Independent bookstores have a long history as the stomping grounds of popular writers and artists. In some cases, these authors and artists are simply regular customers because they live in the neighborhood or just like anyone else. In many cases, however, the owners of bookstores build lasting friendships in which the authors support the store and the stores support the authors and help promote their work. Indie bookstores also serve as meeting places for writers and artists, sometimes purposefully and sometimes accidentally so, and as institutions where authors can go to educate themselves.
It was a fortuitous run-in between poet Allen Ginsberg and musician Philip Glass at St. Mark's Bookshop in the 1988 that led to their collaboration on the chamber opera "Hydrogen Jukebox." The store was also a popular haunt of other members of the Beat Generation such as William Burroughs (Leland 2011).
At the Gotham Book Mart, owner Frances Steloff was well known for her generous support of writers. She would often receive requests from the likes of Henry Miller or William Carlos Williams either by word of mouth or by mail:
Can you find me a job? Set up a lecture tour for me? Sell my magazine? Give a wonderful GBM party for my volume of poems? Talk to a publisher about my manuscript? Display my books on the table near the entrance or in your window? Could your newspaper friends meet my boat and write me up in their columns? Could you read this outline and tell me your opinion of my novel? (Rogers 124 - 125)
Her answer was almost always yes. In its 85 years of operation, the GBM held a number of events for authors such as a signing for Dylan Thomas and a party for visiting British poets Sir Osbert and Dame Edith Sitwell, the latter of which was attended by a number of other literati. At one time, Steloff lent Anaïs Nin "a hundred dollars to buy a secondhand press" to print two of her books available in Paris but not in the U.S. and then put them up for sale at GBM (Rogers 129).
At the National African Memorial Bookstore in Harlem in the 1950s and 60s, "you were apt to see an African head of state, or Malcolm X protected by body guards, pouring through books checking facts before delivering one of his fiery speeches" (Lopez 408). The gathering place and access to books that this store provided for black writers, artists, and thinkers was especially important in an era where they did not have many alternatives.
Today, independent bookstores continue to support writers and vice versa. When Jonathan Ames wanted to incorporate performance into events for his book releases, neighborhood store BookCourt was game to host a knife thrower sending blades within inches of Ames face and then let him do a signing. It's hard to imagine that Barnes and Noble would allow something like that. For its 40th Anniversary this year, the Community Bookstore invited several local authors to read: Paul Auster, Jonathan Safran Foer, Siri Hustvedt, and Nicole Krauss. Auster and Hustvedt in particular are part of what the New York Times called "a colony of writers" living in Park Slope (Scott 1995). The Community Bookstore - and independents in other neighborhoods - and the authors who love them are carrying on a tradition that contributes to the survival of both.
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