Why everyone went to the 8th Street Bookshop

The handsome brick storefront at West Eighth Street and MacDougal Place has been occupied by countless businesses since it went up on this Greenwich Village corner in 1838.

But perhaps it’s best remembered as the home of the Eighth Street Bookshop—one of dozens of booksellers centered around Eighth Street or Fourth Avenue that made the Village a bibliophile paradise in the 1950s and 1960s.

“Operated by the brothers Elias and Ted Wilentz, the Eighth Street Bookshop gained fame as a literary gathering place with close ties to the nonconformist writers of the day, whose works and lifestyle gave rise to the term ‘Beat Generation,’ states the Village Alliance.

While browsing the three floors of books (especially the extensive paperback section), it wouldn’t be uncommon to bump into one of the many writers or poets who lived in the East or West Village at the time, such as Marianne Moore, W.H. Auden, Allen Ginsberg, or e.e. cummings (who lived a few blocks away on Patchin Place).

Of course, all great bookstores are more than literary haunts. As Publisher’s Weekly recalled in 2001, the Eighth Street Bookshop was also the center of a social scene.

“‘Before I met and married Ted in 1965, I remember the Eighth Street Bookshop being the equivalent of a singles bar in the 50s,’ Joan Wilentz [Ted Wilentz’s wife] told PW. ‘It was such an exciting venue. We just drooled over the titles available. There was just a wave of exciting talents in that post—World War II generation that partied at each other’s houses.'”

In 1965, the store relocated across the street to 17 West Eighth Street. In 1976, a fire tore through that location, and the Eighth Street Bookshop shut its doors for good in 1979.

It’s run wasn’t long, but Villagers of a certain age still remember it well.

[Top photo: Robert Otter, 1965; second photo: Katherine Knowles via ArtNerd]

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13 Responses to “Why everyone went to the 8th Street Bookshop”

  1. Mykola (Mick) Dementiuk Says:

    The middle photo is from across the street, both stores were cool hangouts/pick-up places.

  2. Philip Wilentz Says:

    Thank you for the recognition of the bookshop. My brother captured its appeal when he described it as “the cynosure of cool and the hearth of hip”. While It truly was a mecca for the literati, it also drew clientele from a wide spectrum of the arts, sometimes resulting in extraordinary encounters, such as when Bob Dylan met Alan Ginsburg for the first time in my uncle’s apartment. It was an important part of my life…my mother met my father at the store, so it could be said I wouldn’t be here if the store hadn’t existed. It instilled a love and respect of books in me that resulted in a 35 year career in publishing and, for that alone, I will always be indebted to it.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Thank you Philip for sharing this. I wrote this post in tribute to a Village resident who lived and worked off Sixth Avenue in the 1960s and spent many days there.

    • David H Lippman Says:

      Thank you and your brother for running that store…it was one of my favorite bookshops the whole world. I was devastated when it went out of business. I was 16 years old at the time.

  3. Punto Says:

    Growing up in the nearby Long Island suburbs in the 50s & 60s. the Village had a strong allure in my formative years. The coffee shops, folk music venues and basement theaters still held on to the beat and earlier literary/cultural bohemian generation spirit which seemed much more appealing that the insularity and cultural void of the burbs to me.

    Being both a bibliophile and record collector, I spent considerable time on that stretch of W. 8th Street, starting when I was finally living in the city in the late 60s, slowly watching as the bookstores (I seem to remember a paperback place [Paperback Forum?] nearby, too) close or be replaced by a B&N outpost. My attentions and small budget were stretched thin by the competing allure of the Discophile record store down the street at 26 W. 8th, run by the unforgettable Franz (Jolowicz, though I don’t think I knew he had a last name until I read a profile in the Times about the store’s impending closing in July, ’84).

  4. petey Says:

    this article leaves me feeling i was born too late.

  5. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    My 8th Street memories center on Postermat—the upstairs poster store across the street. And the Barnes and Noble branch as well.

  6. Mykola (Mick) Dementiuk Says:

    I just remembered an item I had in Lambda Literary a few years ago about the 8th St Bookstore, a well known pick-up place in my world of kinky literature https://www.lambdaliterary.org/features/10/12/remembering-variety-photoplays/

  7. Michael P Shpontak Says:

    I remember “Booksellers Row’ on Fourth Avenue. In the 70’s we would finish school and roam the book shops. Myself and two friends, who all loved reading would buy books that looked interesting and then pass them on. We would wile away the late afternoons. The smell, only books smell that way. Nothing will replace an old book and it’s scent held in one’s hands. Different world now.

  8. Susan Says:

    My favorite store a book store. There all falling by the wayside. Such a shame.

  9. Robert Says:

    Sorry to burst everyone s bubble but as a young teenager you could go in and look at Nudist Colony Books. I’ll never forget coed naked volleyball.

  10. Andrew Porter Says:

    I used to stop there when I was making my weekly swing through the bookstores of Greenwich Village, starting at Stephen’s Book Service on 3rd Avenue, then the stores of 4th Avenue’s Book Row, then west.

    Philip Wilentz, who commented here, and his family used to live on Middagh Street in Brooklyn Heights, less than a block from Jack and Frances Biblo, whose bookstore Biblo & Tannen was a major presence on Book Row for many years.

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