Keeping the Gotham Book Mart alive


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One of my favorite lines of movie dialogue comes from Louis Malle’s ‘Atlantic City,’ when Burt Lancaster says, ‘The Atlantic Ocean was something then. Yes, you should have seen the Atlantic Ocean in those days.’ That’s a perfect evocation of nostalgia, and it encapsulates the way I feel about the late, great Gotham Book Mart, the Manhattan landmark that closed in 2007 after 87 years.

The Gotham was one of those bookshops that wore its history proudly, less a place of business than a literary museum. ‘Wise men fish here,’ read the sign above its entryway, and I always felt smarter for having trolled its waters, perusing the shelves of Joyceiana near the front door, looking through the rows of small-press poetry, where I once found an obscure book from the 1960s by the father of a friend.


The walls were dotted with photographs -- of writers like Auden and Henry Miller at receptions or on visits to the store. (During the late 1930s and 1940s, in fact, owner Frances Steloff did a lot to help Miller and other writers, even, at times, offering material support.) To go to the Gotham, then, was not just to go in search of books but to follow, literally, in the footsteps of the great writers of the 20th century, those with whom I felt the most enduring sympathy.

When the store closed, an anonymous donor bought its inventory, more than 200,000 items in all. Now, reports the New York Times’ City Room blog, that same donor has given these materials to the Rare Book and Manuscript Library at the University of Pennsylvania, where the collection will have ‘new life as an academic resource.’ Among the holdings: first editions and experimental literary magazines, along with ‘photographs, posters, reference works, catalogs, broadsides, prints and postcards,’ as well as books from the libraries of Truman Capote and Anais Nin and items signed by Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams.

This is terrific news for anyone who cares about literature, a small victory of resistance against entropy and decay. For me, though, it’s also personal -- I went to Penn, and as an undergraduate obsessed over the university’s rare-book collection, so it seems oddly comforting that all these years later, the inventory of my favorite bookstore should somehow end up there.

-- David L. Ulin