The festive wooden reindeer in the front window kept silent vigil as the bundled up shoppers shuffled in and out of the narrow Madison Avenue Bookshop on Saturday, Dec. 14. Inside, women in fur coats, hats and wraps, and men in Barbour coats flipped through Gardens by the Sea , Best of Flair and other sensuous packages of paper, photographs and type that had been laid out in neat rows around the store’s center table. They wandered past stacks of books swathed in tweed-patterned wrapping paper and headed for the back of the store where they could lose themselves in In the Spirit of Aspen or Bridges.
Alone and in groups they came to the store at 833 Madison Avenue, foreigners, locals, Manhattan’s ladies and gentlemen-at least that’s how they thought of themselves-searching for Great American Houses and Gardens , Diana Vreeland’s biography or French Riviera . At the back of the store, a copy of Private Dreams of Public People awaited delivery to Muffie Potter Aston’s Park Avenue home.
And a large coffee table book featuring the work of Matisse was destined for Dr. Myron Buchman’s office at 119 East 72nd Street.
Nan Kempner called to change the delivery address for a book she had ordered, Dr. Atkins’ New Diet Revolution , Mrs. Lauder had returned a copy of Ripley’s Believe It or Not mistakenly sent to her, and essayist Roger Rosenblatt had sent the bookstore’s staff a blue tuille hatbox filled with chocolates, raspberry vinegar, and olive tapenade.
And 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.”
The man in the green hat did not know it, but on Jan. 10, the nice refuge on Madison Avenue will shut its doors for good, sounding the loudest death knell yet for the Upper East Side as we knew it.
On Dec. 17, The New York Times characterized the news as another independent bookstore done in by the high cost of doing business on the avenue. And that’s true enough.
According to the book shop’s current owner, Perry Haberman, there was a lot more than financial necessity on his mind when he made the decision to close the 30-year-old store. The store had become unprofitable and Mr. Haberman, who is 46, but looks 5 or 6 years younger, had grown increasingly disenchanted with the publishing industry and its product. But he also sensed that fewer and fewer East Side residents were interested in establishing an enduring relationship with their local book store.
“I think it’s a part of the Upper East Side culture that’s moving on,” said Mr. Haberman, a former model, who, with his gray-accented dark hair, ruddy skin and rimless rectangular eyeglasses looks like Ralph Lauren’s idea of a book store owner. “It’s like a generation, and as it moves on, it’s not being replaced by the same kind of-” He paused, searching for the proper way to characterize what he saw happening in his neighborhood. “-It seems more scattered now,” he continued. “There isn’t a nucleus. And with that movement in the other direction, it’s not quite as satisfying as it normally would be.”
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. But long before “socialite” became a tag applied indiscriminately by the media to anyone who had a lot of money and no real job to speak of, the word referred to a three-dimensional lifestyle. An insular lifestyle of privilege and money, to be sure, but one that was counterbalanced by the pursuit of knowledge, altruism and, trite as the word may seem, community.
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 duplex modeled after a London carriage bookshop called Heywood Hill, books were bought, acquaintances were made, gossip was exchanged and the community was sustained. And acting as catalysts for this necessary photosynthetic reaction were the bookshop’s owners, Arthur Lehman Loeb, who opened the shop in 1973, and, beginning in 2000, Mr. Haberman. Mr. Loeb, an investment banker, was a part of the world he served while Mr. Haberman infiltrated it, learning his individual customers’ wants and likes.
“Your taste in reading is an intimate side of yourself that you show someone,” he said. “After you would shop here for a particular period of time, you’d walk through the door and I’d see you and I’d say, ‘I’ve got this book for you, because I know what you like to read.'”
These men-and the staff they hired-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, when she was healthier, Brooke Astor would pop in to say “hello” and see how Mr. Haberman’s dog was; where the bookshop’s signature chocolate-colored wrapping paper had become as distinct a calling card as a pale blue Tiffany box. And in the three decades that it was open, the Madison Avenue bookshop effectively became one of those Upper East Side nuclei that Mr. Haberman was talking about.
