In my last musing, I introduced you to the Madison Avenue Bookshop, located in the Upper East Side, in New York City. The topic was the window dressing with the big wooden man. This week I will focus on the people – the owners, the staff and the customers.
The Upper East Side is in the borough of Manhattan in New York City, between Central Park/Fifth Avenue, 59th Street, the East River, and 96th Street. At least since the Gilded Age, the Upper East Side has been equated with Manhattan Society. It is the home, the school and the playground of the city’s social elite. The Madison Avenue Bookshop was one of the last thriving havens where that old-school notion of society was propagated. In this narrow 1,700 square-foot space, books were bought, acquaintances were made, gossip was exchanged and the community was sustained.
Acting as catalysts for these exchanges and interchanges were the bookshop’s owners. Arthur Lehman Loeb, formerly an investment banker, opened the shop in 1973. He was part of the universe he served. Beginning in 2000, ownership passed to an existing employee, Mr. Haberman.
These two men and their staff catered to their clientele and their clientele swore by them. It was the kind of store where Mr. Haberman hand-picked books that he thought his customers would like and delivered them for free. And where Brooke Astor would pop in to say hello and see how Mr. Haberman’s dog was.
“Arthur used to joke that this store was like the House of the Rising Sun, in that once you arrive, you never want to leave, in terms of being an employee,” Mr. Haberman said. “There is very little turnover in staff. Aside from student fill-in people, the shortest time any of my staff has been here is 7 or 8 years.” All of the sales staff knew their regulars’ preferences and could tell shoppers who won each literary prize within five seconds.
Into this wonderland of paper and people stepped a British man in a green suede hat. “How is it out there?” a salesgirl asked as he sidled up to the counter. “This is a nice refuge from out there,” he said, his words almost floating into type as he said them.” There are thousands of people walking up Madison looking for clothing. You wonder where they wear it all. Then you realize they wear it to go looking for clothing to wear walking up Madison Avenue.”
Another time an older man with jet-black hair and a Barbour jacket needed gifts for his wife and daughters and wanted advice. “Does she cook?” Elisa Leshowitz, a brunette saleswoman, asked. The man looked shocked “Oh, no, no, no. She doesn’t cook. She likes flowers,” he said and picked up a copy of Gardens by the Sea.
And I just wish I was there for this next little snippet.
In walks a middle-aged man with thinning hair and a paunch pressing against his trench coat and he ordered two Puccini books. Then he asked Mr. Dougan: “I need someone to organize my library. I have this house in the Hamptons and this massive collection of books to organize. Do you have someone who can do that?” “Yes, I think we have the perfect person, someone who does just that, who specializes in private libraries. I’ll put you in touch with him.”
One evening, a large German man with a slight limp spotted Mr. Haberman in the back of the store, attired in a charcoal gray suit with a pink button down Oxford underneath, exclaimed “Well, Perry! You’re looking very debonair today. Have you got a date tonight?” Yeah, I’m going to go out and get laid tonight,” Mr. Haberman replied. “What about you?” “Well, I wanted to go carolling last night but the evil fairy locked me up in my room instead”. He then asked after Arthur Loeb. “He’s very good at gin rummy and chess, but he can’t play bridge at all,” said the customer.
I really enjoy it when, quite by accident, half a dozen or a dozen of those people from that society happen upon each other here, and it sort of turns in to this meeting point, and conversation,” Mr. Haberman said. “I think this bookstore serves the purpose of being a social gathering point for people in the neighbourhood to come in and certainly buy books, but also just to converse and talk and gossip. Rather than being at Swifty’s, it’s at Madison Avenue Bookshop.”
And then, as night fell on the Upper East Side, he turned out the lights.