by Bill Reed
This is an expanded version of a chapter from Bill Reed’s memoir, Early Plastic. It concerns the Eighth Street Bookshop, an independent Manhattan bookstore that served as a focal point for the 1960s and 1970s counterculture. For more on the bookshop, see Jed Birmingham’s essay Eighth Street Bookshop. For more on Mr. Reed, you can buy his memoir Early Plastic at Amazon.
Staggering through the aisles of today’s giant bookstores, it’s hard not to imagine that most of the merchandise won’t eventually find its way to the nearest Jersey landfill rather than a reader’s night table. Ever since these behemoth-sized emporiums took root in the 1980s, trafficking in assorted lamps, T-shirts, gewgaws, Simone de Beauvoir coffee mugs, Samuel Beckett tote bags, and — oh yes — books, the importance of the printed has become almost a consumerist afterthought. It’s the effect of the literature that these stores sell — a perfume of culture. So omnipresent has this book sales surround become, it almost seems as if — even to those forty and beyond — it has always been with us. But bookstores used to just sell books. And just as importantly, they offered useful information, something nearly impossible to glean from today’s post-literate, cradle-to-grave-minimum-wage chain store clerk. In fact such bookstores of yore, most of which were a quarter of the size of today’s overstuffed bazaars, were often social and cultural gathering-places where literature took precedence over lattes.
Until the early 1970s, nearly all of the large and small bookstores in the U.S. were individually owned and operated. By the end of that decade, however, nearly a seventh of these 7000 independents in the U.S. had shut their doors for good. How could these vertiginously multiplying outfits like B. Dalton and Waldenbooks offer the likes of The Olivia DeHavilland Macrame Cookbook at a price even BELOW wholesale? The answer is simple: volume Volume VOLUME. Then in the ’80s came more chains such as Crown and, in addition, mega-retailers like Walmart and Costco; and in the 1990s, chain SUPER stores the likes of Barnes & Noble and Borders. And, mostly as a direct result of this influx, a few thousand more independent bookstores folded. By the year 2000 the total number of independents had fallen from 5,132 in 1991 to just around 3,200.
As recently as 1991, independent bookstores still managed to account for the largest amount of book sales (32 percent). But today, thanks to the insult added to injury of “Shop Naked” cyber sites like amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com, the number of independents has dropped below the 3,000 mark, with a significant portion of those remaining stalwarts only barely managing to hang on. The independents are fighting back in a myriad of ways, including, in at least one notable book distributor / store chain merger, seeking the intervention of the Federal Trade Commission. But the ground has shifted underneath them in ways that would appear to be irrevocable.
With today’s computerized inventory systems, the chances are better than good that you’ll find what you’re looking for in the “average” book superstore — if you know what you’re looking for. Still one can’t help but wonder if such consumer certitude is an adequate trade-off for what the independent book retailer had to offer in the way of bibliophilia, knowledge, literacy, familiarity with stock, trust, experience, readerly advice, etc. To underscore what the ABA and its members are trying to preserve, it might be instructive to recall a bookstore that was not only the largest independent (or otherwise) in the U.S. at one time, but one that also exemplified some of its best attributes and traditions — New York’s Eighth Street Bookshop.
When I lived there in the 1960s, Greenwich Village was still known far-and-wide as the antidote for “Cleveland blues” — the place to go to kick over the traces and let your hair down. Whether this still holds true or not is debatable, but the (just plain) Village of my teens and early twenties continued to be a haven for — among other unconventional sorts — pinkos, an-ar-kists, and long-haired men and short-haired women; as was still being noted with forthright amusement by guides on the tourist buses snaking their way past me through the Village’s narrow streets. This image of the Village was nothing new, of course, but stretched back to before WWI, as Warren Beatty’s invaluable Reds attests.
In the mid-1940s, at the southeast corner of Eighth and MacDougal, stood a branch of the very un-Village-like Womrath’s franchise (a precursor of the chains to come), specializing in greeting cards and the latest bestsellers. But when two young proprietors, the Wilentz brothers, Ted and Eli, took over in 1947, all that changed: OUT went the froufrou calendars, gift box ribbons, children’s toys, etc. and IN came an inventory consisting almost entirely of real books.
