Monday, February 8, 2010

Scribner's Bookstore

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.

38 comments:

BrooksNYC said...

How/where on earth did you find that perfect snippet from the New Yorker?

A gorgeous bookstore. I always felt bright and tall when I shopped there.

Laura S. said...

I always loved the beauty of that store, but never went in. I thought it was like Tiffany's, only for the very rich. So I confined myself to Bookmasters and the Marlboro Book Shop and never knew the joy. I have lived to regret that. Thanks for sharing.

Mykola Dementiuk said...

I worked there with Patti Smith in Scribners. She was a sales girl and I worked in the stock room. But even in those years she was the most freakish around. Certainly stood out from the other sales girls.

Mykola Dementiuk said...

I do remember one line she wrote at the time from her notebooks, which she passed to a few of the other clerks:

I'm going up...and stay there.

esquared said...

yeah, how were you able to find that from the new yorker? the movie metropolitan also had a couple of shots of scribner's. and rizzoli, another bookstore on 57th street was also in the movie falling in love. but i'm sure you already know about this.

Kevin Lee Allen said...

I will always miss the Scribner's bookstore and cherish the books I purchased there. Fortunately, the environment lives on.

Anonymous said...

Hi again, Jeremiah. Scribner's was the first place I worked at when I moved to NYC, as well. 1977-83. Faith Cross still worked there when I was there (she'd started in 1945)and was still there, I think, when the store closed. More stories to relate than possible here in comments. Don't have any photos --both of the ones you got from Princeton are early on, I think -- the big tables you see in the second photo were broken up and replaced in the late 60s/early 70s as I recall being told.

They don't make bookstores like that any more, for better and worse.

Jeremiah Moss said...

great to hear from folks who worked at Scribner's back in the day--and with Patti, too.

the New Yorker bit was just a lucky find, and a weird piece of this little passing moment coming true.

Anonymous said...

J, Patti Smith's book could be called a Requiem for Manhattan. It details living in a city that no longer exists.

SJF said...

Painted this building several times, a beautiful building, especially the arched interior. After reading your post was inspired to post one of the paintings on my blog, sjfnewyork.blogspot.com. Thanks for sharing some interesting info on the Scribner's building.

kingb said...

great post

i remember being dragged into here (Sephora) by an ex-girlfriend who wanted some makeup. I was amazed by the building & the space. She couldn't care less. We broke up soon after.

Jack Womack said...

I actually went to Scribners when I first came to town looking for a job specifically because Patti Smith had worked there, to be honest. They used to have a photo of her cut out from Rolling Stone pasted up on the door of the break room downstairs, and all the old timers remembered her.

The old timers, at that point, were great. Faith had worked there since coming out of high school, starting in 1945. Several others had been there twenty years. Very many New Yorkers of the old school, wonderful place to have worked and met them.

The customers, and management, were another story entirely. Hoo boy. To give you just the slightest indication of what we were working with, we were told by management that if (non-house charge) customers wanted to special order books that weren’t available at the local wholesalers to send them across the street to Barnes & Noble, which we did. One of many brilliant business decisions on the part of Scribners (another being that paperbacks weren’t carried until 1976-77…).

On the other hand, one of the many well-known people who came in and was always very nice was Marc Connelly, who was in his 90s at that time and who was, I think, the last major survivor of the Algonquin Round Table. That sort of second-hand connection was still possible here, for many years after I arrived, and one of the most special things about NYC, the sense of an unbroken history.

A few weeks before Christmas 1980 I was standing in the Xmas cards section, which was to the left when you walked in the door (it was in place from September to January 1, each year). Looked out the window and there was, in fact, Patti Smith with husband Fred Sonic S. They were looking through the window and she smiled, pointing inside. It must have been within the first year or so after she retired. They moved on, and then I didn’t see her again till she played for free at Damrosch Park back in late August 2001. A very long time ago.

Jeremiah Moss said...

SJF, thanks for the link and the painting.

esquared, funny, i was just talking to a friend about Metropolitan and added it to my list of movies to watch again.

maybe i should visit that sephora just to see the architecture. i was afraid of this bookstore, too--so grand.

