Rare Book Monthly

Articles - June - 2007 Issue

Superman was Missing at Gotham City

All things literary end as dust.


By Bruce McKinney

The motto was 'wise men fish here' but apparently buyers long ago scaled back their purchases at the Gotham Book Mart, a New York book seller since 1920. On 23 May, 2007 the other shoe dropped as the firm's inventory was sold at auction to the landlord, who apparently not receiving rent checks, read the riot act and then administered the corporate death penalty.

Gotham is a firm with a star studded past. Founded in 1920 by Frances Steloff who became a defender of the first amendment rights of authors, she championed the works of Henry Miller and was herself admired by such literati as Ezra Pound, Saul Bellow and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. As are they Gotham too is dead and it's a shame.

Christopher Marley wrote of the firm in the 1930s "It's always delightful to see the surprise on people's face's when, browsing along the shelves, they work their way [past the Random House copy of John Donne, which might well detain them] - and discover the door into the garden. There, suddenly, as a poem or an essay opens itself to the mind the G.B.M. opens into its backyard cloister of curiosity." Seventy years later it still sounds appealing.

The firm's inventory was offered in two ways. First there was a bid for the entire contents and representatives of the landlord bid $400,000. The material was also offered as 130 bulk lots. If the aggregate bids totaled more than $400,000 the material would be sold to the successful lot bidders. A $1,000 deposit was required for the privilege of attending.

According to the New York Times the sale included plenty of material such as signed firsts, famous books and ephemera. What there wasn't though was a traditional auction.

Not surprisingly the $400,000 bid won out. If the goal was simply to transfer ownership to the landlord that purpose was achieved. If the goal was to realize the best financial outcome this seems a difficult way to achieve it. Numbers can be misleading however. Lots of books for lots of dollars do not necessarily make for good business. Bookselling today is a complicated affair, one that can look to the innocent as an opportunity and to the experienced as a trap. Time will tell.

In any event the auction did not give the marketplace an opportunity to express its opinion so we don't really know what knowledgeable people thought. In time the material will resurface and the story emerge.

In closing Gotham slides down well oiled skids. High rents and the increasing importance of the internet as the market medium are driving sellers out of expensive real estate around the world. The ABAA of which Gotham was a member, lists 45 members in New York City today, down 10% since 2002. This sale suggests that number may soon be 44.

Increasingly inventories, to be saleable, must be catalogued so acquiring dealers can simply take over the online listings. Gotham's inventory was never substantially catalogued and this no doubt contributed both to their closing and to the outcome of the recent auction.

In the end they were left to play the pure retail game, a game that fewer and fewer rare and used book dealers can or even care to play.

Rare Book Monthly

  • Toronto Book Auctions
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