Books on Broadway

My favourite second-hand book-shop on Broadway was Sylvan Books, kept by a tall gentleman with a slight speech impediment, named, I believe, Larry.  He was a typical bookseller of the old sort, somewhat abstracted and vaguely eccentric, but unlike so many of his fellow tradesmen, invariably civil.  The shop was enormously dusty and the books arranged somewhat haphazardly, but Larry knew where everything was, and if the book did not have a price lightly pencilled on the flyleaf, he could quote one without hesitation.  I regularly found good things there, admittedly not first editions of The Ipcress File in fine dust-wrappers, but comforting, modestly priced books.  The shop was located on the east side of Broadway, between 13th and 12th Streets, at number 833, now occupied by an antique shop.

I have never really cared for The Strand.  For one thing, there was always entirely too much staff; indistinguishable, inarticulate, and apparently especially selected for a lack of congeniality.  The books, too, were never sympathique; one could see at a glance what sort of homes they came from, and how little they were loved there.  I have only ever bought two or three books there, all new, to avoid paying full price at the despicable Barnes & Noble.

One warm afternoon in the autumn of 2006, I was walking down Broadway and finding myself opposite the Strand, I decided to step inside and have a quick look through the basement.  Finding nothing of interest in the bins, I wandered over to the damp and dingy corner, just underneath the sidewalk on Broadway, where the art books were to be found.  At the far end there was a little alcove of shelves to which odd foreign books were relegated, and kept in no discernible order.  An elderly gentleman was standing there, looking in a book that I recognized at once (from the colour plate of Jean in the garden at Eragny, at which the book was open) as Meadmore’s Lucien Pissarro, un Coeur simple. All on a sudden, the man closed the book and lobbed it so that it fell between the back of the shelves and the wall.  He was disagreeably surprised when he turned and saw me standing there, though I smiled encouragingly, and he hurried past me and disappeared down the aisle.

When I left the shop I found the fellow waiting for me outside by the public telephones.  He approached me cautiously and somewhat shamefacedly.  ‘I guess you probably think I’m crazy,’ he said.
‘Not at all,’ I said.  ‘I’m sure that you had some perfectly good reason for doing what you did, and besides,’ I added, ‘it’s none of my business.’

Having found a sympathetic ear, he asked if he might walk with me for a while.  It was a sad, familiar story; he had lived in an apartment on Thompson Street, near Spring Street, for nearly thirty years, until the original owner died, and the children sold the building to a realty firm that promptly raised his rent.  He managed for a little while, but ultimately he had to dispose of most of his belongings and move in with a friend who kindly allowed him to share his small apartment. Like so many before him, he made the sad pilgrimage to the Strand, with shopping bags full of books, hoping to find a home for his companions, and get a few dollars. He described the humiliating process briefly; the austere treatment, the contempt with which his books were looked over and declared too shabby to sell.  In the end, the man behind the counter took some that had the dust-wrappers, and he came away with fourteen dollars and three shopping bags of unsold books that he gave to a homeless man sitting in a playground.

That afternoon he was looking at the art books that he could no longer afford to buy or keep, when he spotted his copy of Lucien Pissarro on the shelf, one of the books that they had condescendingly accepted a few weeks earlier, and for which they had given him the princely sum of one dollar.  It was marked ‘Scarce, first edition, $18.00’.  His shame and grief turned to anger, as it so often does, and that’s when he flung the book over the shelves.  We shook hands on the corner of Great Jones Street and he headed East, walking slowly and carefully, like a man who’s not quite sure of his footing.

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