Seeing Shelley Plain: Memories of New Yorks Legendary Phoenix Book Shop

Seeing Shelley Plain: Memories of New Yorks Legendary Phoenix Book Shop, by Robert A. Wilson. New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press, 2001.

Sell me a book tonight, Larry. You havent sold me a book in weeks.
Why dont you buy all of them?
Okay, how much?

Thus begins both this book and the authors adventures as a novice shop owner in the late glory days of Greenwich Village bookselling. Wilson left his job at a cuckoo clock factory and scraped together the necessary $12,000, which was a tidy sum in 1962. His previous experience in the rarified world of bookmanship was basically limited to a serious hunt for the first editions of four particular authors.

Wilson quickly realized that he was in over his head and the figures were not adding up, so he threw all his energy into printing and mailing out catalogs (some 1500), following the pattern set forth by fourth Phoenix owner Larry Wallrich in Catalogs 50 through 59 (there were no earlier numbers because he did not want to look like a beginner). Sales from Wilsons 157 catalogs, particularly to universities seeking the complete output of contemporary authors for their modern literature collections, were the key to survival. This enabled him to empty out the existing stock and concentrate on acquiring collectible first editions and discovering his niche, which primarily consisted of first-run poetry and the Beat field. He reveled in material more established shops did not handle, such as ephemera and periodicals. Eventually Wilson mastered the catalog genre, to the point where he inserted phony items for his own amusement, like a very worn telephone directory for the town of Rapallo in Italy for the year 1937, without the cover but listing Ezra Pounds phone number; and a framed butterfly, genus unknown as the label has fallen off the box, but inscribed Given to me by Prof. Nabokov during my senior year. He replied to prospective buyers that these curious items had been sold already, regrettably. There were two all-Gertrude Stein numbers, and one on Henry Miller material solicited a response from Miller himself, who wanted copies of the catalog.

Wilsons chapters on important finds are delectable. The genteel negotiations in London over Dylan Thomas original working manuscript of Under Milk Wood, for example, and subsequent tribulations when customs demanded it be held over the holidays because the large leather case it was housed in was dutiable. And how would you like the chance to purchase W. H. Audens personal library before he returned to England; or discover the manuscript of William Faulkners first novel in its original shipping box (complete with an alternate ending, unpublished poems, etc.) while sipping cocktails on a Fire Island deck? There is also an interesting chapter on Phoenix publications, including bibliographies and the Oblong Octavo series.

Another charm of this book lies in the small but universal details of running an open shop. Wilson names or refers to most of his assistants over the years, including one who opened a short-lived rival shop. The hours were 3:00 to 11:00 P.M. in the early crime-free days, when evening strollers were his main customers. Bleecker Street pizza was a favorite repast, accompanied by a superb California wine with the charming double-dactylic name Inglenook Zinfandel, alas no longer bottled. Thanks to a notice in the Antiquarian Bookman, a Madison Avenue colleague helped him recover a scout-stolen copy of Steinbecks The Cup of Gold. We also have tales of buying stolen material (twice belonging to Allen Ginsberg who was not all that careful about whom he brought home); turning down offers of common material thought by their purveyors to be priceless; plumbing-related floods; relocation; and a brace of white store cats.

This being the fabled Phoenix, however, there were rarer pleasures too, like the day when William Burroughs showed up for the first time and Wilson introduced him to fellow shopper Edward Albee. Celebrity visitors such as Richard Burton are noted. The humorist S. J. Perelman was always looking for copies of his own out-of-print works, the absence of which was politely ascribed to their popularity. Perelmans guest book inscription reads, We are both in a dying business, but what a way to go!

Crime, impractical regulations, and rising costs finally sapped Robert Wilson. He tried in vain to keep the Phoenix rising through a new owner, but was finally forced to sell the stock and close the doors, with some surprise twists and turns at the end.

