Wise Men Fished Here’ brings the Gotham Book Mart back to life

3 minute read
Frances Steloff and the interior of the Gotham Book Mart. (Photo courtesy Penn Libraries’ Kislak Center.)
Frances Steloff and the interior of the Gotham Book Mart. (Photo courtesy Penn Libraries’ Kislak Center.)

In 1920, Frances Steloff, 33 years old, with a fifth-grade education and a passion for books, saw an available storefront in midtown Manhattan and “felt a tingle up [her] spine.” She grabbed the space and the Gotham Book Mart was born.

The shop became a legend over the next 90 years — 50 under her proprietorship and 20 after she semi-retired (she died at age 101). Steloff had a radar for adventurous writing and made the Gotham an essential fixture in the avant-garde. Its cast-iron “Wise Men Fish Here” sign on West 47th Street drew people into a place where you always found exciting new writing, where great artists like Marcel Duchamp designed window displays, and where you could eat your sandwich in the backyard and find yourself sharing a bench with Buckminster Fuller. Regular people felt comfortable poking around the shelves. The Gotham reminded you why you read.

The store always seemed overstuffed, with books crammed from floor to ceiling. There were too many more in storage to count. When the Gotham’s neighborhood got too pricy and the store folded in the mid-2000s, its enormous inventory of 220,000 items sat in mothballs until two benefactors purchased everything and gifted them to the University of Pennsylvania’s Kislak Center. An important piece of modern American literary culture was saved by the biggest book gift Penn’s libraries have ever received.

Books and more books

Eight tractor-trailers dropped 3,800 boxes off in Philadelphia. For a decade since, librarians, curators, and generations of student interns have been poring over the Gotham's books, periodicals, letters, posters, broadsides, proofs, photographs, postcards, and notes.

“After acquiring the Gotham Book Mart contents in 2008, I never imagined that through happenstance I would spend so much time ‘in’ the Gotham Book Mart, reconstructing its past with an eye to making the contents available to researchers long into the future,” says David McKnight, exhibition curator and director of the Kislak’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library. “It has been an amazing experience."

Decades of writing and writers

The show celebrates the collection, and it’s infectiously browsable. In Van Pelt’s sixth-floor gallery, a long walk through time starts with James Joyce’s Ulysses, Steloff’s long battle from the 1920s to the 1940s against censors, and the New York Society for the Prevention of Vice. It winds up with a mimeographed first-edition proof of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” and the Patti Smith chapbook Ha! Ha! Houdini!, which the Gotham published in 1977.

Perhaps the most Gotham-esque display, though, are all the “little magazines” on view in Van Pelt’s first-floor gallery. These noncommercial, small-run periodicals from all corners of the country are the unsung heroes of the writing world, and Frances Steloff loved them. She kept tens of thousands in stock, providing visibility and sometimes direct donations to shoestring operations.

It is an amazing experience indeed to walk up and down the corridor and take in all these fragile little volumes and wonderful writing preserved in perpetuity. More than once, up your spine, you feel that tingle.

Wise Men Fished Here: A Centennial Exhibition in Honor of the Gotham Book Mart runs February 18 to May 20, at the Goldstein Family and Kamin Galleries, Van Pelt-Dietrich Library (3420 Walnut Street). Hours and more information can be found online.

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