With Shakespeare & Co. set to close its downtown store after 27 years — possibly to be replaced by a Foot Locker — we asked Marc Spitz, a former clerk, to share his thoughts about the beloved bookshop.
If Chris Peterson, the general manager of Shakespeare and Company Booksellers, circa 1996, didn’t sit me down one afternoon and give me the choice to quit or be fired (a classy move so I could travel on to another job without having to explain a termination), they would have had to close their doors nearly twenty years ago instead of this month.
Inside 716 Broadway, four days a week, I was the hip, young equivalent of a termite infestation and likely the single least responsible employee in the shop’s history. I showed up late. I was surly to customers, especially tourists or people searching for bestsellers. I jammed up the phone with private calls. I misplaced coats and bags when assigned to “bag check.” I let shoplifters get away with their crimes. I did hard drugs in the downstairs bathroom, and blatantly ignored the “jazz or classical” in-store music policy, playing Sonic Youth, Cat Power, Pavement, Pulp, Elastica, Oasis and Ween.
But I was proud to work there. It’s hard to explain. These were acts, somehow, of tribute to the store itself; yes, I am rationalizing now but it felt like such deeds were a kind of celebration that it wasn’t a huge chain, that it took its name from the legendary store in Paris, that it stocked and often held signings for outsider writers and artists. I knew what an excellent book store it was even as I destroyed it incrementally.
I mean, of course, I was not alone in revering it. I think it was clear to everyone downtown just how visionary and brave the buyers were, how smart the stock was, how thoughtful the staff picks were, how exciting the front window always looked to passerby who could not ignore it. But its true magic was that any other place of business would not have let me or half the staff stay there one week much less for years and years.
It was a business first and foremost (wages were painfully low, returns and overstock had to be done and were hell weeks, magazines that didn’t sell could not simply be thrown out with the trash or left in the toilet but had to be neatly accounted for and returned to the vendors, the floors needed vacuuming) but it was also a temporary asylum and salon for young artists in the mid ’90s when we desperately needed one, as the City’s new Mayor seemed to be insuring that all doors would soon close to people like us.
We were not finding that mythical New York of the ’60s and ’70s so easily. In my time, actors worked there and spoke of their auditions, young poets worked there and famous poets visited, authors like me envied the published authors we had to stock and promised ourselves we’d become just like them one day, rockers in jam bands and ska bands and punk bands worked in the stock room where they could sing, undetected. Sometimes the aforementioned young poets had bands too and they sang, on the floor, fully detected. Some of us went on to be successful indeed. Others, I don’t know.
I suppose I was one of the ones who made it; I’ve been published and read and didn’t, after a point, have to work for minimum wage which was what they paid (perhaps a dollar and change over, I can’t recall… I know I started at $5.25 an hour in ‘95). One of the most surreal moments I ever had in my 44 years of life (and there’ve been dozens of them) was last year when I walked into the store on a chilly February afternoon, as I’d do from time to time undetected and mostly unrecognized (unless there was an old fellow employee on the clock) and seeing my memoir Poseur, which detailed so much of my on the job misbehavior, out on the tables, for sale!
I didn’t view it as some kind of revenge for the low wages or the vacuuming or bag check (oh, God, bag check!). I felt proud because someone in the buyers office read the description in a catalog and decided to order it, and a clerk, like I used to be, decided to display it next to a book by Joan Didion and a book on Tom Waits, and maybe someone bought it and took it home in a canvas bag? I’d become one of those people on a jacket. So, the pay was shit, but it was a place where you found your New York hunger and your real worth and that’s a good trade.
I think, like so many locations that have vanished recently, Shakespeare and Co. is truly irreplaceable. I once believed it to be indestructible. I remember being on my lunch break (usually a bowl of soup from Au Bon Pain or sometimes just a cigarette and a bump), when we all heard that a giant Barnes & Noble was set to open right around the corner on Astor Place. Everyone was silent for a minute before that sort of “fuck ‘em, bring it on” attitude took over and we steeled ourselves for whatever was to come. Respectfully, we outlasted that enormous B & N by years. It weathered web retail for a good long while too. But I guess ultimately, everything comes down to rent here and New York City just changes because that’s what it does and always has done. You can’t get attached.
I go out less and less on the East Side these days because there are too many streets I no longer recognize and it’s jarring — but I can stay in. I’ve done my trip through my 20s and 30s. I became… someone. I became exactly what I wanted to be when I moved here. I feel sorry for those coming to the City now who won’t have places like this store to surround them and inspire them and offer them a family of struggling artists.
Shakespeare as we called it (never “and company”) was always the perfect place to stay for an afternoon of browsing (and we let you browse as long as you wanted). But it was, like various storied bars and restaurants and clubs, not the ideal permanent residency (a great poet friend of mine once famously walked out on his break and never returned). You wanted it in your past, on your soul’s resume, a place that made you say, “Yeah, I was there and I got out and did it.” I’m not sure the superstores provided that to its staffers. It may be Shakespeare’s greatest legacy and the end of these kind of places — one of New York City’s great losses. RIP (you cheap bastards). And thank you.
Read an exclusive excerpt from “Poseur” by Marc Spitz, in which he recalls day-to-day life at Shakespeare & Co.