Review: Book Row

Book Row, Marvin Mondlin and Roy Meador. New York: Skyhorse, 2019 (originally published in 2003).

Summary: A history of Book Row, a collection of used and antiquarian bookstores along and around Fourth Avenue in New York City.

Most of us who have loved books for many years have our favorite used and antiquarian bookstores. Many are memories. Others are still operating. Some were in out of the way places, some in bigger cities. In some cases, I remember places with multiple stores near one another. I think of some college towns like Ann Arbor and Madison where you could go from one store to the next. At one time, Harvard Square was like that. Now imagine all of those stores in one place, within walking distance of each other. There once was a place like that in New York City, known as Book Row, with upwards of twenty five stores along a one mile stretch on Fourth Avenue or one of the side streets. The heyday of Book Row ran from the 1890’s to the 1970’s.

Marvin Mondlin and Roy Meador are Book Row veterans who have captured in a thoroughly enjoyable account the wonder of this place. One can almost smell the books and imagine the booksellers who delighted in the poor college students and the curmudgeons who begrudgingly permitted the worthy into their domains. They begin with George D. Smith, who began selling on Fourth Avenue in the 1890’s and created the ideal of the Book Row bookseller. He was among the foremost of antiquarian booksellers, who both acquired collections and helped build some of the greatest collections including that of Henry Huntington. He started his store near the Bible House, the home of the American Bible Society, which played a surprising role in many of the stores. He was a pioneer in the use of catalogues to market his books. He was a master on the auction floor, trusted by many famous clients to acquire books.

The authors go on to recount the lives of the other stores and booksellers along Fourth Avenue. What is striking is how importance the training of these booksellers was. They worked for publishers, they served as “book scouts” for established stores in acquiring needed inventory, they apprenticed in stores learning every aspect of the business. Then, often still at a young age, they launched out on there own, or sometimes with a partner. (The two Jacks, Biblo and Tannen, complemented each other in temperament and skills in one of the most famous Book Row businesses.) One of the marvelous aspects that comes up again and again is how booksellers actually helped newcomers enter the business, offering lots of books at low prices.

Perhaps part of the reason for this practice was the realization that Book Row was a draw because of the sheer number of stores. Everyone from poor college students buying books in the outdoor bins (seven for a quarter!) to rich collectors as well as business people and travelers from all over the country and the world came to Book Row to feed their particular love of books. The booksellers built on this shared interest and formed the Fourth Avenue Booksellers Association whose first act was to fight efforts to remove the sidewalk bargain stands that moved merchandise and brought people into the stores. They worked together from the 1940’s on to promote Book Row as a destination and eventually to host book fairs. They also contributed support and leadership to the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America, which continues to promote the ethics and interests of the antiquarian book trade to this day.

Why did Book Row, apart from the venerable Strand, not survive? Two words: “rents” and “age.” Some operations, like the Strand, passed through two or more generations (three at least with the Strand). But beginning in the 1950’s several things happened. Wanamakers, the department store that was a magnet to the district, closed. The building owners started raising rents or seeking to convert buildings to high rent apartments. For a time, booksellers moved to lower rent storefronts. Some converted to doing mail order out of their homes, no longer opening their shops to “off the street” trade. Some moved away, opening shops elsewhere for a time. By the 1970’s, few were left and by the 1990’s they were all gone.

For a time, only the Strand, which owns its own building, was left (and still is, a destination in itself, with its miles of books). Then Steve Crowley opened Alabaster Books in 1997, still in business at the date of this review. The book also mentions Gallagher’s Art & Fashion Gallery, which was still in business in 2004 but no longer appears online. So it is now one store plus the Strand holding up the legacy of Book Row.

Oh, how I wish I’d visited Book Row in its heyday! I would have thought I’d died and gone to book heaven. This book is the next best thing. The accounts of the stores and their proprietors offered hours of delight imagining browsing those shelves. While Book Rows have disappeared in all but a few of the world’s great cities, there are stores still to be found, and even new ones that have opened during the pandemic. If you are so fortunate to have one nearby, treasure it while you can. The business is not easy and not one that usually enriches the bookseller, who certainly cannot survive on your good wishes alone. I cannot imagine that wandering from website to website would every be as delightful as a day spent wandering among the stores on Book Row. What a time that must have been!

One thought on “Review: Book Row

  1. Pingback: The Month in Reviews: October 2021 | Bob on Books

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