Under its new name, the Eighth Street Bookshop rapidly became a literary gathering-spot reflecting and in turn influencing the latest local, national and international vogues in everything from poetry to astrophysics. Over the next few decades Eighth Street would become as fine a book emporium as any in the U.S., and a worthy rival to Blackwell’s in London.
A big factor in the store’s success was its willingness to embrace the new paperback phenomenon of the 1940s. While other retailers, clinging to the concept of the hardcover book, tended to eschew those 35 cent editions of the sort featuring Madame Bovary heaving out of her bodice or Captain Ahab ravishing a scantily clad native woman, Eighth Street presciently embraced them. As more trends developed (existentialism, the Beats, etc.), the categorical demarcations on the shelves became more dizzyingly Jesuitical by the hour. The dernier cri in taxonomy was reached in the early 1960s the day a magic-markered sign went up for a new section featuring Astral Projection, all the rage that season. Relegating most best sellers to its lower shelves, Eighth Street filled its display window with the latest Ezra Pound, new translations of Kafka and the like. As if to say, “No Jacqueline Susann sold. Our customers don’t read her.”
By the time I came on board as an employee in 1963, in-store sales, coupled with phone and mail orders meant the operation had no choice but to secure larger quarters. However, so associated was the store with the street’s numerical name by ’63 that “Ninth Street Bookshop,” “Tenth Street…,” etc., “formerly Eighth Street Bookshop” just wouldn’t do. Finally in 1967 there became available, slightly eastward at 17 West Eighth Street, a five story townhouse where Texas Guinan, of “Hello, Sucker!” prohibition fame, once lived. The Wilentzes purchased it, and the gutting of the interior began (they never did find Guinan’s legendary gold bathtub when they excavated the place). Once renovation was completed, the new location possessed little of the hamische atmosphere of the old place. “All the warmth of an airline terminal,” as one employee put it. But the opportunity to play Library at Alexandria was a fair exchange. Even larger than most of today’s Borders outlets, the three sales floors of Eighth Street Bookshop at 17 West prided itself on stocking over 60,000 neatly arranged titles. By its own estimate “Greenwich Village’s Famous Bookshop,” the United States’s Famous Bookshop was more like it.
Long after most other Greenwich Village retailers had gone the way of high-tech security systems to snare shoplifters, Eighth Street did not require one to “Please check all bags, etc. at the front counter.” So lax was overall security that one employee who worked there was able to steal many thousands of dollars from the till before getting caught. A self-styled struggling artist, even though the Wilentzes paid wages nearly twice as high as any other bookstore in the city, he most likely felt his actions justified. But emblematic of the fluffy white cloud of paradox hanging over the place, when this not-so-petty thief was finally uncovered and sent packing he was given generous severance pay. Just what you might expect from a couple of only partially reconstructed lefties like Ted and Eli. The aforementioned pilferer notwithstanding, working at Eighth Street was considered a sinecure by most who toiled there. Another time, an employee, known for his hangovers, mistakenly ordered a mammoth number of non-refundable books: “Just give me one of everything,” he had told a salesman. Typically, he was allowed to stay on.
Wilentz senior had been a furrier, but his youngest son Eli, instead of following in dad’s footsteps, harbored ambitions of being a sculptor. There was an exquisite rumor among Eighth Street’s employees, probably begun by some droll clerk, that Eli had been a Martha Graham dancer in his youth, thus summoning up far-fetched images of the stolid and rather dour Eli leaping about the stage of Town Hall clad in tights. Whatever his personal designs on being an artist might have been, the store certainly provided a wealth of artistic atmosphere.
Eighth Street’s regular clientele included Edward Albee, Uta Hagen, Herbert Berghof, Susan Sontag, Irving Howe, the curmudgeonly Joseph Campbell, essayist-novelist Albert Murray (every day), author-activist Michael Harrington, cartoonist William Steig, New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell, poet-translator (later, MacArthur “Genius” Grant recipient) Richard Howard, and Alger Hiss, also the store’s stationary supplier. One time I received a note from Hiss praising me for my courtesy and friendliness. In all likelihood, this convicted commie spy, and one of the most vilified men of the century, wrote encomia like that to anyone who didn’t punch him in the face.
