November 1, 2021

Bygone Brooklyn bookseller broadside beguiles; history highlighted


Readers of the Brooklyn Eagle of January 30, 1887 were confronted with this intriguing speculation. Courtesy Brooklyn Public Library.

We were doing a bit of on-line research, happily losing ourselves in the archives of the Brooklyn Public Library, natch, when we came across a fabulous tidbit from the fabled Brooklyn Eagle of yore. The headline, indeed, made us sit bolt upright with surprise and delight, asking as it did a simple question:


Holy historical hiccup! Do Brooklynites read? Hard as it may be to picture, there was apparently a time when the world of books did NOT revolve around three or four neighborhoods with ZIP codes beginning with 112! (attn: Legal. Actionable? Please advise. -AS)

Indeed, a certain humility shines through the reflections of the anonymous Eagle scribe. “It is indisputably true,” he avers, “that we are far from being in the front even of our own countrymen, as readers,” lamenting that “Philadelphia has more readers of the discriminating, cultivated sort.” (Well! You sure as hell don’t need to worry about that anymore, says we, smugly.) Our reporter—identified only by the initials “DCM”—was not to fret, though, because “a certain quiet Fulton Street bookseller” assured him that “‘the tastes of Brooklynites are daily improving.'”

Our unnamed correspondent displays, winningly, a sturdy bourgeois common sense in his tastes. He has no use for “the old, worn-out pauper class of books” that “may be found in Henry Street—a wild garden of seedy literature” (sounds kinda enticing to us!). At the same time, he has little patience for extravagant expenditures on rare books; the “rage for rare editions is inconsistent with real book loving … a mania not higher than the passion for collecting coins and postage stamps.” Even through the scrim of florid late-19th-century journalistese, one detects a certain touchingly defensive spirit. “I never heard of any man,” he writes, taking a turn towards the outré, “blowing out his brains who had previously written a note in which he laid the blame for his untimely end on bookstores.” Well, errrm … true enough, one hopes!

DCM ends with a mention of “our own struggling booksellers,” mired then as now in an almost impossibly tough business. (“Want of capital was his trouble,” he says of one bankrupted former bookseller, helpfully.) Some of them, he adds, “to judge from the quality and quantity of their business, must be living on bread and coffee, washing their own shirts and mending their own shoes, to hold out as they do.” To which we say, plus ça change … and hold out, bookseller friends!



Michael Lindgren is the Managing Editor at Melville House.