The Largest Black Studies Collection in the U.S. — University Place Bookshop, #SouthOfUnionSquare
The unprotected area south of Union Square for which we are seeking landmark protections lives at the intersection of commerce, bookselling, publishing, leftist politics, African American civil rights efforts, and so much more. One of the most striking examples of this deeply interwoven history is the University Place Book Shop, one of many secondhand bookstores to blossom throughout the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries in the neighborhood south of Union Square. Owned by the bold and opinionated Walter Goldwater, the University Place Book Shop was one of the longest-running “Book Row” shops, and was at one point cited as housing the largest Black Studies collections in the country.
From the 1890s through the 1970s, 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, or “Book Row,” which has been thoroughly documented by Marvin Mondlin and Roy Meador in their publication Book Row: An Anecdotal and Pictorial History of the Antiquarian Book Trade. This vast, eclectic network of bookstores defined an era in the neighborhood south of Union Square, and the University Place Book Shop, which operated from 1932 to 1995, was one of the longest-running and most groundbreaking of the group.
The store’s proprietor, Walter Goldwater, was born in Harlem on July 29, 1907. His father was the influential political radical Dr. Abraham Goldwater, who was personally acquainted with notable leftist and civil rights figures such as John Reed, Emma Goldman, James Weldon Johnson, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Arthur Spingarn. In 1932, Goldwater opened his bookstore at an undetermined address on University Place with the help of bookdealer and scout Abe Sugarman, who was also the uncle of Goldwater’s wife, Eleanor Lowenstein. As recorded in the finding aid for the University Place Book Shop records at Columbia University, Goldwater “financed the Shop…with the help of a six hundred dollar loan from ‘a Communist uncle by marriage.'” The business was listed at 105 University Place in 1936-37, then moved to 69 University Place (a Hotel Albert building) in 1939, and finally ended up at 821 Broadway, where it stayed from at least the 1970s through 1995 in a 9th floor loft.
In his essay “Walter Goldwater: a memoir,” musician and critic Samuel Lipman remembers meeting Goldwater and seeing his shop for the first time:
“Located in a large store on the side of the ineffably seedy Albert Hotel, the shop was of a piece with its brother Broadway and Fourth Avenue bookstores one and two blocks over. Shelves crammed with usually tattered books going all the way to the (very high) ceilings, several enormous tables piled with even more tattered an in any case vastly uninteresting books, everywhere was disorder, dust”
As described by Lipman, that day Goldwater was wearing his “usual attire of a shiny blue suit, white shirt, messy tie, and black shoes with white cotton socks.”
When Goldwater opened his bookstore, he curated a collection focused primarily on Russia, radicalism, and chess — a game Goldwater played throughout his life (at the time of his death, Goldwater was the president of the Marshall Chess Club at 23 West 10th Street). However, these themes were soon overshadowed. In 1933, Mondlin and Meador report in Book Row, NAACP leader Arthur Spingarn approached Goldwater in his store and “placed a standing request for any books Goldwater could find by black authors.” Spingarn was the brother of NAACP founder Joel Spingarn, a friend of Goldwater’s father, and in this moment became an important figure in the history of the University Place Book Shop. His request played a key role in inspiring and shaping Goldwater’s growing selection of books by Black authors and on the subjects of Black Studies, Caribbean Studies, and African Studies. Over the next years, Goldwater and Lowenstein would scout books from shops and other contacts throughout Europe, Africa, and the Caribbean, and sell them in our neighborhood.
Spingarn spread the word about Goldwater’s store and connected the bookseller with public libraries and Historically Black Colleges and Universities such as Atlanta, Fisk, Howard, and Tuskegee Universities. In the 1950s, Goldwater issued a new edition of Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction, and by the 1960s and 1970s, Goldwater’s sales were directed toward research universities who were developing their Black and African American Studies holdings. Goldwater also made philanthropic contributions to the Schomburg Center, another one of his customers, and to the New York Public Library. Yale University, Columbia University, and NYU were also customers, and when the book shop closed in 1995, NYU paid $47,500 for Goldwater’s collection.
Not surprisingly, while running the store Goldwater sustained friendships with a number of venerable Black authors, including Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, and Richard Wright (who lived in Greenwich Village). Speaking of Wright, Goldwater once stated: “I found him to be the kind of person whom I would like to talk to all the time.”
While running the store, Goldwater lived with Lowenstein in what Lipman remembered as “a rickety flat” at 102 Fourth Avenue, also in the neighborhood south of Union Square. The apartment was above Lowenstein’s own bookstore, the Corner Book Shop, which specialized in cookbooks, gastronomy, food, and wine. The bookselling couple was deeply involved in the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America, for which Goldwater was a founding member. For over 25 years, the Association sought to organize and represent the neighborhood’s booksellers. Before his death in 1985, Goldwater was interviewed about his contemporaries, illuminating his profound investment in and knowledge of Book Row at large. He began by saying:
I’ve made a list, which I sometimes do when I can’t sleep at night, of people who were in the book business when I started and who died […] I’ll say a few words about each. If I say more than a few words, it will go on forever.
Goldwater passed away on June 24, 1985, and willed the University Place Book Shop to his friend and employee William French, who operated it until 1988. Tragically, after 63 years, the store’s rent had become too high to sustain, and it was forced to close in 1995. Just six days before Goldwater’s death, the Village Voice published the article “The University Place Bookshop: A Labor of Love,” which was quoted in Book Row and offers an image of the groundbreaking bookstore in its proprietor’s final days:
“[The shop’s] seemingly stifling clutter is as charming as its affable unpretentious owner […] Despite what appears to be chaos, all the books are perfectly alphabetized. In fact, the inherent, albeit organized, funkiness of the bookshop is its heart and soul. And Goldwater wouldn’t have it any other way.”
The article went on to say that the store had seventy to eighty thousand items including “the largest collection of black studies in America, if not the entire world.” Today, its legacy lives on in the collections of libraries and universities throughout the country.
The University Place Book Shop bears tremendous significance in the history of Black Studies, New York City’s “Book Row,” and the south of Union Square neighborhood as a whole. Still, it is just one of many sites we have identified as part of the booksellers, leftist, and African American histories of the neighborhood South of Union Square home. Check out our “Virtual Village” Booksellers Tour, African American History Tour, Leftist and Labor Tour, and Civil Rights and Social Justice Tour to learn more about the extraordinary people and places we have documented in this historic neighborhood. Here you will find a trailblazing labor organization at 80 Fifth Avenue, the New York City Woman Suffrage League at 10 East 14th Street, the headquarters of the NAACP at 70 Fifth Avenue, and much more:
Book Row: An Anecdotal and Pictorial History of the Antiquarian Book Trade by Marvin Mondlin and Roy Meador
“New York City Bookshops in the 1930s and 1940s: The Recollections of Walter Goldwater,” The Autodidact Project
“University Place Book Shop records, 1930-1994,” Columbia University Libraries Archival Collections
“Walter Goldwater: a memoir” by Samuel Lipman, The New Criterion