Nearly every time you turned around at Eighth Street found you rubbing literary stardust out of your eyes. As poet Jonathan Williams wrote in his 2001 Eulogy for Ted Wilentz, “One minute: Pee Wee Russell, the next Geraldine Page, the next Edward Dahlberg, the next e.e. cummings. Ted would be on cue, like Toscanini– absolutely poised.” Veteran photographer Fred McDarrah in his book, The Beat Generation, recalled, “Ted and his family lived in an apartment above the store, and there he threw his informal book parties, which were the closest thing to a literary salon in the Greenwich Village of the 1950s.”
“This is Shelley Winters, 225 Riverside Drive,” the party on the other end of the line said. “Perhaps you recognize the voice. (Who wouldn’t?) Do you know who this Emma Goldman person is? I’m auditioning to play her in a movie but I’ve never even heard of her.” I would have sworn that left-leaning Winters had not only heard of Goldman, but somewhere in the heart of her Riverside Drive co-op had a shrine dedicated to the legendary feminist / communist / anarchist. The call came in at Eighth Street one evening just before midnight closing time. Winters wanted to know if we had any books on Goldman. We did; practically an entire section. That night the store stayed open past its usual closing time, just long enough for a driver to arrive and pick up “one of everything” on Red Emma.
A measure of the enormous degree of clout once possessed by book reviewers happened in 1963 when Avon Books reissued the obscure Depression era novel, Call it Sleep, by the long forgotten Henry Roth. In an act practically unheard of, this mass market 95 cent Avon paperback reissue was the subject of a front page write-up in the Sunday New York Times Book Review, in which it was deemed perhaps the Great (albeit lost) American novel. Minutes after Eighth Street opened that day, the store was overrun with customers in search of a copy of the undeservedly forgotten work. All that were on hand went flying out the door in minutes, Ted made a weekend emergency call to the publisher, and bright and early the next morning we had received enough stock to supply the demand for this belated “overnight sensation.”
It seems as if every literary lion in the Village (and beyond) was a habitué of the place. The one notable exception being Djuna Barnes, author of the 1934 novel Nightwood, which wielded as much if not more influence on a newer generation of women writers in the 1960s as when it was first published. Even though, since the 1940s, Barnes had lived in a one-room apartment at number 5 Patchen Place, just off of nearby Sixth Avenue, she was not only curiously absent from Eighth Street Bookshop, but from the streets of the Village as well, though there is one candid street photo of her, caught unawares, trudging along Greenwich Avenue in McDarrah’s aforementioned book. Word was that the unexpected success of Nightwood so freaked Barnes she was barely able to write anything after that.
Then one winter’s day in 1974 store clerk Tom Farley spotted a very aged crone, stooped and barely able to make it to the top of the second landing. I saw him move from behind the counter to help her up the last couple of steps, and as he reached out, I overheard him say: “Welcome to Eight Street Bookshop Miss Barnes.”
Here at last was one of the locale’s most famous literary lights making her long overdue debut at Greenwich Village’s famous Bookshop. I flinched; I thought maybe this Garbo of avant lettres might, upon being recognized, turn around and walk right back down the stairs and out the front door. Instead, she looked up and said to Tom:
“However on earth did you recognize me?”
“Why from your photo on the back of Nightwood,” he explained, referring to the famed Stieglitz portrait that adorned the paperback edition.
“Do you realize that picture was taken long before you were even born?” Barnes said in amazement. It had been taken more than forty years before.
“Well, you haven’t changed a bit,” he replied.
At that, Barnes blushed just like a young school girl.
As far as I knew at the time, one of the store’s regulars wasn’t a writer at all. Instead, the main claim to fame of Samuel Loveman — a very sweet old man looking like a cross between W.C. Fields and the latter-day William Burroughs — was that he had once been the lover of a certain very famous writer. But in his 1976 obit, I learned that Sam had not only been, as the newspaper tastefully couched it in the language of the time / Times, “a youthful protégé and lifelong friend [itals. mine] of Hart Crane,” but in the 1920s, a poet and critic of some renown himself. Loveman more or less lived at Eighth Street in the 1960s, with its employees constituting a sort of surrogate family, especially Conrad Brenner, the night manager, whose main claim to literary fame was that in 1947 he had written the first-ever English language essay on Vladimir Nabokov (so famous that it has been affixed to the standard edition of Nabokov’s The Real Life of Sebastian Knight.) As Sam shambled about the premises, poetry and / or Hart Crane groupies would point discretely at him and whisper with the fervor of film fans spotting Audrey Hepburn at Tiffany’s.
