Book Row.

Anyone who is, like me, nostalgic about old-style bookstores will enjoy Bob Egan’s deep dive into the area of New York City once known as Book Row:

Between roughly 1890 and 1980 there were dozens of used bookstores along Fourth Avenue between Astor Place (8th Street) and Union Square (14th Street) in New York CIty. The area was known as Book Row.

The area was at the eastern edge of Greenwich VIllage where it meets the East Village.

This website shows the major bookstores that made up Book Row during it’s heyday – around 1940. The information was taken primarily from 1940 phone books at the New York Public Library, photographs found in the Municiple Archives of NYC, and the book BOOK ROW: An Anecdotal and Pictorial History of the Antiquarian Book Trade by Marvin Mondlin and Roy Meador (2004/Carroll & Graf, NYC; paperback reprint 2019/Skyhorse, NYC).

Used bookstores like to cluster together so those browsing could go from one store to the next until they found the book they liked.

People came from all over the world to shop here, though many customers were New Yorkers passing through Book Row on their way to work, or shoppers walking between the immense Wanamakers Department store at East 9th street and Union Square.

Most stores had bookcarts outside with books selling for as low as five cents. The reason: when these customers came into the store to buy their bargain purchase, they were often enticed to buy more additional higher priced books.

As you can see, the text is full of typos, but never mind — it’s an indispensable guide to that fabled land (which disappeared shortly before I moved to the city). There are maps, descriptions, and many, many photos; I wish there were more interiors (beyond the still from Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters), but I’m sure if such were available he would have used them. (Incidentally, if anyone knows of online images of the interiors of prerevolutionary Russian bookstores, I’d love to see them.)


  1. J.W. Brewer says

    Note that back in the Forties/Fifties a bunch of the stores were on the street/sidewalk level of “Bible House,” when it was still at 45 4th Ave. The American Bible Society then moved uptown and west, to the stretch of Broadway in between Columbus Circle and Lincoln Center, where they opened their more “brutalist” new digs in 1966. After almost 50 years there, they relocated to a cheaper city (Philadelphia), selling off the Broadway site to a developer who demolished their building in order to construct something more au courant that was anticipated to generate more $. The way of the world, or at least the way of Manhattan.

  2. Ah, I didn’t realize they’d left the city — I used to buy foreign-language New Testaments at their brutalist digs.

  3. Neither NY nor Russia, but an interior painting of Blackwells in Oxford is shown and discussed here:
    with a link to an earlier post there.

  4. Funny enough, I was talking about brutalist architecture with my two Nepali graduate advisees yesterday. They had never seen that style blocky concrete buildings before coming to America, but here they are ubiquitous on college campuses.

    Me: There’s good brutalism and bad brutalism.

    [We look at some pictures from around the physics department at the University of Illinois, Chicago.]

    Me: So, as I said, there’s good brutalism and bad brutalism.

    Student: What is this building?

    Me: Bad brutalism.

  5. David Eddyshaw says

    Blackwells in Oxford

    Blackwells was a magical place in my youth. Disenchanted now, thanks to the evil wizard Bezos. Only the French seem to have effective wards against his sorcery.

  6. Bezos? Blackwell’s (like Foyles) is owned by the evil Waterstones, which is majority-owned by the top-evil Elliott Investment Management.

    I’m not sure if I’ve ever been to Blackwell’s. Waterstones at the University of London is very, very enjoyable, evil notwithstanding.

    Ed.: Stu—jinx!

  7. Stu Clayton says

    What’s this about Bezos ? Blackwells belongs to Waterstones nowadays, as does Foyles. I order from amazon only as a last resort, after checking the used-book companies (Antiquariat sounds more upmarket, but there’s no other word for used-book store).

    The Waterstones takeovers are a few years back, but only Blackwells accepts payment through Paypal, so that’s where I order my Humes and Trollopes (all three).

  8. Stu Clayton says

    Where is the edit box ?? I’m trying out Chrome Beta since the standard mobile version has had rendering problems for the last few weeks. You can’t win for losing.

