Book Row: An Anecdotal and Pictorial History of the Antiquarian Book Trade
Marvin Mondlin and Roy Meador
By New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers
New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2004
Paper back: ISBN: 0-7867-1305-4 Price: $28.00
In any diner on any street in New York, clusters of old-timers can be found gathered around a Formica table, hashing over the city’s history. A quartet of old socialists argues over Debs, Trotsky and the Rosenbergs. Next to them, a trio of sports fans recalls the Dodgers at Ebbets Field and the Giants at the Polo Grounds. And at the counter, a pair of bibliophiles nostalgically remembers Booksellers’ Row: Fourth Avenue between Astor Place and Union Square in Manhattan, seven blocks that were once home to dozens of the greatest bookstores in the city, perhaps in the country.
Book Row is a transcription of that bookish conversation; Marvin Mondlin and Roy Meador are the experienced bibliophiles. Meador is a collector and author, and Mondlin, also an author, has been the estate book buyer at The Strand Book Store for nearly three decades. They knew many of the characters in the history of New York bookselling, spent several years talking with people who participated in the businesses and trade associations, and thus are amply qualified to write this history.
The history of bookstores on a half-mile stretch of real estate is surprisingly epic. Shops heroically rise and fall across the decades. We recognize the names of booksellers who seem more like myth to contemporary book lovers. George D. Smith, supplier to the Huntington Collection. Isaac Mendoza. David Kirschenbaum. Alfred Goldsmith. The Scheinbaums, Rosenzweigs and the Bass family (of The Strand). We read about auctions, estate and library sales that seem incredible in their scope, opportunities and bargains rarely found nowadays. Many readers will experience heartbreak and envy as the authors and their interviewees rhapsodize about discoveries made on the shelves of these bookshops—a Poe first edition for $5, a Walt Whitman letter for $2.50.
Book Row is evocative almost in spite of itself. Mondlin and Meador are great at reviving these memories, but the book needs an editor. Sentimental reminiscences often dissolve into cliché and schmaltz. The biographies are sometimes too brief, or too anecdotal, and often Lake Wobegon-ish. All the booksellers remembered are smart, decent and above average. Between the lines, I got the sense that some of these people were real characters, perhaps fascinating in their eccentricities and unpleasantness, if only there was more flesh on their skeletal outlines. A final chapter on the future of bookselling and books in general feels rote and rushed, especially compared to Nicholas Basbanes’ mammoth A Splendor of Letters.
I visited the city recently and stopped by Fourth Avenue. Besides The Strand on Broadway, one block over, the only bookstore on Fourth Avenue itself is the Alabaster Bookshop, a recent arrival that opened in 1997. Many of the older, surviving booksellers, such as Argosy and Swann’s, relocated uptown long ago. No traces remain of the original bookstores that inhabited Book Row for much of the 20th century. Whatever its faults, Book Row is invaluable for resurrecting a place, time and atmosphere that has vanished and for remembering the people who made that world.
Pasco Gasbarro is a librarian, information architect, writer and book collector. He lives in Boston with his wife Jean and works at Houghton Mifflin Company. He regularly reviews books for OP.