Manhattan has always had its neighborhoods of commerce and industry, from the Garment Center to the Pickle District.
And like those two vestiges of the late 19th century city, a booksellers’ district also popped up, this one on the warehouse blocks along Fourth Avenue south of Union Square.
“That quarter-mile section of Fourth Avenue which lies between the Bible House [at Astor Place] and the vista of Union Square has been for more than forty years the habitat of many dealers of old books,” noted Publishers’ Weekly in 1917.
That means Booksellers’ Row—the fabled enclave where book vendors and lovers came together in dusty storefronts, buying and selling hidden treasures—dates back to the 1870s.
Thanks to the presence of many book publishing offices, “it admittedly is now the ‘Booksellers’ Row’ of the metropolis,” the article proclaimed.
Booksellers’ Row attracted bibliophiles and casual browsers for decades; in the 1950s, more than 40 general and specialty shops lured reader to their mazes of shelves.
These black and white photos, from the 1930s and 1940s, convey mystery and solitude.
Who are these serious-looking readers, picking through bins and piles on tables while the rest of the city thunders along, pursuing progress and profit?
In the 1950s, Booksellers’ Row was on the wane. It was the usual culprit, of course: increasing rents.
“This is their plight: They can exist only in low-rental shops, yet they need tremendous storage space,” wrote the New York Times in a 1956 piece on the dilemma of selling books in New York City.
By the 1970s, many stores were gone or on the way out, or “scattering” to other parts of the city, as the Times seemed to predict. The article featured a prescient last paragraph:
“The Commissioner [of the city’s department of commerce and public events], something of a sentimentalist, thinks he can prevent this scattering.
“He thinks New York must never go so modern that it must ride roughshod over these mellow places.
“He thinks something essential dies when that happens,” the Times stated.
Today the Strand, opened in 1927 on Fourth Avenue and now on Broadway and 12th Street, is the only old-timer remaining.
[Top photo: Mosk’s, Astor Place, 1935, MCNY; second photo: Schulte’s, Fourth Ave and 10th Street, NYPL; third photo: browsers on Fourth Ave, NYPL; fourth photo: Books and Stationary on Fourth Ave and 11th Street, NYPL; fifth photo: The Strand, 1938; sixth photo: 13th and Fourth Ave, 1930, NYPL]