Mykola Dementiuk said...

Wow, so it must have been before 76/77 that I worked there. I recall a slim box of paperbacks was kept as a novelty in the basement for a few select clients who had to ask for it before they were brought downstairs to have a look. So it must have been the early 70s that I worked there. But I do recall Patti Smith all in black...Was some sight in the colorful 60s.

Teresa Nielsen Hayden said...

Leonard Riggio tried to keep Scribner's bookstore open? Cool. Didn't know that. No one's ever said he was stupid.

Jack, thank you for the reminiscences. For some reason they made me think of Disch, and how much he must have missed that scene.

Tricia said...

In the 80s I worked as a book scout for a Japanese publisher, a dream job that came with a charge account at Scribner's and a $250 per month book budget! What a civilized pleasure it was to do business with them. I loved the routine of picking up the books I'd pre-ordered and discovering new arrivals in that palazzo of a store. It felt like a literary era ended when they closed. By then my company had moved to the Village and we ordered our new books from Three Lives.

Jack Womack said...

Thanks, Teresa. In one of those linked articles it's noted that initially Reggio was trying to help Waterstone's open a store there, and that the interior would have been completely restored to what it had been in the 1920s.

But, K-Mart (which at the time owned Waldenbooks, go figure) beat them out and opened a Brentano's there -- that late 80s Brentano's being to the former B., which had been on Fifth between 47 & 48 and which died c. 1979, what the current A & F is to the original Abercrombie & Fitch.

They did reinstall the left-hand spiral staircase, which had been removed at some point in the 1950s or 60s. Also, a heavy carpet covered the marble stairs when it was Scribner's. The center panels in the ceiling were painted sky blue, and the rest the white there now.

The most wonderful feature of the original interior I never saw, but heard about from the older staffers. The floor of the balcony was made of foot-thick translucent glass. (Covered in thick carpeting, when I was there.) And, above (the light can be sort of glimpsed at the top of the second photo), a skylight let in the sun, which then filtered down to what was, in my time, the Art Department. It must have been spectacular, at the right moments. But the skylight was painted over during the war.

rj said...

that was a really great bookstore, and the second level space was interesting too to get a view of the works below. too bad it is stunk up by sephora and patti smith (a poseur at best)

Bad Fairground Art said...

Interesting article, thanks for posting it.

For years I've had an aged-looking Scribner cardboard bookmark. I came across it today and thought I'd look it up on the 'net - what good timing!

Heather-Rose Ryan said...

As a child, I lived a few blocks away and would spend hours at Scribners', reading avidly (and sometimes being generally mischievous - it was the Plaza to my Eloise). The childrens' section was in the back, down a couple of short steps. There were two ladies there in the '60s and early '70s when I hung out there - Miss Bell (I don't recall her first name, I always called her Miss Bell) and an older lady named Frances, who worked there into the late '70s, as I recall. Frances was incredibly sweet and would always give me books as gifts, wrapped in that beautiful blue matte-finish paper.

I remember I wanted to get a job there when I was about 8 years old - I got a special meeting with the manager, but was kindly turned down. I cried buckets.

I adored the place and was so sorry to see it turned into a Benetton. But at least the facade remains.

My father once saw Jack Palance in there buying a book of Shelley's poetry.

Heather-Rose Ryan said...

Another memory, and not a good one: the last time I was in Scribner's was in the mid '80s, when I went in looking for a book that had just come out and been reviewed in that week's NYT Book Review. I no longer remember the title, but it was a biography. I asked one of the sales people, a thin guy with a beard, where to find it - he hadn't heard of the title. (What, he didn't read the Book Review?) He went around looking for it. While we were looking, I supplied "It's a new book," meaning it had just been released, and he snapped, "ALL of our books are NEW!" Well, excuuuuuuse me!!

I ended up finding the book at the big Barnes & Noble across the avenue. A sad end to a once-magnificent establishment - a stock that wasn't up to snuff, and ill-informed and rude sales staff!

John Stuehr said...

So glad to stumble on this site today.

