August 4, 2004
Where Wise Men Fish? It's Moved Down a Block
he Gotham Book Mart, for 58 years a Manhattan cultural landmark at 41 West 47th Street, has found a new home. Andreas Brown, owner of the Gotham, announced yesterday that he had taken a long-term lease on the H. P. Kraus antiquarian bookstore, at 16 East 46th Street.
The building was bought by 16 East 46th Street Property L.L.C. for $5.2 million. Mr. Brown has an option to buy it at a future date.
Mr. Brown said that the Kraus store, which closed last year, needed only minimal renovations to turn it into the new Gotham, and that with permission of the Kraus family he had moved over much of his inventory while negotiations were in progress. He said that he hoped to be open for business today. Last year the Gotham building, a town house in the heart of the diamond district, was sold for $7.2 million to Boris Aranov, who owns a building next door.
Although both bookstores have longstanding literary traditions and were favorite hunting grounds for bibliophiles, they were opposites as commercial enterprises. With books piled high in the aisles and shelves double deep with volumes, the Gotham is, by Mr. Brown's description, "Charles Dickens, tumbledown messy." Bustling with browsers, the Gotham has always attracted authors and artists, including W. H. Auden, J. D. Salinger, John Updike and Edward Gorey. Even after his death Gorey remains a presence, with signed copies of his books on sale and with periodic exhibitions of his art.
The Kraus store had an entirely different clientele. An elegant Old World establishment, it catered to collectors of rare books. With its neatly arranged wood-paneled rooms, it was an American equivalent of London institutions like Maggs Brothers, a place where customers knew exactly what they wanted and where people might speak in whispers.
As Mr. Brown said, the Gotham has always specialized in contemporary literature - new, old and out of print - with the emphasis on the avant-garde in fiction, poetry and drama, and with books ranging from novels by James Joyce to "an 18-year-old poet's first pamphlet." In contrast Kraus sold illustrated manuscripts and books printed before 1500 and seldom moved past the 18th century. Mr. Brown said that Hans Peter Kraus, who died in 1988, had spent several million dollars for a Gutenberg Bible simply to have it in the store's inventory.
For years the Gotham has been locked in by its limited space and has had to keep about 200,000 books in storage, including private libraries. (Mr. Brown recently bought the collection of the poet Karl Shapiro.) Three years ago, with the rising price of real estate in the diamond district, Mr. Brown decided to put his building on the market and received, he said, 122 bids. (He added that he was told that Mr. Aranov, the buyer, would use the space for diamond merchants.)
Finding a new storefront was more difficult. Before settling on the Kraus town house, he scouted out 31 locations, including office buildings, restaurants and a garage while always trying to stay in the neighborhood. Increasingly frustrated in his search, Mr. Brown, who is 71, thought about closing the Gotham and retiring. Then he learned through a real estate broker that the Kraus building was available and realized that "it has a lot of character and charm." The idea of "a bookstore taking in a bookstore" pleased him, he said.
Both buildings have five stories, but the Kraus has about twice the space, Mr. Brown said. It is lined with bookcases, many of them antique. The second floor has a ballroom-size open area that will be used for publication parties and meetings of the James Joyce Society and other groups. At the old Gotham there was often an overflow crowd for such occasions. In the window at the Kraus building is a raised platform, which could be used as a stage for theatrical events.
The third floor, where Kraus and his wife, Hanni, held conferences and entertained important clients, will become an art gallery. The upper floors will be used for office and storage space and as a place to develop a Gotham Web site.
In the last few weeks Mr. Brown and his employees have been packing books and archival photographs and moving them to the new location. Regarding the clutter at the 46th Street store, he said that the old Gotham was messier when its founder, Frances Steloff, was alive. (She opened the store in 1920 and moved twice, staying within a two-block area.) When he bought it, he installed air-conditioning and tried to impose order on the books.
"The more I straightened things out," he said, "the more customers complained." They were apparently attracted to the chaos, hoping to stumble on some serendipitous find. That kind of environment appealed to Mr. Brown as a book buyer, but not as a bookseller.
The Gotham sign, "Wise Men Fish Here," which was designed by the artist John Held Jr., will soon be placed on the facade of the new location. Will wise men still be able to fish for books at the new Gotham? "I think they will," Mr. Brown said, and, thinking about the disorder in the old shop, he added, "but it will be more like a lake."