Since we moved from Peekskill to Massachusetts almost four years ago, I haven’t managed to get back to New York—too long and expensive a journey. But I discovered that a local college to which I am tenuously connected has occasional bus trips leaving at 6:30 AM and getting back around 10:30 at night (almost eight hours on the bus and a little over eight hours in the city) at a very reasonable price, and I grabbed the chance. The bus let us off at Broadway and 53rd, having passed through Columbus Circle, which is completely different than it was when I last saw it. I walked over to MOMA, also completely different, and then to the Donnell Library; having forgotten my December post about its imminent demise, I was shocked to see it empty and abandoned. I walked down Fifth Avenue enjoying the splendid fall sunshine, detoured through Rockefeller Center (where I used to work) and Bryant Park, and had a lively lunch with my old friend the Growling Wolf (during which I don’t think we said a word about baseball, although that is usually one of our main topics; I’m not sure which crash-and-burn was more responsible, the economy’s or our teams’—he’s a Yankees fan, I a Mets fan).

Then I took the Q train to Brighton Beach (being very pleased to hear two women speaking Georgian across the car from me) and walked to my usual Russian bookstore, Санкт-Петербург (Sankt-Peterburg). I had a general goal and a specific goal. The general goal was to look through the literature shelves and grab anything I’d been wanting; the specific goal was to find a copy of Oleg Zaionchkovsky’s Петрович [Petrovich], the one novel Anatoly recommended when I asked him what recent Russian works were worth reading. They didn’t have any Zaionchkovsky, which disappointed me, but I found a cheap edition of Turgenev’s Записки охотника [A Sportsman’s Sketches], which Nabokov thought his best work, and—this really thrilled me—a beautiful new edition of Ivan Shmelyov‘s Солнце мертвых [‘Sun of the dead,’ his scarifying novel of the vicious Civil War in Crimea] that includes his autobiographical novel Лето Господне [‘Summer of the Lord’] and three stories. I’d been wanting to read Shmelev in full ever since I discovered him via some excerpts in an anthology. So even though I regretted not finding Zaionchkovsky, I walked back down Brighton Beach Avenue reasonably content.

When I walked the block to the beach itself and called my wife (who loves beaches), I saw from the cell phone that I had more time left than I thought and didn’t need to dash back to Manhattan, so I figured I’d walk down to Coney Island Ave. and visit the older, smaller, and shabbier Black Sea Book Store, where I had found some good things in the past. I patiently pored over the shelves and was about to give up when down at the bottom I caught the name Олег Зайончковский (Oleg Zaionchkovsky). It was a 2007 Собрание сочинений [Collected works], and when I opened it I found it had not only Petrovich but his earlier collection Sergeev i gorodok [‘Sergeev and the town’], as well as some more recent stories. This made me very happy indeed; I went back to Manhattan, had a terrible gyro from a street vendor, and on the long ride home read stories by Zaionchkovsky and Turgenev, both involving izbas and both excellent reads.


  1. You obviously have not lived long enough in Massachusetts. Otherwise you would realize the only real team in baseball is now playing in the ALCS.
    Did you attempt a parlay with the Georgian ladies?
    (native of Dorchester, boyhood in Stoughton before a family removal exiled him among the New Yorkers of Florida, college in the other Georgia)

  2. Someone mentioned the word “knout” in relation to Russia not so long ago and I suddenly remembered why I stopped reading Russian history. But I just looked up pictures of izbas:
    Perhaps Russia has some redeeming qualities after all.

  3. On my last visit to Manhattan, I discovered that 5th Ave. is almost entirely devoid of book stores (except for Rizzoli, which is actually on 57th street). Maybe, with the ebbing of the money-for-nothing crowd, we can get back to some actual commerce for non-billionaires.

  4. Aren’t they going to replace the Donnell Library? I used to go there too.

  5. On my last visit to Manhattan, I discovered that 5th Ave. is almost entirely devoid of book stores
    Yes, that’s been going on for decades. When I first moved to NYC in 1981, I worked at one of those stores; I well remember when Scribner’s closed (what a beautiful bookstore that was), and then Doubleday… But Fifth Avenue was always an auxiliary book street, so to speak; the “real” bookstores were elsewhere. I came to the city too late for the Fourth Avenue used bookstores (of which the Strand is the only remnant), but there were still lots of the individual, quirky, often dusty stores that gave the city its reputation, and it’s the loss of those that’s really dispiriting. When Gotham Book Mart closed, an era ended.
    Aren’t they going to replace the Donnell Library?
    They say that when the Chinese build the skyscraper hotel that’s going to take the place of the building that’s there now, part of the Donnell collection will be moved back into the basement. I’ll believe it when I see it (and with the economic crisis, who knows if the hotel will even get built?), and in any case, it won’t be the old Donnell.

  6. I find the idea of a mid.block building on W53rd St that’s going to be A HOTEL to be absolutely disgusting. I really hope they go bust. It was bad enough that they built that residential tower next door to the MOMA — that must have been around 1981, when you arrived. My mother’s always complaining that yet another bookstore has closed (she used to go to the Donnell to see the original Pooh & Eyeore that they had in a glass case, the ones that E.H. Shepherd drew, I wonder what they’ve done with them?), but hers are (were) mostly on the Upper West Side. The Strand used to be quite a good place to spend the afternoon.

