The bookseller at the door in 1940s Greenwich Village

The photo, by Berenice Abbott, invites mystery. “Hacker Book Store, Bleecker Street, New York” is the title, dated 1945. Who is the pensive man at the door—and where on Bleecker Street is this?

The answer to the latter question is 381 Bleecker Street, near Perry Street in the West Village. As for the pensive man, it’s likely Seymour Hacker, a bookseller well-known enough in a more literate New York City that he merited a detailed obituary in the New York Times in 2000 when he died at age 83.

“A small, bright-eyed man fluent in four languages, Mr. Hacker was one of the last booksellers to learn his trade from the bookmen whose stores and stands once lined Fourth Avenue between Astor Place and 14th Street,” wrote Roberta Smith. “Born on the Lower East Side in 1917, he grew up in the Bronx and began haunting Fourth Avenue when he was 12.” 

Hacker opened his first bookstore in 1937. “Noting that fine art books were in especially great demand, he opened Hacker Art Books at 381 Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village in 1946, moving uptown in 1948. Customers included Delmore Schwartz, Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Mr. Hacker’s friend Zero Mostel,” stated Smith. “Uptown” took Hacker to 57th Street.

Another mystery: why Abbott chose Hacker and his store as the subject for one of her photographs.

[Photo: MCNY: 2014.90.1]

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14 Responses to “The bookseller at the door in 1940s Greenwich Village”

  1. Doug S Says:

    I love your blog – it’s among the highlights of the week. But I’m not sure that New York was more literate in the 1940s. This apparently now defunct blog has a lot of info and the literary scene in postwar NYC. Please keep up the great work!!!

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Thanks Doug, and I think you make a thoughtful point. It was probably more of a knee-jerk reaction on my part to describe 1940s NYC as more literary. My point was more that the city at that time had a wider variety of big and small bookstores on random streets where browsers could dive into the stacks and shelves, getting lost in the magic of stories. New Yorkers are still very literate, but that culture has been lost in an era of digital readers and Amazon books.

  2. wildbraidart Says:

    Was his 57th st bookstore the large one on the NE corner of 57th and either 7th or 6th? I bought many art books and French language books at that store.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      That was Coliseum! What a treasure; I spent many lunch hours there…when people actually had lunch hours.

  3. Jennifer Says:

    Wonderful glimpse of the literate old New York that I long for. Thank u.

  4. Kenny Says:

    A tablo straight from Chapter One of George Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying.

  5. velovixen Says:

    I have lived in NYC (Brooklyn, Manhattan and Queens) most of my life. What I miss most about “old” New York is the great bookstores like Hacker’, Gotham, St. Mark’s and Tomphins Square. One of the last remnants of that breed is the Strand.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Ah, I too miss Gotham and St. Marks, as well as Coliseum Books on 57th Street. I also recall a short-lived bookstore called Cooper Square Books near Astor Place, and another bookstore at Waverly Place and Washington Square.

      • Buzz Says:

        And I still miss the long-gone Astor Books, which was on the ground floor of the union-owned building on Astor Place itself. (Most of my Loeb Classics come from there.)

    • Karen Nathan Says:

      The Argosy is still there, on 59th between Park and Lex. It’s a bit of old NY, and was used for some of the bookstore shots in Can You Ever Forgive Me?

  6. Ray Laskowitz Says:

    She was doing what you, documenting a changing New York. She started in 1935 and eventually produced a traveling show and a book under the auspices of the WPA.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      I have that book and love it. I just wonder what about this particular bookstore and bookseller captivated her, like if she lived nearby or spent time browsing there. Perhaps we’ll never know.

      • Ray Laskowitz Says:

        I explore cities like she did and I mostly photograph what I see. I’m pretty sure that’s not an original thought. I met her in about 1974 or 75 at a photojournalist meeting in San Fransisco. It was pre-meeting and we were chattering away. We saw he, fell silent with our mouths hanging open.

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