'Books & Co.' gets a telling obituary

October 24, 1999|By Brian D. Weese | By Brian D. Weese,Special to the Sun

"Bookstore: The Life and Times of Jeannette Watson and Books & Co." by Lynne Tillman. Harcourt Brace & Co. 337 pages. $25.

Of what possible interest to readers and book lovers outside New York City would be the history of Books & Co., an institution among booksellers, publishers and its customers for almost 20 years on Manhattan's Upper East Side? Lynne Tillman goes to great lengths to chart the life of this legendary bookstore, through a narrative from owner Jeannette Watson interspersed with quotes from well-known authors, publishers and residents of the neighborhood, all apparently regular shoppers of the store. While the book as a whole is fascinating as a social history of bookselling in a rather rarefied area, ultimately it fails to deliver more than a chronology of Ms. Watson's learning curve of bookselling.

Watson, daughter of IBM's Thomas Watson Jr., grew up in Greenwich, Conn. Always a passionate reader, she confided to a friend (after having married and moved to Michigan) that she "was either going to be an anthropologist or start a bookstore."

After relocating to Manhattan after her divorce, she set her bookstore idea in motion in 1976. She had a wonderful vision of her bookstore as a contemporary literary salon; a place where customers would discover new and interesting ideas. She found a very capable partner with whom she organized the two-level space that would become Books & Co., focusing on literary fiction, poetry and autographed books.

Employing marketing savvy and personal connections, the opening of Books & Co. in October 1978 was covered extensively in the press, and its reputation was developed and enhanced by word of mouth. Soon business reality sunk in: the partners did not keep track of what books they had ordered; the store's inventory ballooned; they had no bookkeeping experience.

By early 1979 the store was overdrawn at the bank and Watson determined to "run [the store] like a business" according to her new husband, Alexander Sanger. Later that year, her dream was a nightmare, with large amounts of excess inventory, high staff turnover, and problems between Watson and her business partner.

The partnership ended shortly thereafter, and Watson began to reap the benefits of her excellent location, attracting and keeping the well-heeled customers and taking advantage of her visibility among publishing's cognoscenti to attract top-name authors to read in the store.

Throughout the rest of the book, a who's who of literary luminaries offer quotes about the wonderful store that Books & Co. was. Former staff offer comments about the "intimacy" that there was "between us and our customers." There are stories about doing the Christmas window displays, about Dustin Hoffman spontaneously reading a D.H. Lawrence poem, about more formal readings by Umberto Eco, Carlos Fuentes, W.P. Kinsella, Joseph Mitchell.

Always there are the famous customers: Al D'Amato, Larry Kramer, Jacqueline Onassis, Fran Lebowitz, Michael Jackson. Book buyers for the store come and go; Watson hires a publicist and starts a newsletter, and ultimately goes into the publishing business with Jonathan Rabinowitz. The store's sales level off and losses increase due to competition from superstores.

The story of the ultimate closing of the store when the Whitney Museum and Watson can't reach an agreement on rent is told matter-of-factly, interrupted with vignettes about the last author readings and the crowd that came to the final sale, "picking over the discounted stock, like vultures."

The realities of becoming a successful bookseller are laid bare in this book. Even a prime Manhattan location, strong support from publishers and customers, and an unwavering vision of the unique literary nature of the store could not save Books & Co. The final chapter for bookselling is not written: superstore competition has been followed by competition from the Internet; electronic books may also affect the future of books and bookselling.

While Watson's story, related in a linear and unsatisfying manner by Tillman, is not unique, her customers and the type of books she sold in large quantities certainly were, making this microcosm of bookselling a treat for readers fascinated by the literati.

Brian D. Weese is co-owner of the four-store Bibelot bookshop group in the Baltimore area, which he founded in 1995 with his wife, Elizabeth. He worked for 10 years as an executive, and finally president, of Encore Books, before which he was a foreign service officer.

Pub Date: 10/24/99

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