Literary Pilgrimages: Patchin Place


From the Wikipedia entry on Patchin Place:

Patchin Place is a gated cul-de-sac located off 10th Street and Avenue of the Americas in New York City’s Greenwich Village. Its ten brick row houses have been home to several famous writers, including Theodore Dreiser, E. E. Cummings, and Djuna Barnes, making it a stop on Greenwich Village walking tours. Today it is a popular location for psychotherapists’ offices.”

Although I was born in New York City, there were several times when I didn’t get there for two or three years in a row—which I would blame on distance if I lived far far away, not that there’s anything wrong with that, and not that non-coastal peoples would or should want to come to debauched New York to begin with—so now we make a point to bus or train down from upstate much more often. We tend to go uptown when it’s cold (where you can warm up in museums) and downtown when it’s warm. The last two times we gave whirlwind tours in those two directions to my two sweet wide-eyed nieces who live nearby but had never been down! I prefer NYC on working weekdays, but the Friends of the Library trips usually run on weekends. One nice old Jewish gent on the last one was making the journey for the avowed purpose of ordering a hot pastrami sandwich in a particular deli on the Lower East Side.

Main Reading Room, New York Public Library Art Deco Design exhibit Art Deco Design exhibit

These tour buses usually stop right in front of the main branch of the New York Public Library, and it’s very convenient to go right to the third floor bathrooms. I usually enjoy books about bookselling on the bus, and the Pforzheimer Collection of Shelley and His Circle Room 319 and Berg Collection of English and American Literature Room 320 I’d just read about in Rota are right there, along with a great group of vintage New York Yankee photos currently in the hallway. Boy that Yogi Berra seems timeless, although when you buy a fresh jar of Newman’s Own Bandito Salsa when Paul was alive and dip chips in it two days later after he passed, you know it ain’t so. Time is almost always the great leveler.

This happened to be the second day of a new exhibit at the Library entitled “Art Deco Design: Rhythm and Verve.” I had seen signs that said “No flash photography” but apparently there was no photography at all for this exhibit, which led to my semi-forcible and near-confiscatory ejection and established a new personal record (approximately fifteen minutes after arrival) for getting into trouble in the City, not including my birth.

Flea market

From there we usually walk down to the Village and nearby neighborhoods. We stopped at one of the Sixth Avenue flea markets, and there to my surprise was a good amount of books in boxes on tables against a church wall. I say surprise because these actually looked fresh to market. I gathered about a dozen circa early 1960s children’s books by the same author—all first editions with dust jackets, four of them signed, and, as I found out later, none of them listed online in that state. More on those some other time. It took awhile to find the purveyor. “How much for these?” He went to the copyright page of three or so, realized it was all the same deal, and then quoted $70 for the lot, expecting me to say $50 before his counter of $60. I said I would think about it while my wife watched the pile on the yellow chair in the accompanying photo. He said we could just leave them there and they would be fine, but that’s the kind of thing you learn not to do in this business. He also said he would hold them for us until the end of the day, another non-starter. I dug out one more by the same author and agreed to his price if he would throw it in, which he gladly did. Turns out they came from a Pennsylvania house and contents that was sold for non-payment of taxes, and this was their first time to market. “I knew they were good, but I didn’t think they were that good!” said this stall fellow, once he had his nickel on the dollar in hand. I had to lug them around the entire day, but they were fun to look at while waiting outside of this or that store.

Patchin Place Patchin Place

After a great breakfast and more meandering, we found ourselves at the Patchin Place I’d read about. I’ve been very close by before, but it’s really tucked in and is sort of the last thing you would expect to see, even downtown where the scale is smaller. The brick row buildings went up around 1849, an iron gate was added in 1929, and the blind alleyway was threatened with Patchin Placeextinction but saved as a landmark by feisty community activists including Ed Koch in 1969. There is a plaque where Cummings lived, and about which he wrote, “the topfloorback room at 4 Patchin Place. . .meant Safety & Peace & the truth of Dreaming & the bliss of Work.” When we wandered in we were the only ones in the courtyard, with its rich history, many moods, interesting tenants (including Marlon Brando, John Reed and Louise Bryant, and a host of authors and artists), and the last remaining gaslight (electrified but still working) in the City. You either like a spared Somewhere in Time place like this and the artsy-fartsy often openly flawed “elitists” who lived there or you don’t, or you should.

Patchin Place Jefferson Market Garden

Early Patchin Place resident John Cowper Powys wrote to his brother that the removal of the Jefferson Market Prison gave residents a nice view of such landmarks as the Singer Tower, the Woolworth Building, and a fabulous nearby clock tower. Wandering down to this castle-like building, which has been converted into a branch of the New York Public Library, and deciding against entering further with my bag of old books, I asked the security guard if it used to be a church, as I had never glimpsed the fantastic building as a whole. “A whore house,” came her reply. “Say what?,” somewhat shocked that even a New Yorker would give such an unadorned description with quite a number of patrons within earshot. “A whore house.” “Well,” I said, after a temporary loss for words, “they can be the same thing sometimes.” Only when we reached the adjacent jewel-like pocket garden and sat down to read the literature did we realize that she was saying “courthouse,” as in Jefferson Market Courthouse. They can be the same thing sometimes too.

Google and Google Image Patchin Place (though somebody has co-opted the name big time for plastic-looking pocket books with big polka dots) some time, or better yet, read about them, or best, pilgrimage.

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