And now that refuge was about to go the way of Mortimer’s, the Madison Avenue Pub and shirtmaker Addison’s on Madison, which was also closing its doors. Just like society, the Upper East Side was being reduced from a flesh-and-blood community-insular though it was-to just another virtual concept that would be marketed like the designer clothes for sale up and down Madison Avenue. Indeed, Mr. Haberman said that he planned to lease the building, which he owns, to a high-end “Gucci-esque” type of retailer.
“It’s like the end of an era,” said the socialite Nan Kempner of the book store’s closing.
“The city has become less personalized,” said the author and East Side resident Gay Talese. “If you’re an occupant of a place for a long time you can have a sense of familiarity with a place, with a hairdresser, a barber, with a doctor, but now doctors are no longer one on one. The impersonality of New York has gotten bigger and bigger. There are changing people, changing buildings, mass guttings of areas.”
Of the Madison Avenue bookshop closing, Mr. Talese said: “I can and I can’t believe it of course.” He remembered once trying to track down a book on trees. “I called up the Madison Avenue Bookshop and said, “Could you send it to Nan Talese” and they had it. The next day it was gift-wrapped.”
“It’s a sad day,” Mr. Talese said.
In fact it was a doubly sad day for the author. He was also mourning the closing of Addison on Madison across the street. “You could take shirts back if the collar or shirtsleeves were frayed, and they would replace them.”
That kind of personal service was still in evidence Saturday, Dec. 14.
A tall European woman with short blond hair and a brown mink coat walked directly over to one of the salesmen, Cameron Dougan, and said: “I’m looking for a book by socialites, Europeans, there’s one in mind, I can’t think of it…”
“Oh, do you mean Bright Young Things ?” Mr. Dougan asked.
It was sold out. The woman decided on a $250 anthology of the late, great Flair magazin e .
Later, 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 .
“That’s a good one,” he said. “Oh, and this Matisse book is good for Chantal.” As he scanned the books in the back of the store, he picked up An Eye for Beauty , by Evelyn Lauder. “I’ll get this for Isabelle,” he said, but then looking down at Counting My Chickens , by the Duchess of Devonshire, he changed his mind.
“No, this will be for Isabelle. An Eye for Beauty will be for Eugenia. She’s the real beauty in the family. She’s 16 years old,” he told Ms. Leshowitz, “and such a beauty.”
Then he asked, “How are you ladies doing? Taking your juice and vitamins?”
The women wrapped his books individually in red wrapping with three pieces of gold ribbon wrapped around the package and tied intricately at the bottom in a bow.
Soon after he left, a middle-aged man with thinning hair and a paunch pressing against his tan trench coat asked to order two Puccini books, then, sotto voce, 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 anyone who can do that?”
“Yes, I think we have the perfect person. I’ll put you in touch with him,” he said. Looking around him, from side to side, the man added, “Nothing complicated. It doesn’t have to be done immediately or anything. It can be early 2003, or whenever. So you do have someone?”
Mr. Dougan reassured him. “Yes, I have someone who does just that, who specializes in private libraries.”
Since finalizing his decision over Thanksgiving, Mr. Haberman had begun to quietly inform some of his oldest customers, many of whom are also friends.
The author John Gregory Dunne and his wife, also an author, Joan Didion, both lamented the impending loss of what at times has served as the neighborhood water cooler. “It’s a magnet,” said Mr. Dunne. “You go in there, and you run into friends all the time.”
Louis Auchincloss, the aging chronicler of the patrician upper class, said the absence of the store will leave a void on Madison Avenue. “I’m terribly sad to see it go,” he said. “The caring young people who wait on you are always so interesting and helpful. And you always felt like they were more interested in having you read a book, rather than sell you one.”
After the store closes, Mr. Haberman said he planned to “let the dust settle and take stock.” One possibility he mentioned was to take the profits provided by his retail tenant and open another bookstore in the far West Village, where he lives.
“It would probably have the feel of a Parisian salon,” he said, “a place where writers can come and read and talk about their books, and people can congregate and smoke and drink whiskey.”