What I found most interesting was the publishing history and forms taken by the early writings of the various poets, some of which were issued as offsets and mimeographs. Even more traditional pamphlets had very limited print runs. Marianne Moore was one of Wilsons first four collected authors, before he even dreamed of owning a bookstore. He had been advised not to collect her, as the first two titles were virtually unobtainable. On vacation in London hunting up Stein material at the firm of Bertram Rota, he noticed the small blue impossible Marriage right on the counter and snapped it up for a mere two pounds. On returning to New York, he now sought out a known copy of the slightly more common Poems, issued privately in 1921 by a friend without Moores permission. It had sold to another book dealer for $12.50 in the interim, who offered it to him for $20. It should be noted that Wilson was onto many of these writers well before most other collectors, the Beat poets in particular. In addition, he developed an early knack for securing signatures which stood him well in the cultivation of literary friendships. Wilson ended up visiting the elderly Marianne Moore many times, and eventually helped to broker the sale of her archive and personal effects to the Rosenbach Museum, with stiff competition from the University of Texas at Austin. Once while lunching at her apartment she confided that a substitute editor at the New Yorker had rejected one of her poems, causing a bit of financial distress. Wilson offered her twice as much for an unpublished poem in pamphlet form if she could manage to sign them. Moore readily agreed, and promptly retrieved a typescript copy of Tipoos Tiger from her bedroom. When printing was complete (one hundred copies for sale and twenty-six to be lettered for their personal use, thirteen each), she examined them carefully and remarked, That last line is all wrong. Wilson was floored, and insisted that the printing was accurate. As it turns out, the inveterate revisionist had simply changed her mind. The dilemma was solved when Moore insisted on rewriting the last line by hand in all of the copies.

There are a few slight faults with this work. It is divided into three parts. The first is a chronological memoir; the second a more leisurely consideration of the players and the sheer joy of the profession; and the third a brief description of who these writers were for those not yet initiated, followed by a list of Phoenix publications and a list of visiting authors who signed Wilsons guest book. The format is fine, but there is some repetition, as if the parts were written quite separately from each other. We are reminded three times, for example, that LeRoi Jones changed his name to Amiri Baraka, a number which would have been easier to confirm if an index had been furnished. Wilson had some printing misadventures in his day, and may have been mildly miffed to see at least half a dozen typos, most with correctly spelled small words like of substituted for if. The whole work could have used a good last read-through for the type of slips and redundancies that a spell checker does not pick up. Finally, one wonders how some of the subjects would have reacted to certain intimate details shared by the author. These are small things though. Seeing Shelley Plain is a wonderful and entertaining read, and a nice addition to the literature of bookselling. Some excerpts follow.

Scarcely had I gotten the fire going when I heard the door being pushed open, and to my astonishment there stood Frances Steloff, proprietor of the legendary Gotham Book Mart, and at that time indisputably the most famous book seller in the entire world. I had been a customer of hers long before I had ever dreamed of owning my own shop. In fact, I had bought my first rare book (Hemingways God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen) from her in 1943 when I was stationed on Long Island during my military service in W.W. II. I was even more stunned when she said on entering, I heard about you buying the Phoenix and I want to be your first customer.

Looking now at that first of my Phoenix catalogs, I am astounded at how much really significant material was in it; a two-page typed letter by William Burroughs with a holographic postscript by Allen Ginsberg; a sixteen-page typed poem by Allen with manuscript revisions; four drawings for a proposed but never executed comic strip by Jack Kerouac; three paintings by Kenneth Patchen; as well as letters and manuscripts by Michael McClure and Gregory Corso.

I wasnt quite as lucky with the star item of the second catalog, for some hawk-eyed customer snapped up a Civil War history with a nice chatty inscription by F. Scott Fitzgerald for $12.50. I was quite thrilled to make such a handsome profit, for I had found it on a sidewalk stand for fifty cents.

But, sorry to say, by the late 70s the heady days of fat budgets and government subsidies began to wane as Republican congresses kept hacking away at federal endowments until all such funding disappeared totally under the Reagan regime. One by one, these university libraries were forced to limit their spending on new issue material drastically, or, in many cases, cease their programs altogether.

Apparently the inmates were allowed showers only once a week, and on one such day Dorothy [Day] heard a prostitute on her way to the communal bath quote Audens line, Thousands have lived without love, but not one without water. He was immensely pleased by this, and regarded it as his greatest successto be quoted in prison by a convicted whore.

While they were in the shop Nanda [the beautiful Fernanda Pivano, who introduced the Beats to Europe through translation and promotion] asked if there was a bathroom she could use. I was immediately terribly embarrassed. The only one available was a public one in the hall, used by other tenants in the building, and far from clean. I explained to Nanda that while there was one, it was very primitive. Totally undaunted she replied, What I intend to do in it is also very primitive.

And the intractable landlord got what was coming to himthe shop remained unrented for two and a half years after I left. And even then he had to divide it into two smaller shops. The right half became a video rental store, with racks of cassettes where once had been poetry. In the other half, where formerly had been shelves of first editions of some of the twentieth centurys greatest literary masterpieces, and where my desk had been located, around which had congregated many Pulitzer and Nobel prize winners, there was now the ultimate ignominy of a dry-cleaning establishment, with the neighborhoods clothing traveling back and forth on a mechanical rack.

Shawn Purcell operates Balopticon Books & Ephemera and can be contacted at

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