The Bibliomaniacs of Book Row

It was far more than a single bookstore. It was New York’s ‘book district’—six blocks in lower Manhattan that contained over 36 bookstores. Today, Book Row is long gone. Only one store remains from its heyday (Strand Books, founded in 1927).

Back when it was crowded with booksellers, Book Row would have attracted anyone who loved reading. But it was irresistible to bibliophiles and bibliomanics. A bibliophile is anyone who loves the look, feel, and scent of books as much as their contents. Bibliomanics, however, are obsessed by books. They are fanatic hunters and compulsive buyers, usually purchasing more books than they can read in their lifetime.

In his 1944 article, “Book Row,” Don Samson gives a brief history of a bibliomaniac who haunted the area.

A shoe clerk from Brooklyn wandered into one of the secondhand bookshops on Book Row. He had never bought a book in his life, but picking up a musty volume, he liked the feel of it and bought it. The more he handled it, the more he liked it. He began buying books, and after a year his modest apartment was filled with them. Finally, his wife couldn’t take a bath because the tub was full of books. “You love your books more than you do me,” she wept, and threatened to go home to mother unless he got rid of them. He did. But within two weeks he was buying books again. His wife? She went home to mother.

There is something about books that provokes fascination and the odd compulsions that Samson saw in Book Row’s regulars:

A regular cash customer is the lady of the evening who collects the works of Marcel Proust. There is the Bowery bum who panhandles to buy books containing the word” hell,” books which he burns” to destroy the devil.” And there is the lawyer, internationally known, who collects books with uncut pages. “Virgin books,” he calls them.

Some people buy anything. Others, like the editor who has seventy-five copies of South Wind, will buy only copies of a single title. A collector who has all the dealers mystified is a banker who buys books in one series, Burt’s Home Library of popular classics. He tears the covers off and has the books and the covers restitched, switching titles and covers so that no book has the right title. Thus Alice in Wonderland becomes Black Beauty; The Divine Comedy, The Last Days of Pompeii, and so on. He boasts to the dealers, “You should see my library. It’s wonderful!”

The hangout for lovers of the unusual is a shop that specializes in strange books. Many are first attracted to the shop by the huge, black, plaster-of-Paris cat that crouches menacingly in the window; others are led here by their “vibrations.” An old German woman used to come regularly to buy books on the occult. One day she bought a book entitled “How to Make Yourself Invisible.”

“And she never came back,” says the dealer. “At least, we never saw her again.”

Book smellers are common. But they are hard to detect because, while running the nose along the bindings, they appear to be short-sightedly browsing. One smeller, a college professor, collects old, odoriferous volumes and wears the badge of his fraternity—a redrubbed nose. A well-known actress, a confessed smeller who never buys a book, is allowed the run of the shops because of the trade she attracts.

There are also book dusters. A good one can dust as many as fifty books in a single visit. He picks up a book, looks at the price marked in it, snaps it shut and, with a mighty huff and puff, blows the dust off before easing it back into place. Ironically, more men than women are dusters.

Odd behavior, I’ll grant you. An electronic book would never excite such mania, or even a semblance of this fascination. E-books will never hold the sensual appeal of what, for many Americans, is the “real thing”: a clean, hard-bound, octavo with clear, dark type on bright, clean pages. And books have several practical benefits. In a recent New York Times article, Sam Grobart wrote about the technical gadgets we won’t need in the future: desktop computers, digital cameras, and iPods. But he advised readers to keep their books. Compared to e-books, the real thing has “a terrific, high-resolution display,” durability, greater water-resistance, and “tremendous battery life.”