He sat in the bookstore and read the first two chapters, trying to decide if the book was worth taking home and finishing. It was. “This book is mine now,” he thought. His fingerprints were on the soft matte-finish cover, a slight corner dog-eared on page 6 that only he would notice, a minor pedigree for a book he would add to a thousand others, all with their own memories of places visited and bookstores experienced.
I wrote that a few weeks ago as I sat in Elliot Bay Book Company in Seattle, Washington, one of my favorite bookstores in (what amounts to) the world to me and a great indy bookstore. And it’s true. I own thousands of books and some of them have their own special stories: where I bought them, who I was with, what city I was visiting, where I first began reading it. A book is like a scent: looking at the cover or cracking it open brings back a rush of memories, not only of the content of the book, but also of its origin in my life. This is one such book.
The Genius of the System: Hollywood Filmmaking in the Studio Era by Thomas Schatz* is one of the best books I have ever read on movies. It explores the studio system by examining the output of three studios (MGM, Warner Bros., and Universal) and one independent producer (David O. Selznick) from the 1920s until the decline of the studios in 1960. It was published in 1988 by Pantheon, and I purchased my hardcover copy in 1989 while visiting New York City. And therein lies the other story of this book …
In the fall of 1989, sometime between Thanksgiving and Christmas, I took an “emergency” trip to New York City from my then home city of Pittsburgh, PA. The emergency was simply a need to get out of town, because I was madly in love with a co-worker and our office Christmas party was coming up and she was bringing her erstwhile boyfriend. The year before we had gone together and—I remember this moment with crystal clarity—as we were walking down the steps of one of the fanciest restaurants in Pittsburgh, surrounded by co-workers, one of the news anchors turned and said to us, “You two are such a cute couple. Are you dating?” And simultaneously I said “Yes,” and she said “No.” Needless to say, the rest of the evening was strained. (Happy ending: we’re still dear friends and see each other every year, even though she’s now happily married to someone else, not the boyfriend of 1989).
But back then I was still carrying a torch—and still not dating—and I couldn’t fathom staying in town and torturing myself for three hours on an almost-winter Sunday evening, imagining the goings-on at the company’s holiday party, so I rather expensively flew to New York City for the weekend. At that time, you could get a relatively cheap last-minute flight from the ‘burgh to the Big Apple. Finding a hotel was a different story and I ended up at the Penta, which used to be the Statler-Hilton, which used to be the Hotel Pennsylvania, and is now the “much hipper” sounding Hotel Penn. At that point in time, the Penta had fallen on hard times, and it’s $99/night rate proved it. It was, quite frankly, a dump. (Buyer beware: rooms still start at $99/night, although the rooms look much nicer on their website.)
I’m not sure what the dates and days were, but I think I went up on Friday and returned on Monday, thus avoiding the dreaded holiday party on Sunday evening. It was a bitter cold weekend in New York City, and as was my usual schedule when I went there, I always visited a bookstore or two upon arrival. There were two major bookstores open late at night: Coliseum Books at 57th Street and Broadway, and Doubleday books on Fifth Avenue, directly across from Trump Tower. Doubleday was owned by the publishing house and was one of many bookstores on that fabled NYC shopping street, including Scribners (which became Brentano’s), B. Dalton’s, Rizzoli, and two Barnes and Nobles (the only one left, with just one store on Fifth now, at 45th Street). The stores themselves were large, multi-level affairs (in the case of Scribners/Brentano’s, it had a mezzanine), and befit the legendary NYC home of book publishing (not to mention comics and magazines).
But this particular trip, I think I headed to one bookstore that cold Friday night after arriving in the city: Coliseum Books. Coliseum was an independent bookstore with one location, but it was a prime one: the corner of 57th Street and Broadway, just south of Columbus Circle and Central Park (named after, I believe, The Coliseum, which was located there on land which is now Time Warner Center). It was open, if memory serves me, until 11:00 each night, and I took a long, cold, blustery walk (the Penta was located at 7th Avenue and 33rd Street, so a walk of about 24 blocks; at that time I was too afraid to ride the subway and too cheap to hop a cab) into a wicked wind to make it before it closed.
That phone booth is long gone, too. 1987, photographer unknown; found on the internet.
The bookstore itself had a large, rambling first floor, with a basement sales area that I rarely visited. Coliseum had a habit of shrink-wrapping all of their books, leaving one open copy that browsers could peruse. The store also had a great stock of magazines, some from other countries (I believe it’s the first place I ever saw Empire magazine, the leading British film mag). The one thing I definitely remember is that Coliseum had an amazing film book section, during a time that publishers were still actively producing books about movies (today … not so much). The nostalgia phase, which came with a ton of books, posters, prints, photos, and other ephemera (including photo-covered metal trashcans, one of which I owned), and deified older stars such as the Marx Bros., Humphrey Bogart, Marilyn Monroe, and W. C. Fields, had peaked in the late 1960s, but the book publishing industry still was trading on that wave. I remember getting to the store late, and scrambling to find a book. That book was The Genius of the System, which I purchased right before closing time.
That book saved my life that weekend. It got progressively colder and windier. On Saturday night, I went to see the just-opened Back to the Future Part II in a Times Square theater, and the walk back to my hotel (a mercifully shorter 12 blocks or so) was one of the coldest walks I’ve ever taken. I holed up in my crummy hotel room for the rest of the weekend, venturing out only for nearby food, and also devoured that book. The weather broke on Monday and I flew home, my petty self-exile over and done with.
I wish I still had one of these bookmarks … I must have had 50 of them over the years. From: http://boundbooksandlibraryblog.blogspot.com/2015/01/fewer-bookstores-to-be-found-in.html
Coliseum Books, like so many other bookstores in NYC, no longer exists. It lost its 57th Street lease and moved, briefly to 42nd Street, opposite the New York City Public Library for a few short years. It wasn’t the same, at least not for me. Now bookstores in NYC are either Barnes and Noble, or a hearty indy like McNally Jackson. The B&N stores there are big and beautiful; I’m fond of the Union Square one and there’s a newer one up on the Upper East Side on 86th Street, but even that mega-chain has experienced closings in the last decade or so: a large store on the Upper West Side in the 60s closed, near ABC TV’s NYC broadcast center and opposite the still extremely-missed Tower Records.
I still make bookstores a primary stop on all my trips. One yearly trip is planned around a bookstore: Powells in Portland, Oregon (I’m going there next month). New York City still has a wealth of stores to visit, including a newly revived Rizzoli’s, which calls itself “the most beautiful bookstore in New York.” I still miss Coliseum, though, especially the joy of late-night book shopping on Broadway, and their shrink-wrapped books with their own price stickers on the back. The store is gone almost 10 years now, but the internet never forgets: its website is still viewable.
I am writing this on an evening where I’m about to start reading another towering history of Hollywood, this time of the modern age: Power House CAA: The Untold Story of Hollywood’s Creative Artists Agency by James Andrew Miller*, an oral history of the “New Hollywood” system, involving agents and creative talent. It’s too early to tell if this book will “save my life,” too, but at least I’m safe at home in warm San Diego.
*Yes … I totally get the irony of writing a post about a beloved gone-but-not-forgotten bookstore and linking to Amazon. Such is the world in which we live.
Gary, I am grateful to you for sharing your journey. Your posts are rich in imagery and deep personal honesty. I rarely comment as I am completely intimidated by your mastery of the English language. This post is so beautiful that I had to conquer my I insecurities. Sincerely, Thank you -Celia
Thanks, Celia…that’s really very lovely. I hope you’ll comment more.