  7. John Emerson says

    The pdf pictures not only show the izba, but they’re also a good specimen of a pleasant kind of book-illustration style that I associate with Russian fairy tales and children’s books.

  8. Have you perchance seen the biography of Boris Pasternak by Dmitry Bykov? I have just finished reading it and liked it a lot!

  9. Rats, they had that at Sankt-Peterburg and I would have bought it if I’d known. Next time…

  10. Actually, now that I click on your link, I see that it costs $27.99, so I wouldn’t have bought it anyway. Maybe I can get it through the library system.

  11. John Emerson says

    “Sankt-Peterburg” is deliberately archaic and foreign, right? What is its exact flovor for a contemporary Russian?

  12. No, actually that’s the Russian name of the city (though its inhabitants have always called it “Piter,” even when it was disguised as Leningrad).

  13. Yes, it’s pretty expensive… 🙁 Seems that all books in the ЖЗЛ series now are. (ЖЗЛ = Жизнь Замечательных Людей,ЖЗЛ), a famous Russian/Soviet/Russian biography series founded by F. Pavlenkov ( in 1890 and continued by M. Gorky (Максим_Горьки&#1081😉 in 1933. The other new one that I have read and immensely enjoyed last year was “Иосиф Вродский” by Lev Losev, and that had a similar price tag.
    BTW, IS Sankt-Peterburg’s web site.
    BTW 2, thanks for your blog, I really enjoy reading it!

  14. John Emerson says

    My Soviet friend called it Petrograd, though he was a Kyrgyz (“Qyrqyz” in the Scrabble spelling.)

  15. It was only called Petrograd from 1914 (when war was declared) to 1924. Most people didn’t like the ostentatiously Slavicized name; I wonder if your Kirghiz friend called it that to piss off the Russkies?

  16. Crown, AJP says

    I’m certainly not playing Scrabble with you, if you’re going to resort to that kind of thing.

  17. If you want to see a high-rise izba check out these pictures:
    My engineer Siganus and I think it will either get blown over or it will collapse under its own weight.

  18. I wonder how you pronounced ‘gyro’ this time 🙂

  19. In Chicago it’s gear-ohz, spelled gyros. I’ve never heard of “a gyro”.

  20. My engineer Siganus and I think it will either get blown over or it will collapse under its own weight.
    I would put money on the steeple getting lifted off in a high wind. Also it’s ugly–the lines are in some way unbalanced and disturbing. Here is the correct way to construct this sort of building:

  21. I wonder how you pronounced ‘gyro’ this time 🙂
    The standard NYC way, JYE-roh. It’s definitely the singular, JYE-rohz being the plural. When Greeks are speaking Greek, they say YEE-rohs, but in English they say it like everybody else. It’s the Noo Yawk way.

  22. Crown, AJP says

    Nice grain elevators, Nijma. Corbusier was very keen on grain elevators and so am I. There’s one of the curvey concrete ones near here that’s full of birds and another in Oslo that they have converted into student housing — I’ve always wanted to take a look inside.

    The true name of the city is Sankt Pieterburg, but the Communists and Russians have succeeded in fooling the world. My Kyrgyz friend called it Petrograd.
    Posted by: John Emerson at December 26, 2007 05:56 PM

  24. John Emerson says

    Come around to Minnesota, Kron. The place is full of grain elevators and the like. The local one is unused and you could probably buy it cheap. Your very own grain elevator!
    Petrograd it is and shall remain, my archaizing Hollandisch friends.

  25. Thanks for the interesting Corbusier digression, Kron; here is a list of izba/Corlbusier/grain elevator links I unearthed, including a photo of the Oslo housing.

  26. Crown, A.J.P. says

    Ooh. Nijma’s got a great collection of pictures and videos over at her site! Check the Canadian grain elevator being moved. Fantastic.
    I’d love to go to Minnesota, JJE, if only to get Garrison Kieller’s autograph. I would live in a grain elevator if someone else paid the heating bills and painted the ceiling.

  27. If you liked the grain elevators, here are some lighthouses.

  28. John Cowan says

    I never have a problem ordering a YEE-ro.

    The 53rd St. Basement Library is in place, and it’s good for everything except reading books. I only used it once when I needed to get my physical library card replaced, which to be fair was completely smooth. (Most of the time I only use my card to access the OED online and occasionally some other sources there.)

  29. Good lord, that place looks and sounds awful, but I liked the ode to the Donnell (may it rest in peace). Thanks for the update!

  30. Have you perchance seen the biography of Boris Pasternak by Dmitry Bykov? I have just finished reading it and liked it a lot!

    I read it in 2016 and also liked it a lot.

  31. The World Languages Collection at the Donnell Library Center was moved to the Mid-Manhattan Library (now renamed the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Library), at 455 5th Avenue, and some? much? most? all? of the rest of the Donnell was moved to the 53rd Street Library (at 18 West 53rd Street), which is next door to where the Donnell originally stood (at 20 West 53rd Street, at which address the hotel that replaced the razed Donnell now stands).

  32. Thanks for the update! I wonder if I’ll ever get to see the new library…

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