Book review: Bookstore: The Life and Times of Jeannette Watson and Books & Co


bookstoreimage1Bookstore: The Life and Times of Jeannette Watson and Books & Co., by Lynne Tillman. NY: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1999.

Books & Co. was situated in a wonderful location on the Upper East Side of Manhattan not far from the Whitney Museum. It was the kind of place where you’d see somebody like Woody Allen browsing the shelves, as he fondly recalls doing in his foreword. Allen even included the shop in one of his later films. An excerpt from the author’s introduction follows.

Bookstore is the history of Jeannette Watson and Books & Co., the independent bookstore she owned that opened its doors in 1978 and shut them in 1997. Closing the century, Books & Co.’s near-twenty years represent a significant sample of this country’s literary, social, and cultural life. It is a history rich in books and people, in the lives of writers and readers. It is a story representative of its period, of issues germane to writing and publishing, to bookselling generally, and to independent bookstores specifically.

“The genesis of bookstores and of writers, editors, and readers is shared. Why people love books, why they write or publish them, why they read or sell them spring from related interests, needs, and desires. Books & Co. was a nexus for literary achievements and hopes, for readerly proclivities, for human interactions—from a child’s love of writing to a novelist’s debut, a chance encounter to a love affair, from a casual comment to a book deal, a book’s indelible effect on a reader to a memorial reading for its author.

“While histories are subject to contestation and elaboration, they are essentially stories. ‘Story’ lives inside ‘history,’ and both share an etymological root with ‘store.’ Not coincidentally, what’s in a bookstore is not only books on shelves, but also the stories of those who enter—customers, staff, editors, browsers, publishers, publicists, writers. Books & Co. was literally, and virtually, filled with stories.

“Readers and writers met and embraced there. It was a lover’s embrace, usually metaphorical, and, in a powerful sense, Bookstore is a love story. Book lovers often love bookstores and are faithful to them. They discover their tunnel of love in a bookstore. It’s their clubhouse, too, and, since bookstore lovers are a floating group, happy to discover a good one anywhere, the club can meet anywhere.”

From here, Ms. Tillman provides a quite good summary of American bookselling from its earliest days to its late 1990s incarnation. This in turn is followed by a description of how she tackled this project, which involved numerous interviews, as well as delving into diary entries, scrapbooks, and old correspondence, programs, fliers, and publications. The result is half biography and half cultural history, and it all works very well. The format of the book follows the form of the project. Jeannette Watson speaks in the first person, interspersed with hundreds of indented related commentaries from those who knew and worked with her. She explains that she could never address people by their first names, for example, such as director/screenwriter Robert Benton, and in the next passage Benton himself says the only thing he didn’t like about going into the shop was being called Mr. Benton, as it made him feel so old.

There is much of interest between these covers. Jeannette considered her privileged upbringing a hindrance—from which reading books was the principle escape—and her father was the powerful and charismatic Tom Watson of IBM fame. Adrift and uncertain in life, the bookstore plan came firmly to mind during a long recovery from surgery. A good friend of her father’s, the seemingly ever-present Brendan Gill, became the reassuring godfather of the new bookstore. Jeannette took a crash course in the profession, wooed noted bookman Burt Britton away from the Strand, and found a suitable location at 939 Madison Avenue. This was a fixer-upper, on two floors, but was soon fitted out with nice traditional bookcases and famous features like the Wall, the island horseshoe counter, and the upstairs deep green leather couch. It was to be part literary salon and part bookstore, with an emphasis on poetry, fiction, and signed works. Britton knew absolutely everyone, and fashionable blonde Jeannette had the vision and the financial resources, so off they were on a bold adventure.

