The Rizzoli bookstore on 57th
Street near Fifth Avenue in Manhattan has closed, and the elegant old Art Nouveau building that housed it is scheduled for demolition, to be replaced by an apartment tower for visiting international billionaires. I live on the other coast, now, so I won’t be there to witness this sacrilege, as I witnessed the razing of Penn Station when I was at Columbia. That particular crime against architecture led to landmarks preservation laws, but those don’t always save what ought to be saved. Places tend to disappear in New York like creatures caught in a mass extinction. The Café des Artistes, where I proposed to my wife, went missing, as did that fundament of the Upper West Side, H&H Bagels. The economy can be as scary as Godzilla, and — like that giant reptile — is thoroughly cold blooded.
But just because “progress” is implacable doesn’t mean that mourning for lost landmarks — especially when they are one’s personal landmarks — is misplaced. So:
Some years ago, back when the bookstore was Scribner’s, I dropped in one afternoon to have a look at the new releases. This was when bookstores were abundant, with no Amazon to discount them to death, and Scribner’s was big, beautiful, and bountiful. Across an aisle, I saw an acquaintance of mine, a woman named Betty Cornfeld. She was a writer for a TV game show called Jackpot that my brother emceed. Betty spent her days composing the riddles that the show’s contestants tried to solve. I didn’t know how much she made, but assumed it wasn’t a lot, and I was an editor at a magazine, making always insufficient editorial money. So after we said hello, I asked Betty how it was that as another ink-stained wretch she was looking for books at a place where one paid top prices. “I come here,” she answered, “because this is exactly what a bookstore should look like.”
Before you could say “desperate writers,” we began talking about other places that were just what they ought to be — the Empire State Building, the Las Vegas Strip, almost all of Paris, etc. — and decided that maybe there ought to be a book about those places, loosely based on “Architecture Without Architects,” an intriguing small book we’d both read. We met for a drink in a week, and figured out that a book about places might be too abstract for us. So then we decided the book — by this time tentatively titled Quintessence — should be about people. But as we came up with names, there were too many movie stars who were often studio creations. The problem of getting good photos inexpensively also presented a high hurdle. So finally Betty and I settled on a book about man-made, designed things, and Betty added the subtitle, “The Quality of Having It.”
A year or so later, the book came out, designed by John Jay (then design director at Bloomingdale’s) and photographed by Dan Kozan. A couple weeks later, on Thanksgiving Day of 1983, Christopher Lehman-Haupt gave us a rave review in the New York Times, and the book sold out in about two days. In a lovely coincidence, Scribner’s devoted a window on 57th St. to displaying Quintessence along with several of the objects we’d celebrated (a Lousiville slugger baseball bat and a Frisbee among them). I stood transfixed by the window, my head swelling so much that I’m sure passersby must have noticed. I remained there elated, for — you guessed it — 15 minutes.
My next experience at the quintessential store, by that time owned by Rizzoli, was a book signing event put on by Crown Publishing for what I believe were called the company’s “style writers.” My sequel to Quintessence, called Elegant Solutions, had recently been published, and I was given a stack of the books and a seat at a small table upstairs at the store, where we stylish types were gathered. (Alas, I had written the book on my own, since my wonderful co-author Betty had died of cancer at a cruelly young age.) I was placed at a table with Suzy Slesin, whom I knew slightly because we’d both written for New York magazine. Suzy had a book about Greek style, so we spent time talking about Greece, where I’d lived for several years, while we waited for people to approach us for signed books. And we had plenty of time to talk, because at the table next to us sat the formidable Martha Stewart, with skyscrapers of best-selling books on perfect garden parties and perfect weddings and perfect everything else. Martha’s fans, mostly women of a certain age with a distinctly suburban flavor, were lined up across the front of our table, down the stairs, out into the street. Even before the Stewart empire grew to its full might, we witnessed imperial power at work. Martha let no book go unsold; if someone approached her with, say, a wedding book, she would ask if the worshipful buyer had another of the Stewart ouvre, and if the answer was no she would say, “Well, why don’t you go get it, and you can come right back to the front of the line.” I may have been asked to sign ten or so Elegant Solutions and Suzy perhaps signed a few more. But Martha sold what must have been hundreds of her books. Why, oh why, hadn’t I thought to include a Vera Wang wedding dress in my book, and put it on the cover? Or even better, used a nom de plume…say, Martha Stewart?
Manhattan is a tough borough for nostalgists; its beating heart is, and always has been, real estate, and as everyone knows, there’s no crying in real estate. So when there’s a chance to build, what once went up simply has to come down. It’s almost a miracle that Grand Central Station and the Chrysler Building are still around. I left the city a long time back (see "A Tower in Manhattan"), so I’ve been spared the sight of the glazing of the West Side. But I’ve rarely paid a visit to the my old hometown without going by Rizzoli, if only to stare at the window where Quintessence got it’s moment in the sun. And because, as my friend Betty said, it is — was — just what a bookstore ought to be.
On my next trip back, I’ll make the rounds of my old haunts, as usual. But one address will be left off my agenda: 31 West 57th St. Depending on when that trip is, I’d either see a hole in the ground (filled with the ghosts of authors’ hopes and dreams) or some tall, glittering splinter through the door-manned portals of which pass global glitterati. There may be a new Rizzoli somewhere in town by then, and if there is, you’ll find me there.