A New Year’s Baby for U. Penn

It’s always pretty sad when we note the passing of a great book store, as happened to be the case in 2007 when the Gotham Book Mart, long a cultural landmark in Midtown Manhattan, took its last breath, ending a tradition that went back to 1920, exiting, finally, with what appeared at the time to be a quiet whimper.

It wasn’t a pleasant sight to watch, the slow, agonizing demise of an institution that had welcomed thousands of bookseekers over the years with a sign above the door that proclaimed, wonderfully, that “Wise Men Fish Here.” Founded by the legendary bookseller Frances Steloff, the Gotham occupied a number of locations over the years, all of them within  a two-block area bounded by West 45th and West 47th Streets. In time it became the haunt of such literati as Theodore Dreiser, John Dos Passos, H. L. Mencken, Eugene O’Neill, Dylan Thomas, Salvador Dali, J. D. Salinger, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Stephen Spender, Elizabeth Bishop, John Updike--the list is endless.

In 1967, Miss Steloff sold the store, by then a literary salon in the grand tradition, to Andreas Brown, a bookseller, like herself, with a deep passion for authors and literature, but she very much remained a presence until her death in 1989 at the age of 101. I became a regular parishioner in 1978, the year I started making the first of many annual trips to New York for meetings of the National Book Critics Circle and to attend awards ceremonies of the National Book Awards. My hotel of choice in those days, of course--where else?-- was the Algonquin at 59 West 44th St., a three or four minute walk from the Gotham, and thus a requisite stop whenever I was in town. Before long I developed a nodding acquaintance with Miss Steelof, who was always seated on a stool behind the counter. (I also became a pal of the famous Algonquin Cat, an urban feline who patrolled the lobby of the hotel with as much elan as the many celebrity writers who held court in the cozy bar, but that, as they say, is another story.) 

The painful tale of the store’s wrenching decline need not be recounted here in any depth. Google it, if you wish, it’s all there for the finding, but very much old news, as far as I’m concerned. What is new, and what is truly exciting, and perhaps even unprecedented for an antiquarian book store is the report that the 200,000 books and related materials from the store’s general stock representing a veritable treasure trove of twentieth century literature have been purchased by an anonymous buyer for $400,000 and given to the University of Pennsylvania Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

Among the treasures en route to Philadelphia, beginning this week, are items from the personal libraries of Anais Nin and Truman Capote, but most exciting of all are the surprises that will reveal themselves as the boxes are opened, cataloged, and made available to new generations of students and readers. According to an announcement made by the university, the gift includes uncorrected proofs, advance reader’s copies, publicity material, photographs, posters, broadsides, publishing ephemera, and postcards.

“The collection is so big that no single person from the university has really seen it,” Penn curator of rare books Daniel Traister told the Philadelphia Inquirer. David McKnight, director of the library, agreed. “It’s our New Year’s baby,” he said. “It’s going to be accessible to Philadelphians. Our doors are open.”
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