Soon enough there was trouble in paradise, however. Bookkeeping methods were lax, there was no room for the overstock, staff turnover was high, Madison Avenue rent and piles of bills kept them in the red, and Jeannette was relegated to the cash register while Burt held court. “When Paul Goldberger’s article appeared in the New York Times on the architecture of the bookstore, he called it Burt Britton’s bookstore. I wasn’t mentioned.” Things came to a boil, and Britton left the concern in 1980. A triumvirate of talented clerks was promoted, there was lots of money around in the go-go ‘80s, and Books & Co. made a nice recovery from the brink of ruin. Jeannette somehow found time to marry Alexander Sanger, the president of Planned Parenthood NYC, raise three sons, and read voraciously. “I’m scuba diving with Ralph,” says Alex, “and she’s polished off all of Proust, on a six-day vacation.”

Jeannette Watson and CompanyAs Jeannette found her footing, Books & Co. became a Mecca for serious book lovers in search of the important and unusual. The philosophy section became the jewel in the crown, poetry flourished, the classics survived, and great works on art, photography and erotica helped support some of the more esoteric inventory. Books were hand sold, which is fast becoming a lost art. The store wasn’t simply stocked—it was curated. Writers received strong support, most notably through a reading series breathtaking for the number of events held (often several per week) and the authors involved (a complete list is provided at the rear). Many of them went on to true fame. Books on bookselling should give lots of details, and here we are privy to Watson’s initial investment, annual expenditures and income, lease agreements, profit margins, return rates, wages, floor space measurements, and all kinds of good solid data.

There are funny anecdotes throughout. A young Fran Lebowitz recalls paying her rent by selling review copies to the Strand. “It was the only experience I’ve ever had in life where I got more than I thought I was going to get.” Roy Blount, Jr. inscribed a book for Jeannette, “This is my favorite copy. I sewed the binding myself.” Calvin Trillin weighs in. Scandalous literary gossip abounds. There’s lots on everyday operations too, like dealing with reps and returns, decorating windows, and telling grateful customers like Susan Sontag what they should be reading. Jeannette had dinner with the legendary Frances Steloff of the Gotham Book Mart, then in her nineties, who confided she could still stand on her head. She reminisced about paying clerks thirty-five cents an hour, and firing Tennessee Williams for being late his first day on the job. Steloff advised, “You never say to customers you’re out of a book; you walk them to the section. Even if you don’t have the book, they may see something else they like.”

Celebrity shoppers included Jackie Onassis, Kurt Vonnegut, Neil Simon, Robin Williams, John F. Kennedy, Jr., Edward Albee, Romare Bearden, John Cleese, Elmore Leonard, Candice Bergen, Jacques Derrida, and many others. General William Westmoreland was in griping about a Viet Nam book the same week Michael Jackson picked up a British import on skinhead photography and Aesop’s Fables. Margaux and Mariel Hemingway popped in for a Sagan novel. Truman Capote would whisk Jeannette away to the Carlyle for a Tab. Sam Shepard and Jessica Lange smooch in the back of the store, a smiling James Baldwin is outside looking in at a window of his works, and John and Yoko walk their Great Danes past in the middle of the night.

Like so many other idealistic 1970s endeavors, Jeannette’s unique combination of nineteenth century salon and cutting edge literary modernism struggled to survive in more dire times. After the stock market crash and amid the rise of chain stores and the advent of deep discounts, revenues dropped, and key staff departed for greener pastures. Books & Co. had enjoyed a fruitful relationship with the nearby Whitney Museum, but they bought up the block, and would not come to terms on a new lease agreement. All of this played out in the media, with much wailing and finger pointing. One observer likened it to a cultural institution acting like a business against a business that was serving as a cultural institution, but the Whitney had problems of its own, in part due to less governmental support. Hundreds of independent bookstores were closing their doors, but this time around others did not spring up to replace them. Fran Lebowitz in particular rails against the Disneyfication of Times Square and the disappearance of iconic oddities in favor of bland, tourist-friendly, profit-driven homogenization. Jeannette let Fran smoke in her office too!

There’s an eight page photo section, and the index is very functional. In a nice afterword, Jeannette Watson lets us know what she’s been up to. She thanks Lynne Tillman for her splendidly woven account, and we even learn the small town library in Maine where Books & Co.’s famous green leather couch ended up. Excerpts follow, from Jeannette unless otherwise noted.

