Wise men once fished at the Gotham Book Mart

New York is getting a new bookstore tomorrow—an actual brick and mortar shop run by Amazon on the third floor of the Time Warner Center, the shopping mall at Columbus Circle.

With Amazon about to open, let’s take a look back at a legendary cozy, dusty literary haven that operated at the other end of Midtown—the Gotham Book Mart.

[The photo above shows the store in 1945, with a window display by Marcel Duchamp.]

Gotham Book Mart, with its black and white framed photos of 20th century poets and writers and endless shelves and stacks of books, existed at three different locations in the Diamond District from 1920 to 2007.

It was the kind of place where you could duck in and quietly be transported into the world of James Joyce or T.S. Eliot.

Browsers were always welcome, and the store’s founder, Frances Steloff, defied censors who banned the sale of Lady Chatterly’s Lover and Tropic of Cancer in the late 1920s and 1930s.

“Wise Men Fish Here” read the iconic sign outside the door. Indeed. Only a handful of these old-school literary paradises remain.

[Top photo: Art-nerd.com/newyork; second photo: Alamy; third image, MCNY: F2012.99.156]

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11 Responses to “Wise men once fished at the Gotham Book Mart”

  1. Mister Green Genes Says:

    Used to work around the corner from here, loved going here on my lunch break. Sometimes I’d buy something, sometime’s not. Between Gotham and Coliseum Books, over the years I ended up with my own library! Great article.

  2. Jonathan Goldman Says:

    Gotham for many years hosted the New York James Joyce Society, whose founding members included TS Eliot.

  3. Audrey Burtrum-Stanley Says:

    The simple iron cut-out sign that contained the clever wording was designed by the gifted artist, John Held, Jr. It is very typical of his style of artwork. The fixture became a beloved emblem of the equally beloved store. (John Held, Jr. is on FIND A GREAVE; if you are searching for more info on him – I wrote his bio / obit there.)

    • Zoe Says:

      John Held Jr. was one of the community of 20th c. artists & writers & actors & theatre people in my childhood hometown of Westport CT (one hour north & west of NYC).

    • Audrey Burtrum-Stanley Says:

      BEWARE — I wrote a highly detailed and illustrated presentation on the FIND A GRAVE website about John Held, Jr. – who created the sign at this wonderful bookstore. I made the mistake of stating I had authored the bio / obit. (I was honored and thrilled to have done this – and proud to have even the most tiny link to an artist I admired.) Since early morning till now (afternoon), my submission (authored in 2009) has been removed and replaced by someone name LYNN (who has no idenity).

      I believe – because of the popularity of THIS blog, it must be electronically watched by OTHER large blogs.

      Previously I wrote of Barbra Streisand (in a piece about NYC’s “Sheep’s Meadow”) on here and immediately was offered recordings of hers from Amazon.

      I have never written of Held anywhere on-line, and FIND A GRAVE – for some unknown reason – removed my polished and greatly researched composition for a minor plug of 2 or 3 sentences. This has made me angry and very hurt…

      I caution you to learn from my unmerited difficulty.

      • Zoe Says:

        So there’s no hairsplitting legalistic arguing regarding revision going on behind the scenes like on Wikipedia? There is also the possibility that you are living simultaneously in multiple *universes*… One in which you wrote the obit & the other in which you didn’t…

      • Tom B Says:

        I just read your bio/obit about John Held Jr. on Find A Grave. Very nice and detailed.

  4. Zoe Says:

    LOVED this place.

    A many-faceted gem in the Diamond District. As a goldsmith I was there a LOT — whilst buying & assaying metals etc. Thankfully it’s memorialised in some films.

    I applied there once & was told I hadn’t been hired because I was “overqualified”. (I actually asked them WHY afterward…). I had only written that I’d worked as a clerk in charge of the library of an architectural firm. The library was very small & consisted of a few shelves of window etc. catalogues. I was so very disappointed I wished I could go back in time & leave that out on the application! I was actually underqualified for that storied place… What was I to say? ‘No no no — really I know *nothing* … I swear!’ It’s a veritable indication of how astonishingly humble they were — in contrast to their illustrious history.

    Later on — recently — a childhood friend told me he had worked there. That place held so many stories for so many people. Literally & figuratively.

    I was & am really glad that their archive was purchased by a university. Their closing left a lot of us quietly sobbing at intervals for a time…

  5. Chris F Says:

    Funny i was just thinking of Andy Brown (prop) earlier this morning, and how much fun it was to explore the racks and his wonderful upstairs gallery of all things Gorey. Miss the space and the company.

  6. Michael Leddy Says:

    I started going to the Gotham in college. The last time I was there was with my kids, and there was a Gorey exhibit upstairs. Luck! I still have a Gotham bookmark with a Gorey drawing.

    I remember finding side-stapled, signed Glen Baxter items at the Gotham. And all kinds of out-of-print poetry. As the story went, they never threw anything out. I remember the poetry shelves as two-books deep.

    Thanks for the background on the sign. I never knew.

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