New York City is home to beautiful bookstores, but there used to be so many more to choose from – from Coliseum Books, just south of Columbus Circle; to Ivy’s Curiosities and Murder Ink on the Upper West Side; to the dearly departed St. Mark’s Bookshop in the East Village. By one count, there were 386 booksellers in Manhattan in 1950, including nearly 40 on a six block of Fourth Avenue. (By comparison, there are now less than 100 in the city.) Here’s a look back at some old favorites.
Dozens of bookstores once lined Fourth Avenue—so many that in 1969 a Times article on the area noted, “What Lincoln Center is to music, what Broadway is to theater,” Fourth Avenue “is to rare, used, and antiquarian books.” Jack Biblo, co-owner of Biblo & Tannen’s — seen here circa 1940 — reminisced about the street in 1981, telling The Times: “We were all a little quirky. When I started, you had an old Russian revolutionary in the street who had a wood stove in the middle of his shop If he liked you he would give you a cup of tea If he didn’t like you he would kick you out If he told you a price and you said you were talking about it would think, he would double the price.”
Lewis H. Michaux left preaching to open his bookstore in Harlem, the African National Memorial Bookstore, in 1930, and it remained a fixture in the community—and a center of black politics and intellectual activity—until it closed in on 44 years later. 1974 was closed. It’s my baby, but it’s gotten too heavy for me,” he told The Times.
The Green Book Shop, seen here in 1969, was one of the mainstays of Fourth Avenue.
In a 1962 Times article, the writer Gay Talese spoke to Richard Kasak and Seymour Rubin, the owners of Bookmasters, a Times Square paperback store that stayed open all night for “literate insomniacs.” Talese wrote, “Before Messrs. Kasak and Rubin decided to open Bookmasters, rubbing shoulders with Broadway’s grindhouses, they were warned by friends that a bookstore in the area could only survive by selling pornography, girl magazines, and detective thrillers.” Kasak told Talese: “Well, we’ve proved that it isn’t. We don’t have one pornographic book in this store. You know, 42nd Street isn’t as bad as people say. It’s not as bad as Greenwich Village. There you have those Bronx maniacs looking to have a good time; those students lose control. I feel much safer on the 42nd than in the Village.”
John Moore (left) and Kanya Ke’Kumbha at the Tree of Life Bookstore on 125th Street in Harlem in 1976. With books on metaphysics, astrology, herbology and the occult, the store was also named UCLA, for University at the Corner of Lenox avenue. “This is our goal,” Ke’Kumbha told The Times in 1976, “to raise the level of consciousness of our community.”
The Manhattan branch of A Different Light, an iconic gay bookstore chain, closed in 2001. In 1993, company president and co-owner Norman Laurila told The Times that while some gay literature would find its way into mainstream retailers, its stores ‘ roles “as a cheerleader, social center and political impulse for the book-reading gay community” could not be replicated.
The Doubleday Book Shop, seen here in 1972, was on Fifth Avenue and 56th Street. In a 2006 Times article, Dan Kois wrote, “A special attraction about Doubleday was that it remained open until 11 p.m., which reminded author Fran Lebowitz of a time when ‘Midtown was for New Yorkers, not just tourists; you could go there late at night and pick up everything.’”
One of the city’s most famous literary fishing spots, the Gotham Book Mart had several locations in the 1940s in the west. In 1972, when the store’s founder, Frances Steloff, turned 85, she had a Times reporter show her around and, pointing to a shelf, said, “This is why I’m still here instead of sunbathing myself. in Florida – to put more of these books in the hands of young people.”
George Rubin, here in the window of his Fourth Avenue bookstore, told The Times in 1969 that he remained optimistic about the bookstore. Books are part of education, he said, and “education will never stop.”
Tina Jordan is the deputy editor of the Book Review. Erica Ackerberg is a photo editor at The Times.