“Jeannette talked to a lot of the bookshop owners, and I remember that a couple of them weren’t that nice to her. They thought, She’s a dilettante. She’s the daughter of so-and-so . . . They didn’t take her very seriously. But Jeannette was serious. She is a person who is very low key, but very intense underneath it all. When she wants to do something, there isn’t anything that’s going to stop her, and she wanted a bookstore.” – Jane Stanton Hitchcock

“Burt selected most of the books, some of which went on the Wall. The Wall was his invention. It was intended to represent a complete spectrum of hardcover books, with as many translations as possible, of the great works of literature from Shakespeare to living writers. When you entered the bookstore, it was on the left. The entire left wall consisted of important works of literature.”

“All of Burt’s favorite writers would be on that wall, contemporary writers along with the good classics. Some of these were very popular writers—John Cheever was a big favorite of his. He knew all of these people from the Strand over the years, and they would come in, and in a matter of less than two months, the bookstore was a hit.” – Albert Murray

“The image of the store was essential, and the window was an important part of it. We had a point of view, we were a curatorial eye focused on books, a gallery of books. The first window featured Barry Hannah’sAirships, and in July 1978, a beautiful edition of a Colette book filled the window. Lee Radziwill came in to buy it.”

“It was still a very heady moment in the cultural world. There were bookstores on Fourth Avenue, there was Max’s Kansas City, there were still salons where the art world went. There was certainly nothing like Books & Co. when she started it. The last bookstore like it was Haywood Wakefield, on Madison Avenue and Sixty-fifth Street, started in the early forties by Betty Parsons, Ila McDermott, and Marian Willard. It closed in the mid-sixties. What Jeannette created was an instant salon. She provided a meeting place for writers, where writers felt nurtured.” – Alexandra Anderson-Spivy

“I had been in love with Books & Co. from the very first time I came to New York with my college girlfriend, Dara. I was in graduate school, in Iowa, in the MFA program, and it was 1979. We wandered around the city all day in a sort of combined fit of ecstasy and terror. We went to the Whitney and stumbled back out; we’d been out on the sidewalks by then for about fifteen hours, and I said, ‘Look, there’s a bookstore.’ We walked in, and I knew immediately. You can just tell when you cross the threshold that there’s something profound there. That it’s more than just a bookstore. I don’t know what it is. I think all those great books must actually exhale into the ether. Dara and I looked through the books and went upstairs and realized there was a big sofa up there, just sat on it, and no one was going to tell you to get out, no one was going to tell you to buy anything, you could just sit on the sofa. I felt like a refugee who had suddenly been picked up by a boat. We sat on that sofa for an hour, reading books of poetry we couldn’t believe she had. Dara picked up books from the philosophy section. Jeannette has stuff that you could find other places, but you’d have to really search for it. I was just starting to write and sitting on that sofa with Madison Avenue roaring around below through the glass, all these books around us, I kept thinking, This is that thing that’s been in the cartoon balloon over my head. This is what I’m sitting in my shitty little apartment in Iowa City trying to create and get to.” – Michael Cunningham

“Over 70 percent of the people who came into the store didn’t want to be helped. We recognized that by the way they walked in. They moved purposefully past the register, didn’t make eye contact, and didn’t want to be greeted. For them the bookstore was a solitary experience, and they wanted to make their voyage alone.”

