Treasures revealed

Selections from the massive Gotham Book Mart collection are now on display at the Penn Libraries.

Librarian standing behind museum display case holding several books and illustrations.
David McKnight of the Penn Libraries led the decade-long project to sort through the 200,000 books, and additional materials, and catalogue the Gotham Book Mart donation. A new exhibit showcases 300 selections, including the writing and illustrations of author Edward Gorey, who collaborated with the storied book shop. 

It has taken nearly a decade for the Penn Libraries to process the contents of the Gotham Book Mart, the legendary New York City bookstore and publisher. The donation included more than 200,000 books in 3,800 boxes, and thousands of archival items in hundreds more.  

But now, it is nearly done, and a select 300 items are on display at the Kislak Center for Rare Books, Collections and Manuscripts to tell the 100-year history of the Midtown Manhattan store, known for its singular place in the New York literary social scene. 

A salon for authors and artists, it was also known as the publisher and promoter of many important modernists, perhaps most famously writer and illustrator Edward Gorey, as well as the meeting place for the James Joyce Society and Finnegans Wake Society. 

Book in display case open to the title page Finnegans Wake.
The exhibit includes a case with books and other items related to modernist author James Joyce because the Gotham Book Mart was the meeting place for the James Joyce Society and Finnegans Wake Society in New York City. 

A retail store and art gallery, the shop sold new books and magazines but also rare and out-of-print books, periodicals and artworks. The contents were donated to Penn in 2008 by Leonard Lauder, a 1954 Penn graduate, and his business partner Edmondo Schwartz, who bought the building and collection after the store closed in 2007. 

“It’s taken 10 years to sort it all out,” McKnight says. “We still have some rarities we have to take care of, but for the most part it is catalogued.” 

The exhibition, “Wise Men Fished Here,” the name a nod to the store’s distinctive sign, is on display through May 20 in galleries on both the first and sixth floors of the Van Pelt-Dietrich Library Center.  

A three-day international conference, “Modernism-Materiality-Meaning,” will be held at the Kislak Center Feb. 28 through March 2 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Gotham Book Mart’s founding in 1920. The panels, workshops, and readings will be focused on providing a framework for exploring the shop’s role in assembling, publishing, and promoting groundbreaking experimental writers.

David McKnight, director of the Rare Book and Manuscript Library, is the project leader. The exhibition is the culmination of the enormous effort to understand the scope of the collection. “We hope to tell the untold story of the Gotham Book Mart,” McKnight says. “I’ve been contemplating this exhibition for about eight years.”

Last spring, when he had winnowed the selection to about 1,000 objects, McKnight had been coming in on Sundays to set up mock exhibits to make choices. “It was a brutal deselection process. For every great piece, there is another great piece,” he says. “It was a challenge, there is no question about it. There was a lot of hands-on work to make sure the items were of visual and intellectual significance.” 

Librarian standing behind museum display case holding several postcards.
McKnight explains that the second owner of the Gotham Book Mart, Andreas Brown, had a passion for collecting unusual and rare postcards. Twenty fill one of the exhibit’s display cases. 

The chronological flow of the exhibition is designed to narrate the history of the shop from its earliest beginnings, founded by Frances Steloff, the daughter of poor Russian-Jewish immigrants, who called her place “the headquarters of the avant-garde.” 

McKnight learned about the collection when it was offered as a gift to Penn. The then-vice provost of the Libraries, H. Carton Rogers, asked for his opinion.

“I said, ‘Of course we want the Gotham Book Mart,’” McKnight says. “Without really knowing the extent of the collection, it was clear that the Gotham Book Mart and its importance in modernism was a fit for Penn, and could be important for research at the University.”

The store’s contents were packed up and shipped to a warehouse in Connecticut, the boxes stretching 500 linear feet. McKnight went up to take a look. 

“I thought, this is mind-boggling,” he says. “I had shopped in the Gotham in the past, and I knew the shop. It became an intellectual game for me, trying to imagine the contents of the store into the boxes lying on pallets running a couple of football fields in length.”

