“Frances Steloff made the Gotham Book Mart. Then it turned around and made her. You couldn’t have one without the other,” wrote her biographer, W. G. Rogers, in 1965.
Like Sylvia Beach and Adrienne Monnier in Paris, Steloff found her niche, first specializing in art and theater books, even though she was warned that “actors don’t read” and the theater district was a terrible spot for a bookshop, which was proven incorrect yet again when the store relocated and prospered on West 47th Street. But it was in fostering and promoting the new wave of writers that Steloff excelled. She not only sold books, she loaned money to John Dos Passos, battled the Society for the Suppression of Vice for the right to sell André Gide’s memoir, and hired those in need, like Allen Ginsberg. Her biographer described her as a “hustler” and a “dynamo.”
Her legacy, and that of the Gotham Book Mart, is the subject of a much anticipated exhibition this spring at the University of Pennsylvania’s Van Pelt-Dietrich Library in Philadelphia. It is titled Wise Men Fished Here, a play on the shop’s famous wrought iron sign made by John Held, Jr. depicting three fishermen and the motto, “Wise Men Fish Here.” The exhibit presents the 87-year history of the Gotham, and in doing so, can and does go in many thematic directions: twentieth-century bookselling, women booksellers, the rise of modernism, ‘little magazines,’ and postcard collecting. Not to mention the role of specific authors and artists integral to Gotham’s story, such as Tennessee Williams, James Joyce, and Edward Gorey.