The Bookie



Neighborhood: Flatbush

The Bookie
Photo by calistan

I attended elementary school in a non-descript brick building across the street from Mostly Books, whose humble proprietor, Sandy Tishcoff, was our local celebrity sighting. He was an unlikely one, spending his hours squinting at a microfiche mounted on his desk, from which he would divine book orders in the days before Add To Cart. Sandy never had an actual sign—just a particleboard hung in the window. He would put an index card on the glass of the door– be back 15 minutes– and as he would shuffle past the school yard on his walk, a chorus of grade schoolers would run up to the gates, yelling, “there’s Sandy!” The school children would wave spastically and preen over each other’s shoulders for a look at the man who made special appearances to their classes for storytime and furnished them with the latest Cat Club book. Sandy!

Sandy was a tall man, in size fifteens– a gentle giant with a soft voice and a full smile, as befits a bookstore owner. He was a lover of chocolate, an easy conversationalist, who filled his store with classical music and a potpourri scent. He called himself ‘the neighborhood bookie,’ and he owned his labor of love and commerce, Mostly Books, on Cortelyou Road in Flatbush, from 1977 to 1999. Originally from Indiana, Sandy was looking for something to do after his job as a coordinator at a Brooklyn hospital was eliminated. He opened Mostly Books as a response to some of the residents who were clamoring for new businesses along Cortelyou Road, and fashioned it after a friend’s bookstore that he admired.

Certainly, opening a business in New York City in 1977 was not for the faint of heart. But while the dirt-ringed and arson-plagued New York depicted in movies existed, a seemingly contradictory spirit of community mobilization that grew out of the previous decade’s engagement with social justice, civil rights struggles, and activism counterbalanced it. Local organizing didn’t vanish when the murder rate soared and the Bronx started burning. The Flatbush Development Corporation was begun in 1975, organizing tenants, working to prevent arson, and creating business opportunities. Sandy and his wife, Hazel, were among those who worked to create the original Flatbush Frolic in 1976, patterning their Cortelyou Road street fair after the Atlantic Antic. On a city-wide level, it was in 1975 that the city created the 59 community districts and boards, functioning as we know them today.


In a 1997 Daily News piece, Sandy was still describing Mostly Books as “just a small neighborhood shop.” Novelist Richard Grayson called it a “country store gossip exchange for Flatbush,” but gossip travels a little differently in 2011– it was in an email that my sister informed a group of us that Sandy had passed away. We remembered looking for new Babysitters Club books in the crowded aisles, his recommendation of The Phantom Tollbooth as a good sleepaway camp book, his steady smile and squint while he dispensed his recommendations. My sister recalled writing a report about Sandy in the 7th grade: the assignment was to profile a small business owner. A neighborhood blog quickly filled up with similar stories of childhood hours spent coveting the La Vie Bonbon tins for sale by the counter, and I flashed back to my own constant nagging for titles (any new Madeleine L’Engle books come in?), dragging my feet down the darkened aisles in the back of the store that held AP study guides, organized by subject. There we all were, readers and nerds of various intensities, coming to memories of the man who had stood like a friendly sentinel at the gates of our future reading lives.


Mostly Books survived the long decades in Flatbush. These days, I chafe at articles that take an overly simplistic view of the neighborhood in the 80s, describing it only as an area gutted by “white flight.” To a kid growing up there, most days it looked more like a run-down Sesame Street, with a train station, pizza place, school, bookstore, video store, playground, and fire station, all lined up neatly in a row.

Sandy’s store was adjacent to the bus stop where we waited for the bus to the P.S. 139 Annex. And when we were deposited there at the end of the day, we either wanted a slice from San Remo or a raspberry candy from the bookstore. We felt safe in Mostly Books, the kind of store where your mother told you to wait for her after school if she was late getting to the bus stop. For, while Flatbush has always had its charms, it’s also always had the less-than-wonderful byproducts of urban life– a place of overcrowded schools and streets inhospitable to biking around the block unsupervised. So many broken car windows, classmates getting jumped for their hoodies and nerf footballs and pocket change, burglaries and stolen bikes and middle-of-the-night break-ins, chains around the flower boxes and drug paraphernalia trashed in the school yard, car alarms, The Club and security patrol.


Sandy’s funeral was full of reticent mourners, eager to consecrate even the most inelegant of gestures, like the thud of his ice skates as they landed on the lectern during a eulogy. We were all very cramped in our winter coats, and around me women clung to the dark, woolen arms of their husbands. Someone read a Maya Angelou quote: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” It is a quote I had heard before, but seated in the cavernous funeral home, it wasn’t hard to feel the resonance of the words. I could hear the jingle of the bell atop Sandy’s shop door, smell the faint potpourri, see the goodies up at the front, and feel the incongruous safety of my childhood years. But as I listened to the memorializing, it was easy to wish that my relationship with Sandy hadn’t been restricted to childhood. I knew him as a street presence; I walked past the window of his shop, and dependably saw him inside, graying and smiling. Our conversations usually pertained to the latest antics of Jenny the Fire Cat. Hearing about his penchant for white wine, theatre, and grocery shopping suggested that he and I could have enjoyed a fruitful sequel, had we met up years later on a bench outside of Mostly Books (now a toy store). I was too young to know he made banana daiquiris once a year in the back of his store. I never visited his shop on Christmas, when he would stay open until the last frantic customer had left.


Sandy’s wife was my high school college counselor, who helped ease my path towards the shelves of libraries and bookstores far from Cortelyou Road, where Sandy remained, peering at ISBN codes and inspecting dust jackets. In my senior year of college I worked at a small bookstore in town, and I would hunch over a bulky wooden desk much like Sandy had, squinting into a boxy computer that the proprietor never had the funds to replace. I would stare at the blinking green cursor of the old word processor. Perched on the second floor, above a café, the front door faced a hallway, not a concrete esplanade. Every morning I propped up the placard and wheeled out a selection of $1 books, but most days, few people ascended the flight of stairs to our little sunlit store. We had a small children’s section, but usually, no children.

Hillary Miller is a writer from Flatbush, Brooklyn. She teaches at Baruch College and is Assistant Director of the Summer Writers Lab at Long Island University.

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