In the words of Patti Smith from her book Just Kids:
"I needed to get another job. My friend Janet Hamill had been hired at Scribner's Bookstore, and she found a way of giving me a helping hand by sharing her good fortune. She spoke to her superiors, and they offered me a position. It seemed like a dream job, working in the retail store of the prestigious publisher, home to writers like Hemingway and Fitzgerald, and their editor, the great Maxwell Perkins. Where the Rothschilds bought their books, where paintings by Maxfield Parrish hung in the stairwell."
via Princeton Library
"Scribner's was housed in a beautiful landmark building at 597 Fifth Avenue. The glass-fronted Beaux Arts-style exterior had been designed by Ernest Flagg in 1913. There was a two-and-a-half-story space behind a lavish expanse of glass and iron, under a vaulted ceiling lined with clerestory windows.
Each day I rose, dutifully dressed and made the three subway changes to Rockefeller Center. My uniform for Scribner's was taken from Anna Karina in Bande à part: dark sweater, plaid skirt, black tights and flats. I was positioned at the phone desk, which was manned by the kindhearted and supportive Faith Cross. I felt lucky to be associated with such a historic bookstore. My salary was higher, and I had Janet as a confidante. I was rarely bored, and when I got restless, I wrote on the back of Scribner's stationery, like Tom in The Glass Menagerie, scribbling poems on the inside of cardboard boxes."
via Princeton Library
I like imagining the young Patti Smith going up and down those grand staircases, rarely bored at her little phone desk, maybe shelving the occasional book, climbing a rolling ladder in her plaid skirt.
It's difficult to imagine anyone in New York today providing such an opulent setting in which to sell books. We tend to house our products according to the value we put on them.
1989 photo by Neil J. Murphy
Scribner's bookstore announced its closure in 1988. It was, said the Times, "part of the only landmark building in New York City originally designed to house a bookstore."
Many tried to save the shop, including Leonard Riggio, head of Barnes & Noble, who said, "There could never be enough good bookstores on Fifth Avenue. It's so important to keep that open." The 76-year-old shop closed in 1989. As you can see in the photo above, the specter of a Barnes & Noble across the avenue is reflected in Scribner's glass.
For awhile, the location continued to house a bookshop. Brentano's moved in. Founded in 1853, by the time it arrived at this location, Brentano's was owned by the K-Mart Corporation.
Today, it's a Sephora cosmetics store. That "lavish expanse of glass and iron, under a vaulted ceiling lined with clerestory windows," so beloved by Patti Smith and many other bibliophiles, is now dedicated to eyebrow tamers and lash enhancers, to lipsticks in "pouty pinks" and "just-bitten berries."
In a weirdly prescient moment, this "overheard" snippet appeared in a 1932 New Yorker Talk of the Town:
They have it now.