The Last Days of Gotham Book Mart

In the famous photograph taken by Maya Deren of Gotham’s Surrealist window display, designed and organized by Marcel Duchamp and Andre Breton, we have an interesting view of a time capsule. This particular display was created to advertise Breton’s new book, Arcane 17, published by Brentano’s. In the window we see a partial backdrop painted by Matta with the word “arcane” in white letters on a black background. There is Duchamp’s famous life-size headless figure with a faucet on its thigh, titled “Lazy Hardware.” There is a photograph of Breton, matted and inscribed to Steloff. There is a photograph of Duchamp made up to look like an old man in 1972, taken by Man Ray.

Marcel Duchamp, "Lazy Hardware", window display for André Breton's "Arcane" 17, 19.-26. April 1945, Gotham Bookmart, E. 57th St. New York, Photography Maya Deren, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Marcel Duchamp Archive.
Marcel Duchamp, “Lazy Hardware”, window display for André Breton’s “Arcane” 17, 19.-26. April 1945, Gotham Bookmart, E. 57th St. New York, Photography Maya Deren, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Marcel Duchamp Archive.

When this window was created, the Surrealist movement was about to pass its peak in New York. At the time this photograph was taken, about 1945, the Gotham Book Mart was the official and, in some cases, unofficial underground distributor for hard-to-get magazines and books like Minotaur, the leading French surrealist magazine of the 1930s, which ceased publishing when the Germans occupied France. One wall contained the catalogue from Julian Levy’s Surrealist exhibition in 1936; its cover was designed by Joseph Cornell. The Gotham Book Mart also had two separate issues of transition, one with a cover by Leger, and its final issue in 1929, with a cover by Miro.

Some of the other volumes in this window include copies of Cahiers d’art–one on Seurat, another on Picasso–and a book on Hollywood films and World War II, Back Lot to Beachhead. At the bottom of the window, situated between the feet of the mannequin, was a wine bottle, evoking the bottle Duchamp created for the first published monograph on his work in View magazine.

There was also the reflection of a street sign located on the right side of the window. The letters are reversed, so you have to hold the picture up to a mirror in order to read what the sign says: No parking in this block 8 AM to 8 PM. An interesting surrealist touch!

In a scene from the movie Marathon Man, Sir Laurence Olivier, portraying the sadistic Nazi Christian Szell, is walking west on 47th Street toward Sixth Ave. He is in the heart of New York’s diamond district, the street is crowded with pedestrians, but particularly Jews–Orthodox Jews, secular Jews, old and young Jews. Olivier moves among his hated Jews, the people he spent his career in World War II putting into concentration camps, either killing them outright or torturing them to death. As Olivier slowly walks among the Jews on the street, the camera shows people doing business, talking on a telephone in a booth, or mulling around, doing nothing but looking at one another.

Szell is old and in poor health. He is paranoid about being robbed and feels vulnerable. Olivier/Szell walks among the people he despises, we see fear and hate registering on his face.

The camera then cuts to an old woman, a concentration-camp survivor, standing across the street, staring into space. She sees Szell walking on the crowded street and cannot believe her eyes that such a monster is going about free and unrecognized. The camera cuts back and forth from Olivier’s face to her face as she starts to scream out Szell’s name. She raises the volume of her voice, imploring someone on the street to stop Szell, but no one listens to her, they only assume she’s insane and ignore her.

The camera cuts back to Olivier’s face as he hears the woman’s voice calling his name. Then, Olivier stops and turns his head to the right to the sound of the woman calling his name and we see his full profile. At that moment, above his head, in the upper, left-hand corner the Gotham Book Mart sign Wise Men Fish Here comes into view. We don’t see the full sign, only half. If you freeze-frame this scene, the background goes a little blurry but the camera has captured a moment in the Gotham’s history.

John Schlesinger, director of the film, spent two days filming this scene on 47th Street. Since Olivier was in frail health, he needed a place to rest between takes and hide from autograph seekers and fans. So, Olivier was allowed to rest in the Gotham. He would sit on the stairs leading to the second floor.

Apparently, Flip asked Olivier to sign some books for the store. Olivier agreed and Flip pulled out every book he could find on Olivier and his films. I assume they all sold because I’ve never seen a signed Olivier book in the Gotham. That no one took a photograph of Olivier in the Gotham is a real loss for history. If you watch the movie closely, during the scene in question, you’ll see four buildings across the street from the Gotham. None exist now, including Berger’s, a deli that had some of the best frankfurters in New York.

On page sixty-six of Don DeLillo’s short novel Cosmopolis, Eric Packer, “a billionaire asset manager” and the book’s protagonist, is browsing in the old Gotham Book Mart: “He stood in the poetry alcove at the Gotham Book Mart, leafing through chapbooks.” In the old store, the poetry chapbooks were crammed next to one another, packed like sardines in a can. “He browsed lean books always, half a fingerbreadth or less, choosing poems to read based on length and width. He looked for poems of four, five, six lines. He scrutinized such poems, thinking into every intimation, and his feelings seemed to float in the white space around the lines. There were marks on the page and there was the page. The white was vital to the soul of the poem.”

At this point Eric notices a woman–who turns out to be his wife, Elise Shifrin “move past, behind him.” He “didn’t see her enter the back room but knew she had. He follows her and goes “into the back room where several customers disentombed lost novels from the deep shelves.” The shelves in the back room were two rows deep and alphabetized.

Not finding her in the back room, “he checked the offices and staff toilet and then saw there were two doorways to this part of the shop.” Not finding Elise in any of these areas, he opens a “door to a hallway that had stacks of books on one wall, photographs of sociopath poets on the other.” (It’s too bad DeLillo never names a few of these “sociopath poets.”) Eric then climbs the same stairs where Olivier had rested: “a flight of stairs led to the gallery above the main floor and a woman sat on the stairs, unmistakably the one.” Elise is reading a book of poems. Eric and Elise proceed to have a DeLillo conversation, slightly cryptic but pointed, and then they decide to go across the street to “the luncheonette” for lunch. The luncheonette is Berger’s deli.

I first met DeLillo while we were still setting up the second floor in the new store. Usually, I’d see him on the second floor browsing the poetry section. I was opening boxes, pulling out first editions and sorting them. Some of the boxes I opened had no books in them, just ephemera–magazines, newspapers, letters, etc. I recognized DeLillo from his book-jacket picture. But since he always had a cap on, it was hard for me to place him without a bit of prolonged staring.

In person, DeLillo has pale skin, stands about five feet seven and seems to be in very good health. He has an athletic manner and moves quickly. He is a shy person, but once engaged in a conversation, his passionate intelligence comes across.

Eventually, I asked him if he needed any help. He told me he was looking for something special, a birthday present for a film director. He was on his way to a party for this director. I told him I had something that might be interesting, and then I went over to one of the opened ephemera boxes and pulled out a mint copy of the first issue of Film Culture magazine. I took the magazine downstairs and Flip priced it for him. That was my first meeting with DeLillo.

At that point I hadn’t read any of DeLillo’s work and I didn’t know he was an old friend of Flip’s. About a month later, when DeLillo was in the store again, I asked him how the director liked the copy of Film Culture. DeLillo said the director didn’t really appreciate it. In fact, he didn’t get the significance of it at all. DeLillo seemed disappointed and I changed the subject. I decided I wanted to photograph DeLillo but I realized I’d have to wait for the right time.