  9. David Eddyshaw says

    I meant the general blight on real-world bookshops caused by Amazon’s running at a loss for years to strangle all competitors before eventually swooping in to eat the carrion. The way of the Uber Mensch.

    That is what has driven once-respectable bookshops into the maw of hedge-fund hyenas.

    I fondly remember when actually buying a book at Foyles was like shopping in the Soviet Union. Well, fairly fondly. Ah me …

  10. I knew what DE meant. And yet I still order books from Amazon. I am weak, and the shipping is free.

  11. Jen in Edinburgh says

    I love the image of the used bookshops gathering together for company, although I know when they *mean*.

    And I still like Blackwells, although I more often GO to Waterstones, because it’s between work and home.

  12. David Eddyshaw says

    Trollopes (all three)


  13. Stu Clayton says

    I am weak, and the shipping is free.

    A pragmatic middle position between positive and negative thinking ! Bright-sided.

  14. J.W. Brewer says

    I take it the habitues of the old Book Row were typically used book stores, which were a fairly distinct genre from “regular” book stores, which could be found in profusion in other districts of Manhattan. The impact of online selling on one was not the same (either in nature or timing) as on the other, and of course before Amazon came along you had already had the phenomenon of your small cutesy inevitably-limited-stock “independent” bookstores falling prey to the growth of big-box chains.

    I am old enough that I own a suit (which admittedly has gotten a little snug as the decades have passed) bought back in the ’90’s at Simpsons of Piccadilly while I was in London for some reason or other. Simpsons then went out of business and had its building turned into a Waterstones, prior to the most recent shifts in the ownership of Waterstones.

  15. David Marjanović says

    There’s good brutalism

    There is?

  16. Stu Clayton says

    Many years ago here, AJP gave several examples of brutalism that he considered good (or does one say “successful” now?)

  17. The business now called Foyles is numerically as huge as the former business called Foyles, but feels soulless and uninviting, unlike the Waterstones mentioned above.

  18. Vienna is still full of small interesting book stores. I have no idea how they survive. Given the apparent complete lack of interest in reading books among the under 25 set, I suppose most of them won’t be around 20 years from now.

  19. How is Hay-on-Wye these days?

  20. Many years ago here, AJP gave several examples of brutalism that he considered good

    There was a nice discussion of concrete and Oscar Niemeyer back in la fange du macadam. Okay, some Brasilia I can see being debatable. But the ICC in UnB I would say comes down on the good side. Or, in Europe, the PCF headquarters or the Le Havre public library. (The last not discussed in that old thread; the others were.)

  21. I honestly expected that more than 9 people on LibraryThing would have an old copy of Egan’s Bookstore Book, pictured at the end of that piece.

  22. Just yesterday I listened to a BBC documentary about Izzy Young, former owner of the famous Folklore Center in Greenwich Village. (It was an old show, because Izzy Young passed away in 2019.)

    He said that as a young man in the early 1950s, it was Book Row that first enticed him into the neighbourhood. Once he was in the vicinity, he started hearing folk music and then one thing led to another.

  23. I honestly expected that more than 9 people on LibraryThing would have an old copy of Egan’s Bookstore Book

    I’m sure I had one in my early NYC years, but it must have gotten lost along the way.

  24. David Eddyshaw says

    How is Hay-on-Wye these days?

    I was last there a couple of years ago; it’s still full of second-hand bookshops, but they were pretty unquirky, and there didn’t seem to be any specialist secondhand bookshops, like Arthur Probsthain and Luzac’s used to be in the days when they were on Great Russell Street.

    It’s possible I have actually been corrupted by the fact that nowadays, if something is on sale at all, you can probably buy it on the internet, particularly as the sort of thing I’m looking for is often perhaps a bit recherché. (My most recent purchase was “The Manenguba Languages (Bantu A. 15, Mbo Cluster) of Cameroon”, by Robert Hedinger; I suspect that I would not have found it at Hay.)

    But then the joy of real secondhand bookshops has always been in finding things that you didn’t know you wanted beforehand: the serendipity.

