In her September 1, 2011 New York Times essay, “A Portal to 1920s Greenwich Village,” Jennifer Schuessler discusses the new online exhibition from the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin entitled, “The Greenwich Village Bookshop Door: A Portal to Bohemia, 1920-1925.” At the center of the exhibition is a door from Frank Shay’s 1920’s Greenwich Village bookshop that is covered with 244 signatures of the shop’s visitors. It includes those of famous writers such as Theodore Dreiser, John Dos Passos, and Sinclair Lewis, as well as neighborhood eccentrics and unidentified book enthusiasts and reflects the lively literary world of 1920’s New York. Shay “not only sold and published books, but ran a circulating library, lectured on bookselling, edited volumes of plays for other publishing houses, and even won a prize for his window displays. Most importantly, he cultivated a community: publishers, writers, artists, book collectors, magazine editors, cartoonists, academics, book designers, theater directors and more.”
Also at the Ransom Center, though not part of this exhibition, are the records of The Sunwise Turn Bookshop, purchased by the Ransom Center in 1977. Sunwise Turn, founded and operated by Mary Mowbray-Clarke and Madge Jenison, was located in midtown Manhattan from 1916 until it closed in 1927 was concurrent with Shay’s shop. One of the first bookstores in the U.S. to be owned by women, Sunwise Turn sponsored lectures by Robert Frost, Theodore Dreiser, and Amy Lowell among others. It was the first “gallery” to exhibit the work of the painter Charles Burchfield among other new artists of the time, which perhaps influenced the artistic tastes of their young intern named Peggy Guggenheim.
Of the store’s interiors, Madge Jenison writes in her memoir Sunwise Turn: A Human Comedy of Bookselling that they “intended the room to look like a place in which you could read a book. We were to conduct it like life, and it was to look like life.” In the catalog for a past Ransom Center exhibition entitled “Make it New: The Rise of Modernism,” Edward Bishop explains that by lavishly decorating the interior of their store, the proprietors of Sunwise Turn were “creating a space for reading, not just buying books,” and that they “saw themselves as cultural missionaries in the capitalist jungle of Manhattan.” Like Frank Shay, they also published books and worked hard to cultivate a literary community, but, in the end, the store was bought out by Doubleday and became part of the “jungle” it was fighting against. Christopher Morley’s description of Shay’s store in his essay “Wine that Was Spilt in Haste” (1931) applies equally to its contemporary, Sunwise Turn: It was too personal, too enchanting, too Bohemian a bookshop to survive indefinitely, but for five or six years it played a very real part in the creative life of New York.
Bishop, Ted. “The Sunwise Turn: The Modern Bookshop.” Make It New: The Rise of Modernism. Edited by Kurt Heinzelman. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2004.
Harry Ransom Center. “The Greenwich Village Bookshop Door: A Portal to Bohemia, 1920-1925.” Accessed October 11, 2011. http://research.hrc.utexas.edu/bookshopdoor/theshop.cfm#1
Jenison, Madge. Sunwise Turn: A Human Comedy of Bookselling. New York: E. P. Dutton & Company, 1923.
Schuessler, Jennifer. “A Portal to 1920s Greenwich Village.” The New York Times. September 1, 2011.
This post originally appeared on 10/3/11.