But, he said, “I’ll really miss my friends up here-so I might re-appear in the Upper East Side someplace.”
While the customers milled about the store deciding which picture book had the least text or the most exotic images, Ms. Leshowitz told the other sales staffers about her 10-page paper on Nietzsche’s ‘dancer’ that was due the following Tuesday.
“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.
Mr. Haberman could technically qualify as the oldest member of the sales staff, save for Mr. Loeb who still occasionally hangs out at the store. Mr. Haberman grew up in Lincoln, Neb. After a modeling career and brief post-collegiate victory lap in Europe, he returned to America and found himself alone and without prospects in Manhattan. He said he stumbled across the store in 1983, applied and began packing and shipping in the basement.
By 1988, Arthur Loeb was still on-site, but he had effectively tapped his successor. They solidified the arrangement in 1990 when Mr. Haberman first bought out some of Mr. Loeb’s interest in the store.
Over the years, as he worked his way out of the basement, Mr. Haberman began to build relationships of his own with customers. “You get to know them, their tastes in reading, you get to know about their families, what they do in their leisure time,” he said, adding that he even saw some of his customers socially.
The night before, 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 caroling last night but the evil fairy locked me up in my room instead. I have a new Polish lady that started on Tuesday.” He then asked after Arthur Loeb. “He’s very good at Gin Rummy and Chess, but can’t play bridge at all,” said the customer.
Mr. Haberman laughed politely. He retreated to do inventory.
The familiar and even familial bond that he so enjoyed with his customers “doesn’t seem to be the same as it used to be,” Mr. Haberman said. “Once people established a relationship, they would come back over and over again. And I don’t sense that in younger residents of the Upper East Side. It might be reflective a little bit of the way our society has moved in the direction of instant gratification. And I think it’s affected many small businesses that no longer exist.”
Mr. Haberman said he’d been thinking about closing Madison Avenue Books since Sept. 11, 2001. “There was something in the back of my mind thinking, ‘How is this going to affect the bookstore, business-wise?'” he said. And his hunch turned out to be correct. Though Mr. Perry declined to discuss specifics about the financial health of his business, he did say that he has been subsidizing the store ever since Sept. 11.
“I wanted to see how this year went economically,” he said. “But I feel like we are going to enter 2003 and be in the same boat, or worse. We’re not going to make a profit, and I just don’t want to subsidize it another year.”
For the first 20 years of its life, the bookshop derived a large chunk of its revenue from customers who ordered books in bulk to send out as gifts. “We used to have many customers who did their holiday shopping here. This time of year, we usually have 10 stacks of orders to process. This year we have two,” said Mr. Haberman.
About 10 years ago, in an attempt to drum up sales, Mr. Haberman began holding book-signing parties at the store. They proved popular and often profitable, but didn’t do much to stanch the flow of business to the chains, which, because of their volume buying, get better discounts and highly anticipated books several days earlier than Mr. Haberman.
“I still feel that publishers do not do anything to help independent bookstores in this new diverse bookselling environment,” he said.
But even more troubling to Mr. Haberman is his feeling that the overall quality of books is steadily decreasing-with no sign of an imminent turn-around.
“It’s not the number of books, but the number of good books, and from what I’ve seen of the next season, it seems like it’s still on that trend. I just don’t think there are as many good books being published today as there were 10 years ago.”
And Mr. Haberman opined that the publishing industry is complicit in this trend.
“A lot of the bestsellers that are pushed on booksellers tend to be books that the publishers have huge financial stakes in, and they have to recoup that money they pay out.”
As a result of this, Mr. Haberman said he always sympathized with “mid-list” writers-writers who won’t get the New York Times Book Review cover story, or the splashy ad campaigns. “I’ve always made it a point to really try and find those good books and hand sell them here, as many as I can.”
So, given Mr. Haberman’s grim view of the publishing business, did he think his Books and Co.-meets-Elaine’s in the Village idea could work any better?
