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