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Books & Co.

Eloquence is Better Than Elegance

by Carter B. Horsley

After sad days of posting ever increasing sales discounts, Books & Co., succumbed to the harsh realities of New York real estate and museumology.

It closed its doors May 31, 1997, although books could still be seen on the less than packed shelves a couple of days later.

A nice memoir of the bookstore appears in the June 1997 issue of Quest Magazine.  It was written by Jane Hitchcock, a writer and friend of the store's founder and owner, Jeannette Watson Sanger.

It will be missed.  (6/2)

By July 4, 1997, the store was vacated and its canopies removed and its memory made even more poignant by the announced closings of two more well-known bookstores, New York Bound, which is located in Rockefeller Center and specialized in books about the city, and the large Doubleday store on Fifth Avenue between 56th and 57th Streets.

Browsing in a bookstore is one of the great joys of life as leafed pages unveil wondrous pictures, fabulous characters, imaginative adventures, different perspectives, profound insights and the simple conjuring magic of words.  As delightful as sidewalk cafes, large-windowed coffee bars and the like may be, they are not quite as civilized as a bookstore that was far more inviting and informal than any library.  For many New Yorkers, of course, bookstores are frustrating because they break the weekly budget and, of course, that is part of the problem: the booming economy does not always filter down to the literate, or the literate wannabees.  (7/18)


The announced demise of Books & Co., the bookstore on Madison Avenue between 74th & 75th Street south of the Whitney Museum of American Art is an occasion for mourning and soul-searching.

Unquestionably the city's most elegant intellectual hangout, it has fallen prey to the onslaught of superbookstores and the harsh realities of retail economics.

Created and run by Jeannete Watson, it is a quiet, respectful library stocked with wonderful literary works, both fiction and non-fiction, as well as a few select coffee-table tomes, for sale, but never pressured sales. Entering it was like going into a sanctuary and hallowed grounds, it was solemn, but not sullen, and chock full'o goodies. The goodies were rarely if ever discounted, but they often were signed editions and editions signed there after some author's talk upstairs. No sooner had one broached its small entrance beside its large picture window than one felt inside a cloister inhabited by souls intent on communicating with their muses.  For many years, and especially since the departure of Sotheby's one block north on Madison to its dreary location on York Avenue, Books & Co. was a bastion of non-floo-floo sophistication on the avenue's churning boutique sea.

The April 26, 1997 story by David W. Chen in The New York Times reported that the Whitney had rejected a last-minute effort to save the cozy, brick-walled, 20-year-old bookstore by two anonymous admirers, "a businessman and a female 'supporter of the arts,' who had offered to help pay its increased rent to the museum "and supplement that with $100,000 in expected annual revenues from additional readings and poster sales."

The Times story quoted Steven Yarni, the store's manager, as saying the store would close May 31 and not reopen an another site because of "escalating rents in New York." It added that three small bookstores on the Upper West Side had closed since Barnes & Noble had opened a very large store there in 1993 and that nationally "at least 50 such bookstores in 1996, according to the American Booksellers Association."

It should be noted that Madison Avenue still has small bookstores, one of which , Archivia, the Decorative Arts Bookstore, opened fairly recently directly across the street from Books & Co., while the Madison Avenue Bookstore about five blocks to the south and the Ursus bookstore on the second floor of the Carlyle Hotel a couple of blocks to the north have been around for some time.  It should also be noted that despite their size and economic impact on smaller bookstores, the large Barnes & Nobles, some with their own cafes, are exceedingly attractive and well-done and cannot be considered other than as a boon to their neighborhoods.

Furthermore, it should also be noted that the fate of Books & Co. has always been in doubt since the museum first considered major expansion on the block going back to 1978 when Norman Foster designed the best-looking and most innovative skyscraper for New York, equipped with interchangeable facade panels, for the site, and, more recently, when Michael Graves designed the worst-looking and most abominable insult to a major landmark in the city with his grotesque scheme to squash Marcel Breuer's great Brutalist building that is the Whitney's home. Fortunately, Graves' scheme has been put on hold, but the museum has wanted to do something with the shabby, undistinguished brownstones that make up the rest of the avenue's frontage on the block, brownstones that are inexplicably landmarks because they are within the avenue's official city historic district.

The Books & Co. plot is complicated by the fact that it is a commercial venture owned by a daughter of a former chairman of I.B.M., someone who conceivably is not poor. Her noble venture has been reported in various press accounts as losing not insubstantial amounts of money for years. The museum, witnessing, like everyone else, the recent boom in retail rents along the avenue, wanted more money to renew her lease and from press accounts the amount it was seeking, a 2.5 percent increase to $140,000 a year, was remarkably modest and only small fraction of what such frontage in such a location can easily achieve in the open market.

The relatively slight increase in rent suggests that money alone may not have been the problem. Perhaps Ms. Watson was exhausted emotionally, or financially. Perhaps the museum has deep-pocket suitors in hand. Perhaps everyone has been bent out of joint by allegations of duplicity and tastelessness. One of the columnists of The New York Observer, Ron Rosenbaum, has covered the agony in great depth and has helped stir up an impressive roster of supporters for the continuation of Books & Co.

This is a small store and a small saga in the city's overall history, but one that is poignant and revealing and important.

Museums, under the leadership of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, have become increasingly commercialized.

Small entrepreneurial efforts in the city are saddled with enormous bureaucratic and economic burdens.

Communities and neighborhoods continue to lose much of their fabric and character to gentrification in which the proverbial mom-and-pop stores simply cannot compete with the Big Daddies of the Fortune 500 headquartered in Cincinnati, or Dallas, or wherever.

These issues and concerns are hard to legislate.

There is an obvious solution.

Let the store remain and expand to take in and over the museum's own small bookstore/catalog operation and let it be subsidized by donors who can have plaques put over the bookcases, but keep the name of the operation Books & Co., to honor Ms. Watson's great creation and contribution to the city's intellectual life and to the spirits of its supporters such as Woody Allen, Louis Auchincloss, Richard Avedon and Susan Sontag. Better yet, the museum should resuscitate Foster's expansion plan and reinstall the reinvigorated Books & Co. at street-level.

Museums in the city have not always had easy relationships with their communities. The Whitney should take the lead and the honor by being amenable to developing solutions that benefit all parties. Clearly, Ms. Watson is not looking for a windfall and clearly her employees deserve honest, working wages and literate New Yorkers deserve a retreat, if not plaza, of their own, and non-literate New Yorkers who fancy clothes would not be mortally wounded by seeing literates at work/play in their midst.

Don't lock the doors, yet.

New York, Madison Avenue, the Upper East Side and the Whitney Museum of American Art need the eloquence of Books & Co.  

In the Spring of 2002, Ms.Watson took over another bookstore on Lexington Avenue at 73rd Street.

A fine article on Books & Co., and Jeannette Watson and her activities after the close of the store can be found at in the fine first issue of the zine Kshanti at http://www.literary.org/watson1.htm.

 

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