As late as the 1960s, the tradition of publishers specializing in experimental prose and poetry was still a way of life in the Village. Too avant-garde or obscure for most other book houses to bother with you? In the 1960s, one had to look no further than Eighth Street’s own Corinth / Totem Press, which trafficked in first or early works by Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen and Diane DiPrima, et al. Perhaps the most important of the Corinth volumes was Charles Olson’s Projective Verse, in which the New England writer laid down many principles that still hold sway in American poetry. Especially vital to the continuance of the small press aesthetic were the acolytes of poet Frank O’Hara. Run down and killed by a taxi on Fire Island in 1966 at age forty (an accident nearly as freakish as the one that claimed another of America’s great artists of the advance guard, dancer Isadora Duncan), O’Hara, long after his death, is now far more widely known than he was in life. Among those who satellited around him back then were Larry Rivers, Leroi Jones (Amiri Baraka), John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, Kenward Elmslie, Alfred Leslie, Bill Berkson and sui generis writer-painter Joe Brainard, all Eighth Street habitués. And nearly all of these artists and many more were given encouragement through-publication by Corinth / Totem Press. It comes as no surprise that, today, a slim, stapled volume (more like a pamphlet) of O’Hara’s, Second Avenue, published by the press in 1960, fetches upwards of two hundred dollars on the collectors’ market.
The press also dabbled in reprinting works by too-good-to-let-go-out-of-print writers like poet Delmore Schwartz, and publishing The Beat Scene, a poetry anthology that was the first of its kind. Beat Scene was edited by Eli, but it was brother Ted who was the real literary groupie, which is the best kind to be if one is going to aspire to that sort of thing. Corinth’s forays into the “experimental” also included the publication of Mrs. Aphra Behn, 17th century figure who is now widely considered to be the first feminist writer.
Much like San Francisco’s City Lights Bookshop / Books, also an important small press publisher, Eighth Street functioned as a mail drop, social club, post office, loan department and employment agency for much of New York’s literary avant garde. Whenever a Marianne Moore or W.H. Auden came by the store, it was invariably Ted and not the somewhat introverted Eli, who tripped all over himself bowing and scraping. It was entirely in keeping with the older Wilentz’s almost groupie-like avidity for such eminent personages that one day he came rushing up the steps to the mezzanine, snagged me by the collar, and breathlessly confided as he dragged me down the steps that there was someone on hand that I just had to meet. Rounding a corner, I came face to face with Neal Cassady. A decade and a half after his and Jack Kerouac’s peregrinations for the ages had been chronicled in the latter’s On the Road, he was the Beat Generation’s eminence grise. Like a golden retriever laying a dead bird at his master’s feet offering him first chew, he proffered merely the briefest of intros: “Neal Cassady… Bill Reed” etc. Then hyper-kinetic Ted (were there ever any two brothers less alike than he and Eli?) was off like a “Flash” (the employees’ secret name for him). This was a classic awkward social situation. Cassady was not so much a writer, as a character in a roman Ã clef. What could I say? “I sure did enjoy you in On the Road,” like it was some dumb road movie. We shook hands, then mutually bid “Goodbye.” Thanks, Ted! Despite the awkwardness, I’m glad I had the chance to meet the real “Dean Moriarty.” I also remember Lenny Bruce, around the time of his Lower East Side Loew’s Theatre concert, coming into Eighth Street wearing the brightest, most dazzling white-on-white linen suit since Sidney Greenstreet.
Over the years, a surprising number of store employees were able to move beyond book clerking into various degrees of public recognition: LeRoi Jones worked there at one time; so did Allen Ginsberg’s soul mate, Peter Orlovsky (as janitor), along with poet A.B. Spellman, the author of the seminal jazz book, Four Lives in the Be-Bop Business and drama critic / editor Jan Herman. At the height of his public notoriety, David Mitchell, notorious “draft dodger,” was part of the crew. My friend, Ken Weaver, was briefly employed as the store’s janitor just prior to or after — I no longer remember which — Peter Orlovsky. Then Ken quit, when the Fugs, the shock-rock group he founded along with poet-peace activists Ed Sanders and Tuli Kupferberg, became an overnight sensation and the three found themselves off on a round of, at first, national, then international touring. This isn’t to say that all the clerks became famous — though many were already “famous in their own mind.” In fact a friend once took note of the “Mandarin-like demeanor” of some of them, as a mark of what we’d now call “attitude.” But in the end, at least they possessed the answers to any question a not-easily-intimidated customer might raise.
