From the 1890s through the 20th century, the area between Astor Place and Union Square was full of second-hand booksellers who formed what was known as ‘Book Row.’ Each store had a unique offering for their clientele; some specialized in antiquarian books, others in science, and others in a variety of revolutionary texts and publications. The specialization of each store allowed them to coexist alongside one another with minimal competition. Book Row was an exciting gathering of intellectuals and those who appreciated books as an art form.
While most of these bookstores are no longer in business, the buildings they occupied remain and shape the neighborhood today. Photographer Dylan Chandler recently captured several former Book Row buildings while photographing the area South of Union Square for us. Let us take a tour of a few of these sites.
The Samuel Weiser bookstore was once located in this beautiful Romanesque- and Renaissance-Revival building. Samuel Weiser opened his own store in 1926 after a successful apprenticeship with another bookseller. The store specialized in the occult, New Age, and Eastern philosophy, and was followed worldwide by magicians and others interested in the supernatural. Illusionist and escape artist Harry Houdini was said to have been a patron.
Like many buildings in the area, 841 Broadway, also known as the Roosevelt Building, hosted many entrepreneurial ventures. Designed and built in 1896 for James A. Roosevelt and Robert Barnwell Roosevelt, it was home to the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company, famous for its early advances in filmmaking technology. It was also one of the first American film studios!
Weiser’s store spent most of its life in the ground floor of 115 Fourth Avenue, but was also located at 845 and 734 Broadway. Like other Book Row businesses, the store published catalogues regularly to entertain and advertise its books to customers. The company lives on as Weiser Antiquarian Books, an online bookseller now based in Maine.
The Raven Book Shop opened its doors here in 1934. Owner Bernard Kraus chose the name for its association with American literature, which was one of the shop’s specialties. The Raven Book Shop was a charter member of the Fourth Avenue Booksellers’ Association (founded in 1942) and was also an early member of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America.
While 112 Fourth Avenue is one of the more unassuming buildings in the neighborhood, it has a radical past. In addition to the Raven Bookshop, No. 112 saw numerous activists and their respective publications in its heyday. Among them were The New York Call, a socialist newspaper, and the Progressive Zionist League. The Academy Press published books critiquing American capitalism, unfair treatment of Chinese Americans, and the need for unions for garment workers and miners.
Today the northeast corner of Fourth Avenue and East 11th Street is the home of the Cooper Station Post Office, which was designed by Louis A. Simon in 1936-37 for the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Prior to this transformation, the corner was populated with several buildings in the heart of Book Row.
Harry Gold, who ran the Aberdeen Book Company, opened his first Book Row store in 1925 at 95 Fourth Avenue, which had previously occupied this site. From 1940 to 1955, he operated out of 65 Fourth Avenue, then moving to 140 Fourth Avenue in the 1950s, and 308 Fifth Avenue in 1961.
Phillips’s 1902 Business Directory of New York City listed bookseller M.A. Gropper at a building formerly located at 97 Fourth Avenue, also on this site. Ben Rosenzweig also had a store at this address.
Biblo and Tannen were at one point located at 99 Fourth Avenue, before moving to their final home at 63 Fourth Avenue.
What happened to Book Row?
Like all independent bookstores, the shops on Book Row faced many all-too-common challenges. In 1942, New York City officials launched a campaign against sidewalk book carts, a major draw for business for many Book Row businesses. In response, the Fourth Avenue Booksellers’ Association was formed. Its members fought the campaign with some success, but for some the damage had already been done. The rent in the neighborhood continued to climb, increasing even more rapidly by the 1960s, and led many stores to relocate or close their doors permanently. One of the worst blows was the closing of the nearby Wanamaker department store in 1956, whose customers frequently patronized Book Row while doing their shopping.
Not all is lost for the former Book Row. Its most famous bookseller, the Strand, continues on in its flagship location at 828 Broadway. Alabaster Bookshop, owned by Steve Crowley and located at 122 Fourth Avenue, opened rather serendipitously in 1996. It is the first independent bookstore to do so in the area in over 30 years.