In 1978, Jeannette Watson opened Books & Co. At 939 Madison Avenue in New York City. It quickly became one of the favorite sites for writers. Susan Sontag (interviewed for this book) used to spend long periods browsing the shelves and speaking about her bookish enthusiasms with the store clerk who would order whatever was not in stock. Pictures of writers covered the store’s walls, and in the evenings many of New York’s and the world’s best authors came to give public readings from their work.
Few bookstores can afford to offer the intimacy and dedication to literary titles that Books & Co. prided itself in doing. Many independent bookstore owners have been driven out of the market by the superstore chains. In Manhattan, the problem has been especially acute because there has been not only the problem of bookstore giants such as Borders and Barnes & Noble but the escalating rents. In 1997, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the owner of the building in which Books & Co. Was housed, raised its rents to such an extent that the owner felt compelled to close her store—in spite of the fact that Sontag, Woody Allen, and many other author/celebrities campaigned against the Whitney’s decision.
But Lynne Tillman’s Bookstore: The Life and Times of Jeannette Watson and Books & Co. is about more than a great bookstore. It is about the culture of great readers and writers. She includes large extracts from interviews with writers who reminisce not only about the store but about their lives as people attracted to writing. Hearing all these voices is like having the opportunity to enter the store once again and feel energized by all the talent packed into one space.