  25. the joy of real secondhand bookshops has always been in finding things that you didn’t know you wanted beforehand: the serendipity.

    Indeed. There’s still a few such in NZ — chiefly in holiday destinations for when the rain forces indoor pursuits. (And tourists leave behind the novels they brought to read on the plane.)

    So I have a stack of stuff I didn’t know I wanted that I must get round to soon …

    (All this faux rationalisation. It’s a disease, isn’t it?)

  26. David Marjanović says

    Reminder: in NZ it happens that it rains for two months nonstop.

  27. it rains for two months nonstop.

    Aww in Auckland it rains for 12 months nonstop.

    In holiday destinations it rains only for the two months Aucklanders are on holiday. It snows for a month before the skiing season, then blows for two days, then doesn’t snow at all for the rest of the skiing season when Aucklanders are trying to take their Winter break.

    (Don’t tell any Aucklanders about this conspiracy. Also don’t tell Aussies.)

  28. Peter Grubtal says

    In both England and Germany it seems a trend to have a coffee and cake cafè in bookshops. At Foyles “café” would be an understatement: it takes up the whole of the top floor.
    I wonder if the time will come when the bookstore is just an adjunct to the café instead of vice-versa.

  29. the bookstore is just an adjunct to the café

    I don’t see we need to choose which is adjunct to which. In NZ, most Public Libraries are combined Council ‘Service Centres’ and cafés. Eminently sensible.

    Sadly a café in a secondhand bookstore seems too hard. Also they’re in the cheapest rental shops, so no bijou café nearby.

  30. PlasticPaddy says

    Unless the owner is very resolute (and unlikely to become divorced or separated), there is a dynamic where the high profit/ low effort café drives out the low profit second-hand books. The Ha’penny Bridge Bookshop in Dublin, where to the great mirth of the owner I once failed to notice my wool trousers were smouldering (too close to the electric fire), went from bookshop to bookshop with 1st floor cafe to 1st floor restaurant with a few bookshelves on the ground floor. In Germany I believe there is a similar dynamic in Christmas markets, where stalls offering Glühwein and hot food expand at the expense of those offering brightly coloured and oddly made handcrafts or Stollen made from Dinkel and the dust of artisanal bricks.

  31. stalls offering Glühwein and hot food expand at the expense of those offering brightly coloured and oddly made handcrafts or Stollen made from Dinkel and the dust of artisanal bricks.
    There are still lots of the latter kind at the Bonn Christmas market, although I rarely see people actually buying their wares; sometimes I wonder if someone pays them to set up their stalls in order to add color and atmosphere to the event. Personally, I only go to Christmas markets for drinks and eating with friends; I have too much useless stuff at home already as it is.

  32. John Cowan says

    Books and food seriously don’t mix: the latter draws rodents who attack the former.

  33. Peter Grubtal says

    With Christmas markets – in Germany at least – there’s been a tremendous inflation in the last few years, and nowadays there’s scarcely a square meter in central Munich in December which doesn’t have one. And Hans’ heretical thought about the holders of the stalls selling genuine Christmas decorations being paid has occurred to me as well.

  34. Once there were so many idealistic booksellers. I loved that world of books and the smell of espresso. (I didn’t like to drink espresso, but the smell was part of the atmosphere.)

    Now I suppose I should just consider myself lucky to have lived in a time when I could enjoy that experience.

  35. @maidhc,

    That world still exists in Vienna, albeit mostly in German. I was also pleasantly surprised recently how many independent bookstores still exist in Bologna, albeit mostly in Italian.

    But even in the Boston area independent interesting bookstores are hanging on.

    Since I grew up in a New England provincial world of shopping mall and chain bookstores, I can honestly say the state of bookstores in Concord NH is actually much better today than it was in the 1970s/80s.

  36. I loved that world of books and the smell of espresso.

    Where was this, that espresso was part of the experience? I’m pretty sure I never saw a bookstore that sold espresso until the coffee-shop-ification of bookstores began in… the ’80s?

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