SAN FRANCISCO—On the eve of its centenary, the Brick Row Book Shop of San Francisco is the primary contender for oldest bookstore in the United States. The elegantly appointed shop in Union Square was first established in New Haven in December 1915, with additional branches springing up in Princeton and New York City after initial commercial success. The Independent called Brick Row “one of the most original and inviting antiquarian bookshops in America.” Early clients included William Faulkner and F. Scott Fitzgerald, who wrote to his friend Edmund Wilson in 1922, “I have Ulysses from the Brick Row Book Shop…there is something about middle-class Ireland that depresses me inordinately.”
The story of The Brick Row Book Shop—which flourished continuously in five American cities before settling in San Francisco—is also the story of its owners, a series of slightly eccentric, ferociously well-read (and sometimes ferocious) gentlemen. The first was Edmond Byrne Hackett, a schoolmate of James Joyce who later introduced Joyce to his American editor. Hackett worked at Doubleday before becoming the first director of the Yale University Press. An irascible man from a good family (his brother was one of the first literary editors of The New Republic) Hackett opened his New Haven shop during a moment of Jazz Age excess after the first World War; an early Publishers Weekly account lauded Hackett’s “original strategy of reaching the young men of Yale, Columbia, and Princeton.” As his successor, the equally memorable Franklin Gilliam revealed, Hackett “was asked to leave one of those places…because of his technique of getting the youngsters to buy expensive books and then suing the parents for payment.” But Hackett was also a genuine man of letters, using his position to publish original books, including a 1922 collection of Herman Melville writings that helped to pique interest in the mostly forgotten author.
Over its century of operation, Brick Row has seen a parade of important patrons, archives, and books: original manuscripts by Jane Austen, Joseph Conrad, William Butler Yeats, early printed works by Johannes Gutenberg, the rare first edition of Alice in Wonderland (which Brick Row offered at the height of the Depression for sixty-five thousand dollars) and innumerable first editions of seminal works of English and American literature. Its current owner, John Crichton, has been at the helm for over 30 years, and is today one of the major figures in the American rare book trade; he has borne witness to decades of success and even occasional scandal (including high-profile thefts, forgeries, and literary feuds). This December, he and The Brick Row Book Shop celebrate one hundred years of holding steady through the ebbs and flows of American literary culture.