In the early 1970s when shopping mall and chain store mania began, not even Greenwich Village was exempt from the blight. Seemingly impervious longtime Village establishments began displaying more and more “Closed for Remodeling” signs, which fooled no one. Miraculously, a few old haunts remained afloat: former speakeasy and watering hole Chumley’s on Bedford Street; to the east on Thompson Street, the literary hangout Grand Ticino; and El Faro, with its exotic mix of Chinese, Spanish and Italian food. Eighth Street also managed to hang on. And well into the 1970s, it looked as if the place might roll on forever… even when a branch of a new large discount bookstore chain opened nearby, with more of its kind on the way. But even success was no guarantee of staying power. Vertiginously escalating rents were hitting nearly everyone: Bleecker Street’s still-popular Café Figaro, where Jack Kerouac had once worked as a dishwasher, closed up. Almost overnight the place became a Blimpie’s hoagie shop. My Eighth Street co-worker Andre Codrescu (now NPR commentator and author) said it looked like someone had stood at the door of the Figaro and blown up a giant balloon containing the franchised interior of a Blimpies.
Around 1969, the Wilentz brothers had some sort of breakup and Ted unceremoniously departed Eighth Street; now Eli was the sole owner. Most working there felt like kids caught up in custody battle, and no one could tell any of us what the “divorce” was all about. Otherwise it was business as usual for the next few years, then around ’75 the door the door to Eli’s office began to remain closed most of the time while he held meetings with various people who tended to shout a great deal. Something was wrong after all; it appeared that Eighth Street Bookshop, too, was falling victim to the changes taking place in the Village. Eli, who had previously been only phlegmatic and sometimes hard to read, now became downright uncivil, especially to his employees, an almost straw boss who even refused to discuss with me the matter of my long overdue vacation. Tough shouldering the responsibility of such a large outfit on his lone shoulders, I guess. So one spring afternoon in 1976, when my lunch hour came round, I made a B-line for the nearest employment office where I filed a grievance. I never set foot in Eighth Street again, but not because of the recent unpleasantness. The following morning I received a phone call from Joe Bitowf, an Eighth Street co-worker and a notorious practical joker:
“Where were you early this morning at around five o’clock?”
The opening conversational gambit was par for the course with the notoriously elliptical Joe.
“Asleep in my bed,” I answered. The Truth. “Why?”
“Eighth Street Bookshop burned almost to the ground last night; and since disgruntled ex-employees are the first ones they usually question, you should be ready with an alibi when the fire inspector comes around.”
I didn’t quite believe Joe, even when I rang off, but later that day in the New York Post, under the headline “Blaze at Eighth Street Bookshop,” I learned he hadn’t been joking after all. Curiously, no Fire Inspector Bill ever came calling. I’m sure Eli — a basically good AND assertive man — convinced them to leave me alone. Not long afterward, the neighborhood newspaper, the Village Voice, reported there were a number of witnesses to the fire being arson-related. But nothing ever came of it.
In Dan Wakefield’s memoir, New York in the Fifties, poet Harvey Shapiro recalls a gathering of artists and writers held shortly after the blaze “to honor the store and the owner, to give him the desire to go on after the fire… you know, the Eighth Street Bookshop was the place for poets — I met other poets there, some poets even got their mail there, it was a real center for us. What I remember about the evening was that Allen [Ginsberg] improvised a poem, “The Burning of the Eighth Street Bookstore.” It was really good… He thought it was good too, and after reading he ran around the audience to see if anyone had a tape recorder so he could save it.”
Later that year Eighth Street reopened its doors with a kickoff party covered in the October 4, 1976 issue of The New Yorker. By this time I had departed New York City for good to live in Los Angeles.
