One Great Bookstore – 3 1/2 Great Books

Once upon a time in Manhattan, there was a plethora of little independents to slake a thirsty book lover.


41 West 47th Street, 1919 – 2007 – “Wise Men Fish(ed) Here”


How I loved the Gotham Book Mart. GBM was my favorite lunchtime browsing spot in midtown. It was my church.

Questing for years to replenish the void in my spiritual life left by its closure (i.e., thru obsessive googling about the GBM) finally yielded a most satisfying result:

1) Wise Men Fish Here: The Story of Frances Steloff and The Gotham Book Mart (W.G. Rogers – 1964)

Out of print now, but available on Amazon or  MANY copies exist on shelves of stalwart independent bookstores around the U.S. — thank goodness for the passionate book lovers who run them. My copy cost $6.98 + shipping from PA.

Immensely readable, beautifully written, full of intimate anecdotes about writers and the literary community of the time, it’s a thrilling trip back to New York City when the city thrived as a hotbed for all types of creatives. It is just a marvelous book!

Founder of the GBM, Steloff’s story is so inspiring. She became an avowed vegetarian in adolescence when a beloved pet was slaughtered for dinner. Independent, ethical and visionary, she fled her humble beginnings and sad home life in Saratoga Springs at age 15 and headed for Manhattan. Carrying one small suitcase and money saved doing chores for others, she was determined to make a new life of her own.

The rest is history.

Steloff championed her writers and they loved her. She lent them money to help pay rent and supported them in any way she could. She hosted exhibitions in the garden behind the store for artists. Marcel Duchamp once designed a controversial window display for the shop. When Christopher Morley came in one day and saw Steloff writing dunning letters to collect unpaid bills, he composed “The Rubaiyat of Account Overdue” (erudite verse wittily penned by a master you can read in the book) for Steloff to send to her customers. Prompt customers were rewarded with a copy of the poem, autographed by Morley.

If you are a book lover and culture enthusiast and appreciate great writing — you must read this book!

2) The Lower River by Paul Theroux

Another compelling, at times, nail-bitingly suspenseful, unputdownable novel by the great Paul Theroux. 60-something Ellis Hock’s marriage is breaking up. His adult daughter has written him off. So he sells the menswear store, the profession he inherited from his father, and heads to Africa, specifically to Malawi, where as a young man he spent 4 years in the Peace Corps. The place, he likes to remember, where he once was happy. What he discovers is a very different Africa. Reflective, brilliantly written, mesmerizing, scary — this is a gem of a book.

I’ve mentioned before that Theroux is one of my favorite writers. Smart, profound, tremendously enjoyable -don’t miss it.

(The above video is better with the sound on “mute.”)

2  1/2) Cape Cod Noir (Various writers, edited by David Ulin)

I’d not heard about the Noir series of short stories until it was kindly gifted to me by my friend, S., in CA (some other Noir collections in the series: New Jersey Noir (I’ll have to try that one); Mumbai Noir, Moscow Noir, Pittsburgh Noir, San Diego Noir). S. remembered me commenting on how much I’d enjoyed attending the workshops in Los Angeles led by the collection’s editor, David Ulin.

My reason for giving this book a 1/2 rather than whole number? The quality of stories is a bit uneven. But the knockouts in the collection make it a worthy read. Each story is titled, and then subtitled, with a town/village on Cape Cod.

Specific standouts not to be missed: the opening story by William Hastings, Ten-Year Plan (Falmouth); Adam Mansbach”s Variations on a Fifty Pound Bale (Martha’s Vineyard); Bad Night in Hyannisport by Seth Greenland; The Exchange Student (Provincetown) by Fred G. Leebron; Dave Zeltserman’s When Death Shines Bright (Sandwich) — Zeltserman’s is the most noir-ish in the collection, as well as being a great story. Check it out!

A Bit of Local Noir in Cape Cod

3) Canada by Richard Ford

I am a huge fan of Richard Ford’s writing. I’ve read all his novels and many of his short story collections (A Multitude of Sins — so fantastic. The Grand Canyon story, wow. It haunts me. Many re-reads of this collection).

I started reading Canada the other morning on the subway. I am already thrilled and excited by how much I like this book. I am savoring it, it’s true Ford. I’m savoring it in the same way I savored Lay of the Land, with the knowledge that when I’m finished reading, there won’t be another Ford novel waiting for me in the wings.

When I first discovered Ford’s writing, he’d already written The Sportswriter  and Independence Day. So when I’d finished the first book, I was able to go right on the the second. That spoiled me — I always want more.

So I will continue to take my time with this very good book and make it last as long as I can.

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