Entries by Philip Turner

Harvey Wang’s Portraits of a Vanished NY at the Tenement Museum

Siegfried Liebman, mannequin maker; Eddie Day, brakeman on the Cyclone at Coney Island; Helen Giamanco, salad maker, Horn & Hardart Automat; Joe Baffir, boxing trainer; Julius Hans, tailor of rabbinical robes; Veronica Parker Johns, owner, Seashells Unlimited, a Third Avenue Manhattan store; and David Turnowsky, counterman at Katz’s Deli–these are just some of the New […]

#Fridayreads/Dec. 2

#Fridayreads Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘n Roll Music, Greil Marcus’s classic book on Robert Johnson, The Band, Sly Stone, Randy Newman, and Elvis. A golden nugget in every paragraph. His analysis of the forces that drove The Band apart are sad, and accurate, so far as I know, and the way he […]

Why Vinyl is Today’s Most Dynamic Music Medium

Consider this remark from Dave W. of Wax Tracks Records in Denver: “I have noticed that at least two or three times a week some father or mother comes in saying that their kid asked for a turntable for their birthday or Christmas present. So it’s not a case of the older generation just giving their turntables to their kids and saying ‘Here’s what we used to play music on,’ but rather the kids saying ‘This is what’s cool and happening right now and I want in on it.'”

The Governor Who Lived in a Bubble

Ohio Governor John Kasich is a pathetic example of a public official. “I don’t read newspapers in the state of Ohio, Kasich said Monday at a college in Columbus. “Very rarely do I read a newspaper. . . reading newspapers does not give you an uplifting experience. I have found my life is a lot […]

“Least Cynical Place on Earth” as “Third Place”

“It was like the least cynical place on earth,” according to one customer quoted in the New York Times profile of Raconteur Books, a sweet second-hand bookstore and theater space set to close in early 2012. The owner of this Metuchen, NJ shop is not losing his lease or being forced out by his landlord, instead he said he “still love[s] being here and meeting the people. But I feel like I don’t want to be a shop clerk anymore. That’s what it boils down to.” A longtime bookseller myself, I sympathize with anyone who wearies of keeping a shop running day after day. At the same time, I love places like Raconteur and sympathize with the customers who feel bereft.

I recall one such place I frequented during a vacation in 1992 in Scotland. Located on the very special Hebridean isle of Mull, in Dervaig–a wee village that boasted the theatre with the smallest number of seats of any venue for plays in all Europe–it was called “Coffee&Books,” just down the lane from the B&B where my wife and I were lodging. I was sitting on a stool in the shop on a Saturday morning just as its owners were setting off on a holiday to Venice. Several locals had assembled to see them off, as with a bit of ceremony the owners anointed Colin, a sheephish lad in his mid or late teens, as shopkeeper in their week’s absence. Chiefly, this would mean brewing coffee and ‘stuffing’ the many weekend papers due to be delivered later that morning. The shop handled all the usual British papers–Telegraph, Daily Mail, Times of London, plus the Scottish papers, the Glasgow Herald, the Scotsman, and a few tabloids whose lurid front pages I had never seen. Turned out though, Colin really had his hands full. By noon that morning he was awash in a tangle of dozens of weekend supplements, funny papers, racy tabs and sober broadsheets. Things were looking a real mess. Customers began rolling in looking for their usual papers, ordinarily reserved under their name every weekend. Unfortunately, however, none were ready. At first a lot of kidding ensued as the regulars saw that Colin was overwhelmed. But as it became apparent to each new arrival that Colin wasn’t finding any humor in his plight, they shed their sweaters and anoraks and got down on the floor with him to, at first find their own papers. But these regulars didn’t just leave after assembling their own weekend reading, they helped Colin master the untidy piles all around him, sensing he was determined not to fail in the challenge that had been left in his lap.

Clearly, Raconteur Books and Coffee&Books had come to fill the vital role of a “third place” in the lives of their customers. The Wikipedia entry for Ray Oldenburg’s influential book, Celebrating the Third Place: Inspiring Stories About the “Great Good Places” at the Heart of Our Communities, describes the third place as “a term used in the concept of community building to refer to social surroundings separate from the two usual social environments of home and the workplace. Oldenburg writes that third places are “important for civil society, democracy, and civic engagement.”

Someone may still step forward to take over Raconteur. If not, sadly, its regulars will soon have to to find a new venue for their shared passions. Meantime, the spirit of cooperation that prevailed at Coffee&Books struck me then and since as a stellar example of a microcosm for a healthy society.

January 13, 2011–Update: In a tweet this morning novelist and book critic Lev Grossman (@leverus) writes “The Raconteur bookshop in Metuchen, NJ is closing down on Sat night. I’m going to help them. By reading. Who’s w/ me?” 

Literary and Cultural History Preserved in Wood, Paint, Ink & Graphite

Literary, social and cultural history are all fascinatingly preserved in an old wooden door from a 1920s Greenwich Village bookstore. In Frank Shay’s Bookshop at 4 Christopher Street the proprietor was surprised one day in 1921 when writer Hedrik Willem Van Loon, an author with the publishing house of Boni & Liveright, signed his name to the door and for good measure added a little drawing to his contribution. Soon, Shay began routinely asking visiting writers and other cultural notables to sign the door. Ultimately, it would bear hundreds of signatures, including such figures of the day as John Dos Passos, Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, Upton Sinclair, Sherwood Anderson, Heywood Broun, Christopher Morley, Edward Arlington Robinson, Frank Conroy, artist John Sloan, explorer Vilhalmur Stefansson, poet Don Marquis (creator of “The Adventures of Archy & Mehitabel”), and Henry Seidel Canby (editor, Saturday Review of Literature).

When the shop closed in 1925, the door was removed from the premises before the contents were auctioned to pay creditors. In subsequent decades its value as a cultural artifact became evident, with this advertisement appearing thirty-five years later:  “Mrs. Frank Leon Smith has a door for sale. On the door are the autographs of about sixty people who in the early Twenties were important, famous, talented, unusual. Im [sic] telling you, this is a fabulous door….Want a door? Ask Mrs. Smith at 321 East 52nd Street, New York 22. —’Trade Winds’ in the Saturday Review, 1960”. Note that money would evidently not have been required to become custodian of the door.


Eventually, by steps unknown, the door reached the Ransom Center at the University of Texas in Austin, where it is housed today. Organizers there have created a terrific website devoted to it, to the shop, to Greenwich Village, and the period that produced it. Jennifer Scheussler’s New York Times Book Review article in September, with a neat slideshow, alerted me to the door’s colorful history and I’ve visited the Ransom website many times since. I love that Van Loon’s spontaneous signature became an inspiration for hundreds of contemporaries, all eager to scribble on a plank of wood, leaving a small imprint of their existence. It’s a veritable time capsule, or even better, a time machine taking us back to bookselling and publishing ninety odd years ago.