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The Madison Avenue Bookshop - Part One - The Window

· Fine Book Collecting,Tiffany's,New York City,Madison Ave Bookshop,Window Dressing

By more coincidence, than an interest in this subject matter, (see my musing #19 “Quirky Favourite – The Art of Window Dressing) I recently read Gene Moore’s My Time at Tiffany’s where he was in charge of decorating their famous 5 windows for decades. It was a fascinating book and his approach to window dressing was that of a creative connoisseur.

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But he also did other windows, including those of The Madison Avenue Bookshop, an independent shop selling new books, for more than 16 years, at the time he wrote this book, in 1990. Moore dedicates about a page to this initiative, and, unfortunately, there are no photos at all related to this endeavour. So, you will have to picture it in your mind from excerpts from his narrative.

From My Time at Tiffany’s:

Bookstores are among the best examples of bad window display. I love books and rarely walk by a bookstore without going in, but bookstore windows are almost always dull. Very rarely do they even attempt anything resembling display. All they do is show lined up books so the passerby understands that within is a bookshop, should he or she ever need a book. But, such rows of books don’t sell anything.

The founders of the store wanted their window to be special and asked me for advice even before the store opened in May 1973. So, I had time to think about how to give the store an image. I thought of my wooden man, the big artist’s model I bought in Italy in 1957. I’ve always liked him. He’s calm and very expressive, very versatile. He’s made of brown wood and is big – five feet six inches tall – but he was over at Gloria Vanderbilt’s. She had borrowed him to use as a model back when she was doing a lot of painting. She was willing to part with him.

He was standing in the window when the Madison Avenue Bookshop opened and within a few months he’d given that store a personality. People were purposely crossing the Avenue to pause before the window to see what the big wooden man was doing, for he was always up to something, something tied to a book. Rather than fill the window with fifty different titles, I usually use one hundred copies of a single book. Involved in some way with each book, the man has proved his versatility. With the addition of a few props he can be anything or anyone, with gender no obstacle. Over the years, he’s been Leonardo da Vinci, Julia Child, Paul Bocuse, Michel Guerard, a chorus boy, a CIA undercover agent, Somerset Maugham, Picasso, an undersea diver, a beach bum, a skier.

People look carefully at my man, and I try to dress him well. I usually make his clothes out of tissue paper, just that paper held together with pins and spit. For a book by Deborah Tourberville of photographs of Versailles, I made him into an eighteenth-century lady with a pleated paper dress. A woman came in and asked if she could please buy that wonderful dress in the window.

After about three years I grew bored with the man, with shoving him around and dressing him, and I decided to see if anyone would say anything if I did the store’s window without him. The reaction was immediate. On the second day of the manless window Arthur Loeb, who runs the store, called me and said “Gene you’ve got to get the man back in the window. We’ve had nothing but complaints. Where’s the man?” Back he came.

The man works because he’s enjoying himself, because he’s amusing and fun, and because he puts everything at a human level. Too many store displays either talk down to passersby or are cold and humorless. Without speaking a word that wooden man invites people to stop, and without moving he offers to share his every enjoyment. And people recognize the wooden man in the bookstore’s window: he becomes part of their lives.