In recent posts, I’ve written about noteworthy New York independent bookstores from years past, namely, Sunwise Turn, founded and operated by Madge Jenison and Mary Mowbray-Clarke, which was located in midtown Manhattan from 1916 until it closed in 1927 and Gotham Book Mart, founded by Frances Steloff, an institution in literary New York for 87 years. Another on the list of great New York biblio-hubs is Books & Co., owned and operated by Jeannette Watson from 1977-1997.
Back when Gotham Book Mart was still going strong in Midtown, Books & Co opened up on Madison Avenue and 74th Street, just south of the Whitney Museum. Rather than becoming Gotham’s rival, the two stores peacefully coexisted as dual Meccas of independent bookselling. As a matter of fact, according to Bookstore: The Life and Times of Jeannette Watson and Books & Co. by Lynn Tillman, it was none other than Frances Steloff who once gave Jeanette Watson one of her most precious bits of advice. “You never say to customers you’re out of a book; you walk them to the section. Even if you don’t have the book, they may see something else they like,” (57) Steloff told Watson, and she took it to heart, creating an inviting bookstore where one was welcome to browse without the pressure to purchase.
In the beginning, Books & Co. was a partnership with Burt Britton, formerly the manager of the review books section at The Strand, who established some of Books & Co.’s signature traditions. It was Britton’s idea to have their books signed by the authors to add a personal touch, and he also invented “The Wall.” Just to the left when you walked in to the store, the Wall represented spectrum of important works of literature, including many translations. As the Wall became well known, writers came by often to see if their books were on it. In January 1980, however, after falling on hard times due to lax bookkeeping and a large debt due to overstock (singed books could not be returned) Britton and Watson went separate ways.
After this separation, Watson worked tirelessly to make sure Books & Co. remained the cultural hub it had become. The store hosted book signings, publishing parties, and author readings every week. Watson also had an art gallery in the store, putting up exhibitions of work she personally liked. In the 1980’s, the store developed an extensive photography section in and had photography exhibitions of works by Andre Kertesz, Geoffrey James, and Lynn Davis, to name a few.
Big box bookstores also have readings and books signings, but you do not often see the authors themselves browsing their shelves on their own time to see if their books have been placed front and center. This is all left to publicity departments who pay a premium for advantageous placement. At Books & Co., it was important to writers and readers alike to be part of the store’s inner-circle, to belong to the Books & Co. family.
When the big box stores started spreading throughout Manhattan, however, things eventually changed for Books & Co., not due to any diminishing sense of community, but due to the almighty dollar. Sales dipped dramatically, and even the store’s most loyal customers could not resist buying books at a discount despite the fact that it meant shopping elsewhere. Watson recalls that “What Books & Co. offered, in the face of discounting, in place of discounting, was something more personal. The feeling was we knew who came into our shop and what they like to read.” (Bookstore, 204)
But in the end that was not enough to keep the store going, and it closed its doors in 1997. “I didn’t know exactly what I should feel, what the bookstore represented,” she says of the store’s closing: “It was greater than any one individual’s feelings. I felt sad that the city would lose this bookstore—if I were one of my customers, that’s what I would say. I do feel that the bookstore, in the way its been run by me for twenty years, is anachronistic. If the bookstore were going to continue, it would have to be totally changed, computerized, Internetted. Books & Co. was like the last nineteenth-century bookstore in the twentieth century, almost the twenty-first. I wish I could have passed on the mantle and I wish there were someone who would be willing to take the bookstore, invent it in a new way, a modern way, and continue to have great books, the good books, and all the readings” (Bookstore, 272)