“Readings were not my cup of tea. Usually it was an overexposure to the author’s ego. It was as often as not a disappointment to meet an author—you’d have read wonderful prose for a long time only to find out that the author was sort of a jerk. The readings were often difficult from the standpoint of watching the hungry arrive. Everybody involved was hungry. The author involved had such a hungry ego, and a certain segment of the public was so hungry for the author, for the fame and all of that stuff, that it was hard to watch after a while.” – Susan Scott

“You always feel like a fraud as a writer. It’s such an ephemeral art. You never feel quite real. It helps to make you feel real and part of a community and part of an ancient tradition when you’re reading aloud.” – Barbara Lazear Ascher

“When Gary Snyder read, in a tribute to North Point Press, Allen Ginsberg introduced him. During the reading, little white things flew across the room. I thought, What are they? I looked around. Ginsberg was sitting next to me, using a Swiss Army knife to clip his nails. Very peculiar. When Ginsberg spoke about Snyder, he referred to him as ‘an antenna of his race’ and then eloquently quoted Shelley, who called poets ‘the unacknowledged legislators.’”

“I could always remember the stock really well, how many copies we had. This is why people—now that computers came in—can’t really understand how people could keep all this information in their head. It was always pretty easy. I knew every book we had in the store. I think it was almost a visual memory. I remembered what a book looked like, what the spine looked like, and all that.” – Peter Philbrook

“I believe that prices have to be protected. Price controls are the only thing that can save independent bookstores. No discounts. No underselling to drive the little guy out of business. One standard, fixed price for every book—period. Some other countries have done this, and it works. We’ve done it with milk. Why can’t we do it with books?” – Paul Auster

“One of the wonderful things about being in the used-book business is that you’re constantly putting out odd things. You watch how quickly the odd thing sells, and you always say, ‘Jesus, I never would have thought there would have been a market in Portland for a book on Cleveland, or a book on nuclear physics.’ We were much more willing to broaden the selection, because we had the experience of what could sell as a used book. We didn’t go into it with a prejudice that Americans are dumb and stupid.” – Michael Powell

“When Arthur left, Steven Varni stepped in or up, to become our buyer. Our buyers or employees usually emerged organically. Steven had been trained from our Dante’s inferno, the basement, up through to the celestial harmony of the philosophy section on the second floor.”

“But I’m hopeful that what will happen is there will be a kind of countervailing feeling, which will drive people to more original, idiosyncratic places. Ray Oldenburg wrote a book, The Great Good Place, about great good places that help weave a community together. People are going to be searching and yearning for this sense of an essential experience, not a manufactured experience. I think reading gives that to you, when you’re sitting alone with a book, and I think going into a weird, unusual bookstore does that to you as well.” – Mitchell Kaplan

“For obvious reasons, one might expect New York to have more enlightened bookstores than any other city in America. But no, I can think of four or five cities that are better for book buying than here. And what New York has isn’t much—certainly there’s nothing now like what Books & Co. was—and that’s a major handicap for lives in which reading plays a large part. I don’t want to buy only the books I already know I want to acquire. I want to discover books and writers I don’t know about. That happens in a great bookstore. On-line ordering can never match the informativeness of being able to browse.” – Susan Sontag

“Though I loved meeting writers and being surprised when they came by, I was sustained, as was Books & Co., by the weekly and daily customers, the regulars, and the beauty of daily life in the store. It was through the bookstore that I learned to enjoy people and to be easy talking with them. It was the bookstore’s gift to me.”

“I’d hit my stride, been in the business twenty years, knew something about it, knew the writers, and knew the ropes. I could do an even better job if I could continue. If I couldn’t be a world traveler, rock star, ethnobotanist, or live with some tribe in the Amazon, I could sell books and publish them. I wanted to continue, but the climate was undermining. There was turmoil and fear in the industry. My fiery determination was burning low. Structural and other changes were affecting all of us, booksellers, publishers, writers, editors—everyone.”

“I returned to the podium and gave my last speech at the store. It was a singular moment. It was the store’s swan song. But I was a bookseller to the end. I thanked the audience for coming, thanked Edna [O’Brien] for her reading and gracious remarks, and then encouraged everyone to buy a copy of her book and get it signed. Edna had ended the evening just the way I liked it—on a hopeful note. I did hope that Books & Co., and what it stood for, would live on in people’s hearts and minds.”

Shawn Purcell operates Balopticon Books & Ephemera and can be contacted at http://www.balopticon.com.

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