The Last Days of Shakespeare & Co.

by Thomas Beller

01/01/2001

W 81st St & Broadway, New York, NY 10024

Neighborhood: Upper West Side

This essay appears in “How To Be a Man: Scenes From A Protracted Boyhood.” For more information about the book, click here.

Illustrations by Elisha Cooper

Books were stacked in piles around my new apartment, looming like weird stalagmites in a cave. They were encroaching from all directions. A bookcase was badly in need, and yet months slid by without a purchase. The absurd stacking of books gave my living space the air of something temporary, an encampment from which one might easily flee. They also suggested a maniacally literate person in the process of becoming more literate, when in fact I rarely opened the books, preferring to stare with morbid fascination at their sheer accumulation.

Then one day, after lunch with my mother at Edgar’s on 84th Street, I passed Shakespeare & Co. booksellers on Broadway, which was busily going out of business in the shadow of Barnes & Noble up the block. I grew up in this neighborhood, and though I no longer live there, I still take a proprietary interest in it. Shakespeare & Co. was my neighborhood bookstore, where I had my first marathon browsing sessions–those long, stupefied, and slightly depressing perusals–and where my own book had held a spot on their bestseller list for the better part of a summer (one week at Number 1!), the only bestseller list on which it made a dent. Now signs in the window announced that it was going out of business, steep discounts, etc., and the store was bustling with people; it was just like the good old days. Then I spotted a sign, hastily scrawled and tacked up in the corner. It read: “Bookshelves for sale.”

For some reason this detail gave me pleasure. New York is a town of commerce, of buying and selling and moving in and being forced out, and in buying my bookshelf I was intersecting with this vicious tide, however peripherally. This was the real world, where the big fish swallow the little fish, and the little fish sells its bookcases to the unquestioning minnow for $300 hundred dollars a shot. I went by the store again, tape measure in hand, and measured the dimension of my future possession. The store was still crowded, but now its frayed going out of business edges were showing. It was a depressing scene, but I was determined to be practical and even lighthearted about it. New York is a fast town, and one of the experience it accelerates is that of nostalgia. Anyone who has grown up in this city, or spent some part of their lives here, has probably seen their neighborhood undergo change both subtle and drastic, and feels tempted to comment on it like an old fogy. For a while every visit to my old neighborhood was punctuated with curmudgeonly remarks about how things have changed for the worse. I was becoming a Young Fogy. I decided this was unhealthy. I vowed to be upbeat, or at least apathetic, when some gargantuan operation opened up and the city I used to know receded a bit further from view.

The following Saturday I got the call. The store was closed, they were moving out. I found the place in a partly disassembled condition, boxes everywhere–a radio was on loud, broadcasting a Yankees game, and the calm relaxed voices of the baseball announcers echoing through the place gave it a ghostly, haunted quality. All the wall space, floor to ceiling, was covered with now empty shelves–dark, forbidding and, in their massive all connected unity, rather beautiful, like rows of cathedral pews set on their side.

The shelves I wanted, it turned out, were not merely held together by some screws, but were part of one huge intricate and interconnected design. How to dismantle? I took a few stabs at it with my screwdriver, but it was like trying to dig up Sixth Avenue with a Swiss army knife. So I went out to get a small crowbar.

It was a crisp autumn day, and the street was magnificently alive. Broadway, between about 84th Street and 79th Street, dips a little, like at the bottom of a shallow bowl, and the result is that at any given point you can see the whole throng of people strolling along. I was swept up to Riverside Housewares on 84th Street, one of the few stores left in the neighborhood that I can remember from my childhood. It is a fabulously eccentric place, run by Mr. and Mrs. Stern, a Hungarian couple who have surrounded the store’s more practical offerings with items culled from antique shops and yard sales far and wide. Even more eccentrically, they fix things–lamps, toasters–and are therefore patronized by that vanishing breed of people who believe that if something is broke, you don’t throw it out and buy another one, you fix it.

I refused to give up, possessed as I was with an Ahab-like singularity of mission–Get Shelves. A couple of hours of insane yanking and tugging went by. Then the front gate was lifted to allow for some boxes to be moved into a truck, and suddenly the crowd streaming down Broadway had a full view of Shakespeare & Co in its last desiccated form.

And I had a view of them. Some people were utterly indifferent. Others were vaguely curious. And others obviously grief stricken, as though they had stumbled upon the corpse of a dear friend. A man rushed into the store and started ranting, “K-Mart is moving into Manhattan! It’s all going to hell. K-Mart!” An Armand Hammerish type with silver hair, a sharply pressed suit, and a cane walked in and tried to enter into negotiations for the remaining contents of the store. His nurse, in crisp white uniform, watched patiently for a minute and then dragged him away. A disheveled woman with rabid eyes and ink stained hands came in clutching about twenty newspapers to her chest. “If you drive twenty minutes out of Manhattan, in any direction, they think you’re crazy. They look at you like you’re nuts. And now those people are taking over our last bastion!”

It’s just a damn store, I thought. It’s hard enough to manage one’s own personal life, stay solvent, and have a little left over for a few random acts of generosity–if you take every real estate transaction on Broadway personally, you go nuts. And yet there I stood, encrusted in sweat and dust, working late into the night until one of those shelves finally came loose. Kurland gave it to me for free, saying I’d earned it. It was a bookshelf, and also a giant wooden memento to my irrational grief at the store’s closing. I’d grabbed a bit of Broadway and stuck it in my apartment.

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