March 6, 2015
Christopher Morley’s “The Rubaiyat of Account Overdue” for legendary bookseller Frances Steloff
by Claire Kelley
In 1920, Frances Steloff rented out a brownstone basement in the Theater District at 128 West 45th Street for $75 a month and started a bookshop. Her stock was initially only 175 volumes. In 1923, she named the shop The Gotham Book Mart and moved to 51 West 47th Street and hung a sign over the door that read: Wise Men Fish Here.
In a neighborhood that already had many other bookstores, including Bretano’s Bookstore, Beacon Book Shop and Chaucer Head Book Shop, Steloff became famous for how she “fought for books that had been accused of being obscene, championed small magazines, and helped to gather financial support for writers in need.”
In the 1930s and 40s, the Gotham Book Mart became the hangout of many literary figures, including Henry Miller, W. H. Auden, Dylan Thomas, Arthur Miller, Susan Sontag, Elizabeth Bishop, and Marianne Moore. Steloff would travel to Europe and buy from new publishers to stock her shop. But the shop’s reputation still didn’t help the fact that she often had trouble paying her bills. Christopher Morley, author of Parnassus on Wheels and The Haunted Bookshop, noticed this one day as Steloff was going through letters from creditors in the bookshop. As W.G. Rogers describes in Wise Men Fish Here, a history of Frances Steoff and the Gotham Book Mart, Morley took the letters home and wrote some verses that were later turned into a limited edition broadside and printed on letterpress by Lew Ney to be sold to help pay Steloff’s bills. Morley called it The Rubaiyat of Account Overdue:
Awake! Depression with its long long blight
Has blown by business higher than a kite
And lo, the First Day of the Month has caught
Me bending, and this letter I indite
Oh Bibliophile, if thou canst not aspire
To pay this overdue account entire
Then break it into little bits, and send
At least some portion, for my need is dire.
Think, in this battered caravanserai
Of books, I also have my bills to pay;
I sometimes fear that never dipped so red
The ink, as where there sits my C.P.A.
Then, my beloved, write the check that clears
That old outstanding purchase of last year’s—
Before my stock and fixtures and good will
Themselves are hurried to the auctioneer’s.
I know that cash is scarce as scarce can be,
Collections slow—you think you’re telling me?
But come in anyhow; let’s talk; besides,
I’ve got a Beerbohm First you ought to see!
Claire Kelley is a the former Director of Library and Academic Marketing.