“Familiar faces,” the publication reported, “included Joe Lash, Margo and Nat Hentoff, Michael Harrington (the writer, not the congressman), the poet Richard Howard, and Imamu Amiri Baraka [Leroi Jones], who arrived with his wife and some free copies of Unity and Struggle, the political organ of the Revolutionary Communist League.”
But the Eighth Street Bookshop that opened some six months after the disastrous fire, “name” first night guests notwithstanding, was not the Eighth Street of yore. The large third floor social studies section, which had drawn heavy business, was gone. Jacqueline Susann was so longer relegated to plain brown wrapper status, which I noticed to my shocked amazement one day when I was back in the city for a visit and walked past the store, but was dutifully displayed in window, along with a lot of other current discounted bestsellers. I also learned from friends who still worked there that the place was now as realistically security conscious as any other run-of-the-mill retailer in the Village. No longer was Eighth Street a bookstore where, the Village Voice once reported, “on the front shelves you found Walter Benjamin chock against Charles Bukowski, and inevitably some ragged edition of Nightwood…”
In my picaresque 1960s, I left Eighth Street Bookshop employment at least a half-dozen times, usually to hit the hippie highway. But coming back off the road and finding myself beached on the shores of Manhattan, I was always welcomed back by Ted and Eli to its staff of 40 or so. With its unusually high and fair wages, the place seemed to offer cradle-to-grave security. I once believed that Eighth Street would last forever, then in the 70s revised that downward to… hanging on for a while. The rebuilding after the fire seemed to indicate that. But I was wrong. Under a headline reading, “Great Moments in Labor History,” the October 1, 1979 issue of the Village Voice reported that the store’s personnel had shown up for work earlier that week to find, without prior notification, the locks on the door changed. The Voice implied that Eli Wilentz, rather than give in to unionizing his operation, as the majority of his employees were now pushing for, decided to close up his store for good (although Eli later denied that was the reason). A sign in the window read:
“To customers and friends — After thirty-two years of running the bookshop, I have decided to retire. I appreciate your friendship over the years. Long live Greenwich Village and its poets, writers and readers.” — Eli Wilentz
There was no mention of the store’s staff of would-be union men and women, who must have stood around for a brief while scratching their heads and shuffling their feet, then straggled off into that great good Village morning heading for the nearest unemployment office.
Stores, theaters and restaurants, so reflective of the character of the Village from an earlier day were now dropping like soldiers in battle, including: the Cafe Cino, stomping grounds for a generation of New American Playwrights; gone too were: Sutter’s Bakery, which had been in the Village for a long as anyone could remember and still seemed to be going great guns when it unexpectedly closed its doors forever; the nearby Women’s House of Detention reduced to a pile of 19th century rubble; the Stag Shop with its stunning line of abbreviated, tight-fitting male clothing creations by Parr of Arizona (the Marie Curie of “Basket”). All — and more — gone and replaced by inauthentic pizzerias, discount clothiers, gay leather shops, newsstands stacked high with the latest issues of Orgy, Eat, and Screw. The Village Barn and Bon Soir nightclubs were also victim of the change. The smell of fresh bread wafting out of dear, departed Sutter’s, gave way to the stomach-churning odor of open air souvlaki clashing head-on with the patchouli oil and incense that came drifting out of head shops.
Now, Eighth Street Bookshop (born 1947 – died 1979), one of the last holdouts of a — some might say — more authentic Greenwich Village, was gone. The “Engulf and Devour” (thank you, Mel Brooks) conglomerates had finally won the first battle of the war. There are still a few bookstores which, on a smaller scale, carry on in the tradition of a store like Eighth Street. Although operating on a much smaller scale, Book Soup in Los Angeles (of all places) caters to the serious reader quite successfully. The secret of the success that Soup and other independent stores have discovered, is not in supplying an overwhelming amount of stock, or trying to match the megastores in discount pricing, but through providing impeccable service. If you have a question about a book or an author you can be assured of getting a useful and polite — and, most likely, Un-Mandarin-like — reply. The literary salon atmosphere Eighth Street epitomized — and centralized — may be gone with the era that nurtured it, but many of the things it provided still persist in other forms — from sundry cozy independent book nooks to the pixilated realms of cyberspace. But the center that was Eighth Street no longer holds.
Published on 26 October 2006. Many thanks to Bill Reed.