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Fourth Avenue’s “Book Row” Defines an Era

Beginning in the 1890s and lasting for over 80 years, the area between Astor Place and Union Square was a hub of secondhand and rare bookstores that achieved national and international renown. Seven blocks along Fourth Avenue made up the spine of what was known as New York Booksellers’ Row, most commonly referred to simply as “Book Row.” This concentrated, eclectic combination of bookstores has been documented thoroughly by Marvin Mondlin and Roy Meador in their spectacular publication Book Row: An Anecdotal and Pictorial History of the Antiquarian Book Trade. In remembering the stories of a small handful of these shops — and the dedicated, colorful owners who ran them — we get only a glimpse of this vast, multifarious, era-defining district.

108-112 Fourth Avenue, c. 1940 tax photo. Photo courtesy of NYC Municipal Archives. Shows Green Book Shop (center, 110 Fourth Avenue) and Raven Book Shop (right, 112 Fourth Avenue).

Samuel Weiser Bookstore, 117 Fourth Avenue

113-119 Fourth Avenue, 2018

Samuel Weiser began his career in bookselling as an apprentice at the bookstore Bentano’s. In the 1920s he began running his own bookstores, and starting in 1926 he owned and operated the Samuel Weiser Bookstore. At different periods, his brother Ben worked here as well. The store specialized in the occult, New Age, and Eastern philosophy, and was followed worldwide by magicians and others interested in the supernatural. Ehrich Weiss, best known as the illusionist, escape artist, and performer Harry Houdini, was said to have been a patron.

Weiser’s store spent most of its life at 117 Fourth Avenue, also residing at 845 Broadway, 734 Broadway, and 132 East 24th Street. Like other Book Row businesses, the store published catalogues regularly to entertain and advertise its books to customers.

Raven Book Shop, 112 Fourth Avenue

112 Fourth Avenue, 2020

In 1934, Bernard (or Bernie) Kraus, opened a used bookstore at 112 Fourth Avenue. The Raven Book Shop specialized in American and English literature, with a particular emphasis on criticism and scholarly works. “Raven” was chosen as a name for the shop for its associations with American literature and its welcoming, homey connotations. Kraus was remembered, among his many peers on Book Row, for being especially friendly, knowledgeable, and magnanimous.

The Raven Book Shop was a charter member of the Fourth Avenue Booksellers’ Association, founded in 1942, and an early member of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America. The former was developed in response to a campaign by New York City officials to ban sidewalk book stands, and functioned for over 25 years to organize and represent the neighborhood’s booksellers. The Raven Book Shop also took up residence at 142 Fourth Avenue and 752 Broadway.

Green Book Shop, 110 Fourth Avenue

110 Fourth Avenue, 2019. Photo courtesy of Google Streetview.

The Green Book Shop was started in the 1920s by Harry Carp at 11 Astor Place. Carp, who had previously apprenticed for a Third Avenue book dealer, developed a store that focused on general literature, fiction, and art books. In the 1930s, he moved the Green Book Shop to a now-demolished building at 110 Fourth Avenue. His wife, Ruth, joined him in running the business in the early 1950s, and when Carp passed away in 1962, Ruth continued to operate the store. One of the preeminent women booksellers of Book Row, in 1969 she was elected president of the Fourth Avenue Booksellers’ Association.

The Green Book Shop was frequented by author Philip Van Doren Stern and mystery writers John Dickson Carr and Daniel Nathan. It was at one point featured in an episode of the Emmy Award-winning television show Naked City, which led to a store robbery the following day. At its most successful, the shop had 50,000 titles, with half on display.

Corner Book Shop, 102 Fourth Avenue

102 Fourth Avenue, 2020

Eleanor Lowenstein worked at Walter Goldwater’s University Place Book Shop before opening her own store. She founded the Corner Book Shop at 102 Fourth Avenue in June of 1940, and continued to serve as its proprietor for four decades. This store specialized in cookbooks, gastronomy, food, and wine, but housed books on a diverse and expansive range of topics: aviation, botany, criminology, dance, fashion, juvenilia, music, perfume, photography, psychoanalysis, puppetry, radio, sea, television, theater.

While running her bookstore, Lowenstein developed a reputation as a cookbook and cooking history expert. She wrote introductions to cookbooks, consulted on cookbook bibliographies, and revised Waldo Lincoln’s American Cookery Books 1742-1860 in 1954 and 1972. Lowenstein was also a charter member of the Fourth Avenue Booksellers’ Association, and the corresponding secretary of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association. She married Walter Goldwater, who had been her mentor, in 1954. The couple resided in an apartment above the shop at 102 Fourth Avenue.

Today, the Records of the Corner Book Shop are held in the Schlesinger Library of the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard University.

Atlantis Bookshop, 100 Fourth Avenue

100 Fourth Avenue, 2020

Jack Brussel first worked as a book dealer in Brooklyn, operating a shop near the Academy of Music. In 1922, he opened a Book Row shop on Ninth Street, then embarking on a dizzying set of moves to 110 Fourth Avenue, Eighth Street and Broadway, 100 Fourth Avenue, 108 Fourth Avenue, and back to 100 Fourth Avenue in the 1940s. Throughout this period, he spent interludes away from Book Row working as a book scout. Finally, at 100 Fourth Avenue, he ran the Atlantis Book Shop, later known as the Union Book Guild, which specialized in mathematics, philosophy, science, and sexology, and boasted early and unusual editions. Simultaneously, Brussel worked with his wife Minna to publish reprints of artistic, literary, historic, and erotica classics.

Brussel was well known, along with his brother Ike, as an especially skilled scout even in Book Row itself. Shrewd and crafty, he often found undervalued and undiscovered books in other people’s stores.

The Area South of Union Square

All of these remarkable businesses were located in the area south of Union Square, a historic neighborhood today facing threats of demolition and out-of-scale new development. Village Preservation is leading an effort to secure landmark and zoning protections: click here to learn more about this historic neighborhood and our campaign and here to call upon city officials to support landmark designation.

Sources

Book Row: An Anecdotal and Pictorial History of the Antiquarian Book Trade by Marvin Mondlin and Roy Meador

2 responses to “Fourth Avenue’s “Book Row” Defines an Era

  1. The Corner Book Shop was our family’s source for Oz books In the late 50s and early 60s. The 35-odd sequels to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, mostly written by L. Frank Baum or Ruth Plumly Thompson, some lavishly illustrated in color, were out of print and fairly difficult to find in the pre-internet era. We never knew which ones awaited us at the Corner Book Shop, but we were almost certain to find one or two — and one miraculous occasion, four. They cost a few dollars each, compared to the hundreds or even thousands of dollars these titles would fetch a couple of decades later.

    Nice to see it remembered and to learn a little about the proprietor, who was always kind to us.

    1. Thank you for sharing these incredible memories of the Corner Book Shop — they absolutely enrich our understanding of this business and of the historic “Book Row.”

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