customers, in addition to expanding lectures and garden parties attracting upper-class customers in the second and third locations. GBM did not stop here.
Even more specific than a place, GBM developed a community. Community can be defined as “a physical place and a set of ideals juxtaposed to the world…implies social bonds based on effective ties and mutual support” (Miller 119). GBM did just that. It was a business that brought new writers and educated readers with common interests and purposes to a single location, then offering those consumers support by proving them with a “much needed public space” (Miller 122). A defining aspect of a community is how deep-routed it is in tradition: “Community evokes a past steeped in tradition as opposed to a constantly changing present” (Miller 119). GBM’s foundations in tradition support the independent bookstore as a community. Taking it step further, it spotlights the idea that communities are defined by the people conducting their lives around them, and in that way communities preserve traditions of the past, while serving consumers of the future.
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, 1-3.
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. 749-756.