On the third floor of a big, gray building at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street, silver-haired docent Julie Chelminski recently stepped up to the middle of a hushed room and faced 15 spellbound tourists.
“On the walls of this room there were 9,000 drawers,” Chelminski said. “And in those drawers were 10 million cards.”
This was in the New York Public Library’s catalog room. And these were book people, as happy as pilgrims in the Holy Land, imbibing every detail of how the library switched from cards to computers in 1983. Within minutes, they would stand in a reading room as grand as a cathedral. That same day, they could see Charlotte Brontë's private diary (such tiny lettering!) at the Morgan Library a few blocks away or hear the tale of Dylan Thomas’ final binge in the bar where it happened.
These are dire days for old-fashioned books. The 48 bookshops that once lined Manhattan’s Book Row on 4th Avenue are gone or relocated. By the end of September, the bankrupt Borders chain’s last outlet is expected to close. At Amazon.com, ebooks outsell hardbacks. As those marble lions in front of the New York Public Library celebrate their 100th anniversary, Kindles, Nooks, iPads and their ilk multiply like bunnies in bedrooms and airline cabins around the planet.
So, old-fashioned book people, hit literary Manhattan soon and hard. Even if you have only three days, as I did earlier this year, you can squeeze in an eight-stop tour, complete with thinking, drinking, Bibles, tote bags and a certain pair of municipal mascots. Here’s how my circuit went.
First, check into the Library Hotel, a for-profit venture with an irresistible gimmick: It stands at Madison Avenue and 41st Street, about three blocks from the New York Public Library, and its 60 rooms (and the 6,000 books within them) are organized by the topics of the Dewey Decimal System. (I was on the Languages floor, in the Germanic room.) Know, however, that the least-expensive rooms are tiny.
Next, stare at the sidewalk. Not just because the New Yorkers all around you are doing so, but because there are dozens of bronze plaques with literary quotes set in the sidewalk on 41st Street near Madison Avenue. My favorite is from E.B. White: “I don’t know which is more discouraging, literature or chickens.”
The Algonquin Hotel’s Round Table Room, the storied West 44th Street gathering spot where Dorothy Parker and other wits of the ‘20s and ‘30s once cracked wise, makes a fine third stop. You can order a bowl of soup (French onion, $13), but don’t fuss over the furniture. As a senior waiter acknowledged during my visit, the famous table itself left the building long ago, its destination unknown.
You can, however, see the old gang over the fireplace — gathered in a Natalie Ascencios painting that includes Parker, humorist Robert Benchley, critic Alexander Woollcott, editor Harold Ross, playwright George S. Kaufman and comedian Harpo Marx. (The Algonquin recently updated its rooms and may be better known these days for the cabaret shows in its Oak Room Supper Club.)
Your fourth stop is the White Horse Tavern, which has stood in the West Village since long before Dylan Thomas’ time. Sip a beer (cash only) and admire the old tin ceiling and an agreeably spooky portrait of the poet, which hangs in a hallway. In it Thomas is wide-eyed, forever gazing toward the bar.
“He didn’t actually die here,” bartender Lova Rasoamanana noted.
After staggering back to his room at the Hotel Chelsea one night in November 1953, Thomas bragged of downing 18 whiskeys. He fell into a coma and died days later in a New York hospital. (The Encyclopedia Britannica blames “an overdose of alcohol,” but biographer Paul Ferris has counterproposed pneumonia and possible medical malpractice.)
Next up is the Morgan Library & Museum at Madison Avenue and 36th Street, built as the private domain of financier Pierpont Morgan in 1906, later recast as a nonlending public institution. Now we commoners can gawk at the myriad cultural prizes Morgan amassed between 1890 and 1913, including medieval manuscripts, letters by Charles Dickens and Mark Twain, handwritten scores by Mozart and Beethoven and three Gutenberg Bibles. The walnut bookshelves rise three stories. The fireplace is big enough to burn three Christmas trees at once (although we discourage this because it can be dangerous). Next door, in a bright, contemporary space that Renzo Piano designed for the Morgan’s 2006 expansion, temporary exhibitions rotate.
Onward to stop No. 6. At East 59th Street you can browse Argosy Old & Rare Books, Prints & Maps, which goes back three generations to 1925. Argosy has its share of $15-$25 volumes near the front, along with all sorts of autographs (Herbert A. Wilson, “corrupt commissioner of the Boston Police Dept.,” $35). But much of the six-story building is filled with antiquarian volumes, art, maps and Americana aimed at wealthier customers. A $75 1965 edition of Malcolm Lowry’s “Under the Volcano.” A $7,500 F. Scott Fitzgerald first edition (“All the Sad Young Men,” 1926).
If Argosy is yin among long-standing Manhattan booksellers, Strand Bookstore, our seventh stop, might be yang. Strand, the lone survivor of the old Book Row, opened in 1927 and moved to Broadway (at 12th) in the 1950s.
Still owned by the founding Bass family, Strand stays vital by courting bargain-hunters with staggering variety — an estimated 18 miles of books on several levels. The Basses will sell you a tote bag, buy your old books, rent you books by the foot for a photo shoot, sell you a used paperback “Catch-22" for $8 or a signed Patti Smith “Just Kids” (also a paperback) for $12.80. Most weeks, the store hosts several book signings.
“We’ve got a challenge ahead of us,” co-owner Fred Bass, 82, told me. Not long ago, he added, he was invited to talk about Strand’s future with a group of women librarians. “If you people don’t buy enough stuff from me,” he told them, “I’ll turn it into a gentlemen’s club.”
Your final stop is where we began, the New York Public Library’s Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, completed in May 1911. Free 50-minute tours start at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. most days, with just a 2 p.m. tour on Sundays.
Start with the lions, designed by Edward Clark Potter, nicknamed Patience and Fortitude during the Great Depression by a desperately cheerleading Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia. They’ve been tidied up for the centennial, but face it, after 100 years of acid rain, noxious exhaust, miscreant kids and pigeon poop, you’d look beleaguered, too.
Inside, you shuffle through grand Astor Hall, check the Gottesman Exhibition Hall, admire the gilt ceiling of the map room and the cityscape paintings in the DeWitt Wallace Periodical Room. The Children’s Center has the originalWinnie the Pooh, a tattered bear that author A.A. Milne gave his son, Christopher, in 1921.
Upstairs, you pause at the murals and woodwork in the McGraw Rotunda, the chandeliers in that old card catalog room, and finally, the library’s main reading room, nearly 300 feet long, dramatically restored and named in 1998 for the Rose family.
Its resources are open to anybody with a library card, and requests are still carried to the seven levels of stacks below by way of an ancient system of pencils, papers, pneumatic tubes and conveyor belts. On 42 long tables, 168 reading lamps glow through gold shades.
“If you want to see New Yorkers intensely at work in one of the most beautiful rooms in the country, go to the Rose Main Reading Room,” Paul LeClerc, until recently the chief executive officer of the library, told me. (He has since been succeeded by Anthony W. Marx.) “You walk in there, you see 600 or 700 people. Who knows who they are or what they’re doing?”
The room’s 52-foot ceiling is the sort of thing you’d expect to see sheltering the head of a 19th century European emperor. Daylight filters down through a procession of arched windows.
Linger here. Maybe you’ll spot Orhan Pamuk, the Turkish novelist and Nobel Laureate whom staffers have served repeatedly in the last year. Or maybe you’ll just tumble to a comforting thought: American civilization isn’t an oxymoron after all, and this place is the proof.