“I don’t know,” said Mr. Haberman. “That’s what I really have to think about and be sure about before I venture in that direction. I will always believe that there will be a group of people who prefer to come in and hold a book in their hands and feel it and talk to you about it, and get your recommendation on something. That the real tangible, tactile feeling of holding it in your hands will always exist, at least in my lifetime-versus going on the Internet and clicking on a book and having it sent to you. And because of that, I feel there will always be some sort of need for bookstores.”
Mr. Talese would be inclined to agree. “There are things that one is nostalgic about. You only can be nostalgic about them because they are diminished,” he said. “I remember the days when you used to dial a phone and someone picked up and you gave them a number, and our exchanges had an name, like Rhinelander six, or Trafalgar. There isn’t this personal contact anymore. I called Brian Hall. I said you know that shirt I had with the blue collar? “Yes, yes,” he said. It’s personal. Restaurants still have some of this, like Gino’s restaurant, where I was last night- that’s still like Madison Avenue Bookshop. It’s very eye contact. It’s an eye contact place. I’m now going to have to go look someplace else,” Mr. Talese said. “I don’t deal with the Internet. I don’t want to deal.”
And yet there is the increasing sense that the impersonality of the Internet has leeched into our social customs, tainting the behavior of even those who continue to shop the avenues. It could be read as the impertinence of the privileged or perhaps it’s a sign that the spirit of community on the Upper East Side has burned itself out.
Late on Saturday, Dec. 14, shortly after Mr. Haberman had gone downstairs into the inventory room, a short, white-haired man with hunched shoulders walked to the counter with a stack of books in his arms. The sales staff referred to him as “Mr. Modlin” and he was barking orders at Mr. Dougan as he placed a dozen of Annie Proulx’s new book, That Old Ace in the Hole, on the counter in front of Ms. Leshowitz.
He eyed her suspiciously and said: “These are artistic people I’m shopping for. What do you think?”
“I heard it’s supposed to be very good, Mr. Modlin,” said Ms. Leshowitz.
Mr. Modlin tossed in a copy of Zagat’s America’s Top Golf Courses guides, which had been selling off the shelves all day. As he instructed Ms. Leshowitz where to send each book, he told her: “Let’s not screw up now, okay? You’re not going to screw up, are you?”
Ms. Leshowitz kept her head down as she wrapped the books and rang up his order. “No, no of course not, Mr. Modlin,” she said.
“Well, you’ve screwed up before!” he retorted, still eyeing his books. “No, no, there are four cards, not three. Look, you messed up already!” he said, taking the envelope from her.
He turned around and said to Mr. Dougan, who was sitting by the phone across from the register: “I also need another book from the 1970’s that’s out of print. You have to get it for me. You can’t say no.”
After he gave the details and chatted up a friend who had recognized him, Mr. Modlin threw an instructional book on the game of bridge onto the pile. “Wrap this as well,” he said “I’ll give it to my wife. It’ll keep her quiet for a while.”
Once he had left, Ms. Leshowitz looked queasy. With her hand on her mid-section, she said, “That got to my stomach. I though I was about to cry!”
“Yeah, I get that all the time,” said another saleswoman named Romy. “I love it when they ask over the phone, ‘What, are you stupid?'”
Toward the end of the day, as it grew dark outside, and customers were more and more rushed, a petite woman in her sixties with black hair and porcelain skin came in to look for an architecture book. “Do you have The New Paradigms of Architecture ?” she asked Cristina.
“You can get it at the Urban Center-” said Cristina, trying to be helpful.
“I know all that, no,” she said as she glanced warily back at Cristina.
Two of the last customers before closing were Louise Grunwald and the architect Richard Meier. Ms. Grunwald came in to return one book and buy another. “That’s her usual. She’s very pushy, always bossing everyone around,” said Mr. Haberman. Mr. Meier came in looking for a gift, and then it was time to close the register.
“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 neighborhood to come in and certainly buy books, but also just to converse and talk and gossip. Rather than it being at Swifty’s, it’s at the Madison Avenue Bookshop.” Mr. Haberman said this in the present tense, as if he were not closing his store. And then, as night fell on the Upper East Side, he turned out the lights.