Eight tractor trailers brought the collection to the former Philadelphia Bulletin building to be stored in the basement bays that used to hold the printing presses. Starting to sort through the boxes, McKnight and his Libraries team realized there were not only books of poetry, fiction, drama, essays, and memoirs, but also entire collections of little press magazines and one-of-a-kind manuscripts and correspondence. They also found the storied store’s business records and archives, going back nearly 100 years. 

“This changed the picture,” McKnight said. “This began to enrich my perception of what we had for research for our students, and changed the game to catalogue the collection.”

Books and papers in display case.
One of the most rare items is a typewritten proof in mimeograph form of the poem “Howl” by Allen Ginsberg, and a card testifying to its authenticity.

In 2010 the boxes had to be moved again, to what is now the current offsite storage for the Libraries, in New Jersey. The priority crates with the rarest books and materials have been moving back and forth as McKnight and his team, including several graduate students, worked with the collection. 

To date, 80,000 books and thousands of other items of manuscript material have been catalogued and are available to view. 

Some gems include work by Edward Gorey, who became a part of the Book Mart through his friendship with Steloff’s successor, owner Andreas Brown. Also, there is a significant collection of James Joyce, unique and engaging examples of the 1960s Beat movement, and rare collections small-press magazines. 

All are represented in the exhibition, including 20 colorful postcards, a passion of Brown’s, from his collection of 500. 

“One of the original hopes and expectations was that by acquiring this gigantic collection it would be translated into research materials for Penn faculty and students and others as well,” McKnight says. “And it has. The collection is highly used.” 

The final case in the exhibition displays letters by famous patrons to express support of the Book Mart in its final years, including actors Katherine Hepburn and Van Johnson, writer Norman Mailer, and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.  

Although it was a challenge, while walking around the exhibition space, McKnight chose his top-10, must-see pieces. 

  • Page 1 of the first edition, in mimeograph, of the proof of the poem “Howl” by Allen Ginsberg, dated 1955, before publication in 1956. Accompanying it is the postcard by poet Robert Creely verifying the authenticity. “Why is this important? ‘Howl’ is Allen Ginsberg’s masterpiece, and it sets the tone for an entire generation, and it has endured and remains an incredibly brilliant poem,” McKnight says. “It has been reprinted continuously since its first appearance. ‘Howl’ is of great value, one of a kind.”
  • A 1902 photograph by E.A. Holton of Book Mart founder Frances Steloff: “Significant because it presents a portrait of a young woman whose future is uncertain, but on the other hand she was determined to succeed.” 
  • In a case displaying several rare items by Edward Gorey, the proof page for the first edition of “Amphigorey Too,” dated 1975, a collection of witty, macabre short tales and drawings. “We have a wide swath of Edward Gorey materials.”
  • An invitation to the 1962 tribute by the James Joyce Society for Sylvia Beech: “She is one of the founders of the James Joyce Society, so her devotion to writers, and writers like Joyce specifically, was amazing.” 
  • A typewritten opinion in a legal case brought against the Gotham Book Mart dated 1935 by the City Magistrate’s Court of the City of New York Seventh District: “This represents the challenge of selling contemporary literature that was deemed obscene in the early 20th century.”
A trove of black-and-white photos of Hollywood stars collected by icon Andy Warhol, along with a price list. 
  • A photograph of artist Marcel Duchamp and a bookstore display window he created in a surrealist fashion, a “censored” sign over select items, in 1945. 
  • Black-and-gold book plates reading “Ex Libris Harry Caresse” for the Crosby publishing company: “When I discovered the envelope filled with the Crosby book plates, that was really exciting.” 
  • Pop-up postcard, “Hard Guy Said a Mouthful,” from Scranton, Pennsylvania, one of 20 in a case.
  • Andy Warhol's collection of black-and-white photographs of Hollywood stars, with a typewritten price list.
  •  A typed, signed letter from actress Katherine Hepburn, dated 1987, attesting to the importance of the Gotham Book Mart, one of 200 written by famous people to try to save the store as it was in decline. She wrote: “Nothing can take the place of the Gotham Book Mart–the one place! Ask a question. Get an answer.”