New York is the ultimate work-in-progress, an ongoing mixture of art and action that begins as soon as you arrive at Penn Station and walk through the New Jersey Transit concourse, where you’re greeted by a wall of words from Walt Whitman, Allen Ginsberg, and other Garden State poets accompanied by scenes that artist Larry Kirkland has sandblasted into the marble (“tan Botticino accented with reddish wedges of Rosato,” according to the New York Times). Should you need to cool your heels or use the restrooms, you can enjoy a New Jersey fun-a-rama featuring a perpetual motion locomotive and engineer; George Washington and his soldiers; Miss America in Atlantic City; Thomas Edison’s phonograph; and the Jersey Devil. According to George Greenamyer, who created the kinetic sculpture, it’s meant to “get people’s attention,” and that it does. For kids, it makes a happy first chapter in the New York City storybook, like a piece of the biggest model railway in the world. It’s the sort of grandiose novelty that evokes memories of the old Times Square and its “kinetic sculptures,” like the gigantic face on the Camels billboard blowing smoke rings and the top-hatted, monocled neon dandy Mr. Peanut perpetually twirling his electric cane.
Arriving on a rush-hour Friday in the wake of the Valentine’s Day deep-freeze, my goal a hotel 20 blocks uptown, I find myself walking into a homebound tide of commuters and 40 mph wind gusts while stepping carefully around the slush past plowed snow banks that are already looking gray and secondhand. It takes me half an hour to reach the so-called Crossroads of the World. Not long ago a Japanese tourist with his back to it asked me how to get to Times Square, and I told him to turn around. “There!” I said, thinking “But that’s not really it; you should have seen it in its glory.” There’s no denying the 2007 version has a special splendor of its own, but walking through the glare of those blocks between 42nd and 52nd, I’m haunted, as always, by the ghosts of Times Square Past: like the Astor Hotel, the Beaux Art fantasy whose demolition was as great a piece of infamy as the tearing down of the old Penn Station. One of the many wonders of New York is that it manages to sustain its identity in spite of these endless violations, not to mention the invasion of mall-spawned chain stores and brand name outlets that somehow eventually become Manhattaned into submission.
For me, the most memorable elements of the city, in addition to some beloved buildings and streets, are associated with various forms of entertainment, high and low books, back when Fourth Avenue was lined on both sides with secondhand bookstores; movies, back when Times Square was a feast of first-run moviehouses whose gigantic posters loomed overhead; plays in the days when they were easily affordable; and jazz, back when you could walk into Birdland and sit practically in the laps of the Count Basie band for a $2 spot in the “bleachers.”
A Happy Ending
Next morning I decided to walk over to 46th Street and do some browsing at the city’s prime literary landmark, the Gotham Book Mart. What I wanted was to check out an assortment of semi-affordable oddball rarities like the ones that used to crowd the shelves and floor near the cash register in the original store on West 47th, Jeweler’s Row. Wise Men Fish Here, the sign in front used to say, but to land a great catch you didn’t have to be wise, just persistent, as you trolled that cluttered chaos. But “browsing” isn’t the word for it. You might as well say you “browse” the city when you walk the streets searching for some rare vestige of old New York. There’s as much pleasure in rescuing a book from 1920 or 1930 as there is in finding some still-standing gem of architecture with a sooty gargoyle grinning above a doorway you’ve passed by more than once and never noticed.
At the time I didn’t know the whole story that the owners of the building at 16 E. 46 were about to evict the store because it owed some $500,000 in rent, taxes, interest and other fees, and that the owner and staff were busy trying to save it by raising $3 million selling books and art on the Internet.
There you have it. The Internet giveth and it taketh away. You can do as I did last year and locate a reasonably priced, “impossible to find” 1836 edition of Shakespeare, but it’s not the same as fishing for such a prize and finding it in a real store with real atmosphere and a real owner.
The happy ending to my story is located between Park and Lexington on 59th Street and it’s called the Argosy. It’s been holding its own for the better part of eight decades in the embattled but unbowed city. After beginning life on Fourth Avenue, it moved uptown in the thirties, and one chapter in the ongoing novel of New York could be devoted to its owner and founder, Louis Cohen (who died in 1991) and his three daughters, Judith, Naomi, and Adina, who have beautifully maintained their father’s legacy.
I don’t use the word “beautifully” lightly. If you love old books and old New York, there’s not a space in the city so rich with the atmosphere of an enlightened sanctuary. Downtown, Skyline Books has a wonderful stock but it’s crowded and cramped for space, and the Strand is usually embroiled in a perpetual rush-hour of commotion. In the Argosy it was immediately obvious that the book genies of creative chaos had been at work. Volumes had been stacked as if at random in front of the shelves in the literature section. It took only a minute to see that the selection was brilliant. Not that I wanted to lay hands on every book, but there was hardly a pedestrian item in evidence. And no sooner had I glanced up at the “A”s than I spotted a first edition of Walker Evans’s and James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, which has been on my mind because I’m reading the Library of America edition and plan to write about it in the near future. Never mind that it lacks a jacket and has some slight water damage on the opening pages, this is one of the rarest first editions in modern literature. Copies of the 1960 reprint in lesser condition are going for hundreds of dollars. The last time I looked, only five copies of the 1941 edition with a jacket were available online (all around $5,000). Only two copies without a jacket were listed, one at $1200 and one at $795. How much was the one I’d discovered for myself and could hold in my hands? $25.
To give you an idea of the selection (and keep in mind that there are whole floors of books and prints above and below where you would find as much to interest you whether you were looking in Science or Americana or History or any other subject under the sun), here are some others I pulled down: a quirky edition of Kafka’s Metamorphosis from 1945 with a bookplate in which the letters of the owner’s name were spaced like notes on bars of music; an immaculate first American edition of Thomas Mann’s Dr. Faustus; and rarely seen editions of Berlioz’s Letters and Flaubert’s Intimate Notebooks. The volume that best represents the poetry of disarrangement, however, was the enormous one casually placed on top of a leaning tower of books in front of the Music section. The cover featured a color engraving of Napoleon on a white horse. Published in Paris in 1910 by Boivin, it was a feast of imagery: big full full-page color plates, one after another, like some fantastic synthesis of graphic art and Classic Comics, except that these images were closer to Delacroix than caricature. Although I have no interest in Napoleon, I’d have bought it if it hadn’t been $100. The only two copies available online, both later editions, are going for $1216 and $1554 from dealers in Paris and Belgium. The reason this one was priced so low? It was a refugee from the library at the Dalton School. But it was in excellent condition.
In the cozy yet roomy main floor you’ll find a big library table with green-shaded lamps where you can sit down and contemplate your catches, which is what I did before reality kicked in and I put back everything but the Agee. Also at the table, a man was taking notes as he looked through a volume. He and I and maybe four or five others were the only customers.The atmosphere was pleasant and serene and the green-shaded lamps reminded me of the ones at the main Reading Room at the NY Public Library. Around the walls, above the books, were framed paintings, also for sale. The mezzanine featured fine bindings in glass bookcases. There were bins of prints, ephemera, and autographs ranging from Tarzan (Buster Crabbe) to Marcel Marceau.
I was in the Argosy well over an hour. No doubt about it, the Internet is a great resource and you can visit the Argosy online to find out more about the inventory, the floors I didn’t visit, and the story of the store. But you can’t equal the experience of being there. So the moral of this New York tale is also a prayer, which is that the city will always somehow find a way to provide us with these refuges of sweet disorder.
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