Bookstore, Lynne Tillman. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1999.
Summary: The story of Jeanette Watson and Books & Co., once one of the premier independent bookstores in New York City, connecting readers with books and their writers until their closing in 1997.
Jeanette Watson is the grand-daughter of the founder of IBM, and the daughter of Thomas Watson, Jr. who built the company into a computer industry leader. A reader from childhood, this daughter of wealth spent her early adult years working in early childhood education, mental health care, and going through one marriage and divorce. She struggled with depression, then faced hip surgery for congenital hip dysplasia. Facing surgery and a long recovery, she reached a turning point:
“I had a dream. The dream came almost immediately after I was told I needed surgery. I dreamed I was in a bookstore, surrounded by books, hundreds of books, and the place had two floors, and it was cozy. It looked like what would become Books & Co.
* * * * *
“Throughout the ordeal, the operation and the long recovery, the dream sustained me. I was determined there would be a bookstore at the end of the tunnel. One day I invited my friend Steve Aronson out for lunch. He was the only person I knew who was actually in publishing. I told Steven I wanted a bookstore that would look very old-fashioned, be like a private home, and carry wonderful books. There would be events, parties and gallery openings” (p. 13).
This book tells the story of the bookstore that came out of that dream, its twenty year run, and how Watson found her own calling in life in the process. The book, though authored by Lynne Tillman, is Jeanette Watson’s narrative of the history of Books & Co. and her own love of bookselling, interspersed with memories from publishers, writers, representatives, other booksellers, customers and celebrities about there experiences at Books & Co. The contributors anecdotes give us a sense of how Books & Co. served as kind of a literary nexus during this time.
It begins with Watson and her father investing in the startup after finding an old brownstone down the street from the Whitney, who owned the property, on Madison Avenue. She links up with Burt Britton, a book trade veteran who she signs on as a partner. The partnership lasted a year and resulted in “The Wall” representing the best of past and present literary fiction. Burt knew no limits to spending or acquiring books and eventually, Watson ended the partnership to try to meet the bottom line.
Watson realized her dream. She created a two story bookstore that included a green sofa on the second floor, and a curated collection of books centered on literature, philosophy, art, and children’s literature. She became renown for the authors who appeared and did readings in her stores. The list of those who did readings which appears at the back of the book is a snapshot of the literary world in New York in the from the late 1970’s to the late 1990’s. She was an aspiring writer’s friend, and introduced writers, and works she liked to the literary world, and underscored the important role booksellers play in promoting great writing.
Perhaps her greatest joy was connecting people with books, everyone from Woody Allen and Michael Jackson to ordinary residents of the city. Watson comments:
“There’s a significance too–almost a drama–in introducing readers to books. Dramatic because books can and do change people’s lives. I’ve felt that importance as much as I’ve felt it about introducing new writers to readers. Burt used to say, ‘It’s just as easy to read a good book as a bad book.’ If people were given the right book, they could experience something wonderful. One woman told me that she wasn’t a reader until the bookstore opened, but because of my suggestions, she was reading Balzac. It’s what I’m most proud of doing over the years” (p.52).
The book chronicles not only the joys but the struggles of bookselling. Apart from a few boom years in the 1980’s, it was a constant struggle to break even and Watson put a lot of her own money into the store. We get a glimpse behind the scenes of working with publishers representatives and making decisions about book acquisitions, working with distributors and staff, paying bills and making returns.
We also see the beginnings of a transformation of the book trade. Readers interested in the serious works sold by a store like this seemed to be aging and their numbers declining. The advent of the big chains like Barnes and Noble and Borders (!) began to erode sales as people turned to booksellers who discounted. Amazon was just new, and not yet perceived as the force that would threaten them all. E-books were still in the future. But the internet was dawning and cable and video were supplanting reading.
The death knell of this great indie was rent. For many years the Whitney and Books & Co. enjoyed a symbiotic relationship, with people often visiting both. The Whitney was landlord, and as Madison Avenue rents were rising, it became necessary for the Whitney to raise rents on its properties to attend to their own bottom line. These rents became increasingly difficult to meet. There were negotiations, explorations of a merger with the Whitney, all coming to nought. After Christmas in 1996, Jeanette Watson announced the closing of the store on May 31, 1997. Some attempted to save the store, but it was not to happen. The last part of the book is painful in some ways, as the attempts to sustain the life of a dying patient.
Reading the book brought to mind the wonderful encounters I’ve had with great bookstores over the year, especially the ones where the booksellers knew their books and loved connecting their customers with books they would love. I wish I had visited this one. It also reminded me of the passing of so many of these, each like the death of a friend.
At the same time, the pronounced death of the indie bookstores seems premature. Their number is actually growing while Borders is no more and Barnes and Noble is struggling. People are still reading Jane Austin and Dostoevsky, and so much else.
This autobiography, of Watson and her bookstore gives a glimpse into what it takes to make a great bookstore. There is one wrinkle in the book that may be off-putting to some. Watson, like so many bibliophiles, has a curiosity for everything and writes with more fascination than some might find comfortable of inter-species sex and every form of human sexuality, as well as an author’s study of cannibalism. Clearly, this is written in the progressive (and transgressive?) literary milieu of New York City. At the same time, we see the power of books to introduce us to so much of the world beyond just our own experience and the wonderful gift bookstores like Books & Co can be to writers and readers.
Jeanette Watson’s new memoir, It’s My Party, was released October 10, 2017. A video interview with Watson on her book is available on YouTube.