Gotham while dwindling in surprises or vestigial remnants of the Old Days, yet has a few interesting things remaining. Of these is Brazenhead Books, a store run as a salon out of a very tight apartment on the Upper East Side, a region of Gothem that hasn’t been interesting for decades.
There was a time when gatherings and happenings and art openings occurred in apartments and closed shops and all manner of unsanctioned areas of the city. Little by little, these places winked out, closed down, or the building inspector forced the occupants to vacate. Activities became sanctioned, the locations became the same back room of the bar on a Tuesday night, the same cafe with pretensions of art and culture on the walls, a set of places that were safe and contained. This author was not part of those heady days but came in the tail end, when those old counter cultural spaces were giving way to development, refinement, and rules. The punk rock food collectives, the anarchist book stores, the script readings, poetry slams, and underground music festivals were fast closing down. There remained still an energy in some of the new places. The reimagined art houses, secret theater shows, after hours gatherings. Yet, more often the places were in the news and one of the free newspapers or some other weekly rag covering trends would lift the curtain and invite all the groupers, that level of bottom feeder that exists in all cities and everywhere for the sole purpose of attending places en masse in order to “blow up the spot” and ruin it for everyone.
The rapid rise of the New Gotham pushed out a great deal of the creative places and they fled to Brooklyn. First to Williamsburg for which the Golden Age was roughly 1994-2001 and then Bushwick (which by some reports was over by 2005) the events and art gatherings, parties and bad bands continued for a time in unsanctioned spaces. Lofts, apartments, abandoned coolers and lots.
That is why it was so special to find a space in the city still hidden in plain sight. Brought to my attention by a good friend, it took some digging to find the relevant information. Now we can rely on the w.w.w. rather than scant information in the back of a discount Village Voice or some Flavour Pill email, but still it took a little digging to find the address. Also, in this was the information that this space was also soon to end, the landlords having started eviction proceedings and it seems that by July all those books and the little community that surrounds them will have to move on.
I met my friend who had already found her way inside and was set up in conversation with an older gentleman. The apartment is on the second floor of a nondescript Upper (yawn) East Side apartment building of PREWAR Hardwood Floors vintage chalk full of families who send Zoe and Cloe to Village and Farm Day School or Brown Early College Day School (the term “Day” in a school is a secret code as the term “academy” is code for Inner City). The muffled sounds of discussions led us to the right door and inside was fast to enter another world. Books of all vintage, but primarily first editions or rare books, were stacked about as they were set on shelves built to cover each and every wall from floor to ceiling. The erstwhile proprietor was holding court behind a makeshift bar discussing the collections and matters of the salon to some much younger adherents.
Along with the stacks of books that muffled the sounds and various conversations of those gathered, there was that smell, the smell of books that I have not smelled in a very long time, perhaps as long as when I worked in a seminary library cataloging medieval tomes… but that is another story…
The smell of books is unique. I wonder in our digital future what the smell of knowledge will be, other than burning cadmium batteries….
Opening the wine we brought to have a sip, I caught up with my friend and moved from room to room perusing this collection. Other than one room was reserved as the First Edition Room, I am uncertain as to the organization of these wares or the degree these works represented items for sale or those leftovers one keeps or skims from a lifetime of trading books. It is said that most drug dealers sell to supply their own personal habit, I would think that of certain book mongers, at least this one, that same iron rule also applied.
And so while this place yet exists, it soon will join the list of other shuttered unsanctioned places in Gothem. I am sure the host will continue in some format or another, will find another location to call home and keep peddling books and hosting salons but it will perhaps not be a cramped and well worn apartment.
Perhaps he will push north further. Perhaps The Bronx will be the new East Village. Perhaps it already is, but we just don’t know about it because we, you and I at least, are older and no longer able to hang out with the cool people and those free weekly newspapers have long since stopped being published.