This past Friday was the rare afternoon of late when I was not only in Manhattan, but had a few hours where I didn’t have to be at work and could take care of errands in person (it’s sad how that’s become a rare and wonderful treat). I paid a return visit to the Actors Equity building to do some in-person banking again; as an update, I’d like to let everybody know that you no longer need to make advance appointments for walk-up teller service, so you can go to Actors Federal Credit Union whenever you need to. (The rest of the building is still something of a desert, since, y’know, there’s a pandemic going on.) I traversed through Times Square, to which those panhandling costumed pests have somehow managed to return. And I made it to 39th street, and the new home, after a pandemic-long wait, of the storied Drama Book Shop.
I first set foot in the Drama Book Shop back in the early 90s, back when it occupied the second floor of a building on Seventh Avenue. I’m not sure I actually shopped at that location more than two or three times at most, but in my mind, that’s still the platonic ideal of the store – a jumble of shelves lining the walls, tables piled high with books, every inch crammed with every treasure a theater-loving bookworm might want. For most of my younger readership, the shop’s next location, on 40th and 8th, probably occupies the same honored space in their minds. It always seemed to me that it carried fewer play titles than the older store, but it compensated with a broader selection of Broadway sheet music, memoirs, memorabilia, and other tie-ins. It also had Chester the dog, contented sleeping at the counter. And the Arthur Seelen theatre, a 60-seat black box space in the basement of the building. And a whole host of programs in that basement – kids programs like Story Pirates, interviews and book signings, and a variety of developmental events with up and coming playwrights.
Most famously, Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote portions of In the Heights while doing various informal residencies at that store. He’s maintained a keen public loyalty to it as a result, and so when rising rent caused the store to close about two years ago, he famously bought the rights to the name and set about finding a new venue. The plans were postponed (again, there’s a pandemic going on), but at last, the new store is open to the public – and that public includes myself, who can actually talk about this new incarnation.
The most striking thing you notice upon entering the store is that, for all of Miranda’s persona as Broadway’s biggest booster, the amount of Broadway memorabilia is significantly reduced. There’s some Hamilton merchandise as you enter, of course, but that’s to be expected – even after this sixteen month interregnum that show is everywhere – but the posters on the wall don’t reference any Broadway production of yesteryear. Instead, the references go back much further – shows of the 30s, the Comedie Francaise, pld Brecht shows and circus images from a century past. The overall effect is to try and and evoke some Weimar nightspot or Parisian café – an effect that’s amplified by the next most striking you notice, that for the first time in the store’s history, there’s an attached coffeeshop. And this is no vulgar Starbucks tie-in – this is their own coffee, their own tea, their own pastries and desserts. (I can vouch for the snickerdoodles.)
What about the books themselves? The shelves certainly look well-apportioned, and in and of themselves they look impressive – dark and rich-grained, offset by green carpeting, the bookstore portion of the shop has a distinctly upscale vibe. I’m not sure that it’s carrying any more books than before, however. It may have slightly more contemporary American titles, which is obviously welcome. The benchmark I always use, however, English major that I was long ago, is the size of the section for Early English Dramatists who aren’t Shakespeare (that guy doesn’t need anybody’s help to move product, after all). Elizabethan, Jacobean, Restoration – foundational texts for the history of English-speaking drama. I counted exactly one shelf of those titles at the new store. Depending how things were shelved, that section would be two or three shelves at the prior location. It may only be that way in my memory, but I could have sworn that the location before that had a whole glorious wall.
No, if the location of the 80s and 90s was a bookworm’s delight, and the location lately closed was a paean to the glory of Broadways, then this upscale artist’s café is clearly meant to be a site of resistance, a place for artists to come together – in the words of its new proprietor, “the room where it happens.” I’m of two minds about this – it’s a wonderful idea, after all, but it’s not the sort of thing you can manufacture. After all, anything written or promoted down in that old Seelen theater was taking advantage of it being relatively cheap, and out of the way. Artists go where they need to go, make the best of whatever situation they find themselves in, and create their own community. It’s hard to put out a sign that says “Your Community Is Here Now” and expect them to go along with it – communities happen naturally, after all. (Plus, not to be a churl, but given the obvious Weimar influences I can’t help but feel that if we’re looking to the past for examples of artists resisting fascism, I’d really hope to find role models who’d actually, y’know, succeeded.)
But, again, the snickerdoodles are excellent.