I worked at Scribner's from 1972-1980. The president of the bookstore was the venerable Igor Kropotkin (who was related to the famous Russian anarchist!) and his assistant was Jean Spencer. The floor manager was Frank Lowe.

Celia Summer (known as Mike to her best customers) was the driving force of "front of store." She would personally select books for her customers, and in the days before computerized inventory, it was her job to call in the best sellers to the New York Times, often including books that had just arrived and had not sold a single copy, but which she knew "belonged" on the list. Late in my tenure there she actually published a memoir of her Scribner days, called "With a Book in My Hand," which you can still find on Amazon (forgive me for uttering the damned word!).

In 1973, the tables depicted in the illustration above were replaced by standing shelf units. In 1976, Scribner's acquired a space behind the back wall of the second floor, and a door was created for access to what was still a new phenomenon in Fifth Avenue bookstores --- paperbacks. The Paperback Gallery, as it was called, was a short lived phenomenon. For years, the only paperbacks in the store were the Scribner Library editions of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe, etc., in a small fixture under the Standard Authors section located on the south wall, accessible by a tiny winding staircase.

During most of my tenure there I was the window designer. Every Friday I changed out all three windows. After completing them, I would stand on the steps of the publisher entrance, and watch the Fifth Avenue pedestrian's reactions. If I got enough head turns, I was happy.

I was also Scribner's inventory manager. In those pre-computer days that meant I created two 3x5 index cards for each incoming title, delivered the books to each section in the store --- each section had it's own manager! I managed Standard Authors --- and placed the index cards (one alpha by title, the other alpha by author) in pull-out drawers behind the phone desk. I also prepared a yellow slip that was placed at the back of one of the books. When that book sold, the cashier removed the slip and placed it in the "re-order" box.

The phone desk was staffed by Faith Cross and Fran Finley, both of whom are mentioned fondly in Patti Smith's wonderful book. One of my other duties at Scribner's was to cover Faith & Fran's lunch hours, so for two hours each day I got to interact with customers and those two charming ladies. Although Patti Smith's era preceded mine by a few years, she often came in to visit her old friends and I saw here there often.

Speaking of customers, the creme de la creme of NYC residents and visitors shopped at Scribner's, and I had the pleasure of personally interacting with Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Rickie Lee Jones, Margaret Hamilton, Sam Levene, Buddy Ebson, Caroline Kennedy and Imelda Marcos (we closed the store for her so she could have it all to herself).

And Patti Smith was not the only staffer who went on to fame & fortune. One of my fellow booksellers was Christopher Bram, now a well published author.

After leaving Scribner's for Hacker Art Books & the Metropolitan Museum of Art bookshop, I returned to 597 Fifth Avenue as the manager of Brentano's, which opened in 1989. Unfortunately, it was part of the Waldenbooks chain, and despite all my best efforts, that incarnation didn't last very long. While I was there, however, the store was used as the setting for the first scene in "Funny About Love" --- directed by Leonard Nimoy and starring Gene Wilder & Christine Lahti. Check it out to see what the store looked like then, however, it's not a great movie.

Heather Rose-Ryan --- Marian Bell was her name, and that kid's department was something else!

If anyone wants to touch base, you can reach me at jstuehr@oh.rr.com.

Jeremiah Moss said...

john, thanks so much for sharing the wonderful details of your time at the store. i love the part about Celia Summer deciding what should be bestsellers.

Anonymous said...

I wandered in once.

It was beautiful. Then it was gone.

FTFerguson said...

Nice. Just found your site. My dad worked at Scribners, in the '30's. He was an aspiring actor, and came down from Yale and George Baker to make his way in New York. Scribners was his day job. He ended up friends with Thornton Wilder and e.e.cummings, among others. Then, the war came.

Jeremiah Moss said...

thanks. glad you found me.

Michael Stuart said...

Scribner's was unique, without a doubt. Reading the posts brings about a flood of memories, as I worked there from 1976-1978, having left to become a teacher. Started off as a humble bookseller and then in 1977 became the manager of the new paperback department on the gallery upstairs. Does anyone know what became of Cecilia Summers, Francis, and Frank Lowe?

Michael Stuart

Jack Womack said...

Michael,

You were there in late 1977 when I started working there, for Eleanor Kobbe in Xmas cards. Don't believe we ever exchanged words. Ms. Kobbe died in 2004, Celia in 1996; I ran into Frances just outside her apartment on Broadway & 56th in 2008, when she was 98. She was pretty much as perky as she'd been thirty years earlier and I hope she made it to 100.

Anonymous said...

...Patti?

bikerider said...

I worked at Scribners from 1977-78. Does anyone know what happened to Faith? We were good friends. Also Frances Finley? I remember Arthur in the art department. I also worked with John Young and Andy Centerwall. Great group of people. I worked with Marion Bell in the Children's dept.

bikerider said...

I also remember John who decorated the windows. Never spoke to him much but he did a great job with those windows. Scribners was one of the most interesting places in NYC. Well everything was interesting then. Now its just a Yuppie-fied town like the rest of America and costs way too much to live in.

Mike Stuart said...

Thank you, Jack, for the update. What ever happened to Frank Lowe? Do you recall Frances' last name? Frances showed me a lot of the ropes, so to speak, and I remember her very fondly.

Bill Cahill said...

Just happened on this site. Someonne said there were no paperbacks until 1977 or something. Not true. I worked at Scribner's in 1964 in the paperback department upstairs. I don't remember too much about who worked there. There was a young woman who worked in the office. I went to a party at her parent's home in Oyster Bay. Bill C.

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful flood if memories. I worked at Scribner Books as well. I however worked there from The take-over by Rizzoli to the sad demise of my favorite place on Earth. Rizzoli SADLY killed Scribner. (At the time Rizzoli was PRACTICALLY opening a store on every corner in every trendy or Metropolitan city in the Country). I was a medium level Manager for Rizzoli/ Scribner and was fortunate to have met some of the most fascinating people in Manhattan while working there. The Staff was SIMPLY AMAZING and yes Faith Cross was working the Information/ Special Order Desk. I LOVED her. (As well as her stories of "The Old Day's"). Joan was in the Art Dept. with Guy in Architecture, straight up the Grand Staircase, Bruce was in Biography, Elaine in Travel, Fidel in Children's, a Myriad of people in Audio and Russ was head cashier and front end manager. (he was a hoot!) The Manager at the time was Kaarin. She was tall, willowie, with a short haircut. Simply put. A delight. She was reassigned by Rizzoli when it was time for the store's Chapter in Manhattan History to come to a close. We were all basically fired or reassigned by Rizzoli. I was one of the "fortunate" ones to be reassigned. Or was I? I think of Scribner often and I'm very proud to have been a part of Manhattan History. Scribner Books at 597 5 th avenue will ALWAYS be VERY near and dear to me. b-Sincerely A.R.-b

Hartmeister said...

I just wondered in on this website from a reference to the bookstore from Ian Fleming's short story "007 in New York"

David Auerbach said...

It was great to run into this. I worked in the "pit" (front cash register) and in fine bindings sometime around 1978-1980. Nice seeing all these names, and John who worked with the window display. And Michael, who actually trained me. I also remember Denis Farina and Lonnie Lipsett. After recently reading Patti's book, I was struck by the fact that in my memory her tenure at Scribner's extended later than she states. My understanding, based on lunchroom chatter, was that she had left only a few years before I began working there. I wonder if anyone can bear this out. I remember Frank Lowe peering down at us from the upper gallery. You could feel his gaze at the back of your neck. It was a lovely place to work in, however the carriage trade was sometimes unbearable. Thanks for the memories!

Edward Swift said...

I worked at the Scribner Bookstore from 1968 to about 1974. Since then I've had a number of novels published and one memoir. My memoir in progress includes profiles of some of the Scribner Booksellers, such as Spence, Helen Dunn, Frances Finley, and Patti, Frances Hayden Wendell Palmer, Michael Stephens and Faith Cross. Does anyone have photos of these booksellers? I would like to include them in my book. edwardswift43@gmail.com

bikerider said...

John- you said you ran into Frances who was 98 at that time? Who was that? Frances Finley? Does anyone know what happened to Faith Cross?