“I never said no to anything”

As we gather to listen to Frances, the mood is intense and serious. People are still borne by the tide of deep conversations held during the night. It is slightly amazing to share breakfast and start a new day together.

In 1920 Frances Steloff founded the Gotham Book Mart on 47th Street in New York City. The Gotham is a literary institution, devoid of commercialism, well loved for its atmosphere of heroic disorder, having everything rare or modern, out-of-print treasures, a vast collection of theatre and film volumes, and 50,000 vintage “little” magazines.

Frances sits before us, wearing a yellow print dress and lavender shawl and shoes. In her hands she holds a family of dandelions-“Mother, father, and baby”, she says. I am reminded of her affection for cats, how she allows her Patsy to cuddle on her chest at night, purring and licking her face, because she feels that she was starved for affection as a child. And how she makes sure at twilight that she does not miss seeing the sun set. She is so spiritual in her love of life and opposition to violence. Her wisdom seems simple and direct, but got with difficult concentration and discipline.

Anaïs Nin introduces Frances:

This remarkable woman is a great inspiration to other women. In 1920 she opened up a bookshop near the theatre section of town. She had the idea of keeping the bookshop open in the evening for people who came from the theatre. The shop was devoted to the dance and the theatre crowd mostly. But after that what she did was to create a bookshop which was far more than a bookshop. Her own frustrated, unfulfilled love of books made her feel that she wanted to be surrounded by books. This was the seed and the origin of the bookshop. There she had her books all around her.

She had this extraordinary hospitality, so people began to make of her bookshop a center, a center for the Joyce Society, a center where many people met each other, and many literary friendships were made. It was the warmth and hospitality which gave the bookshop its character. By her saying yes to everything, like Caresse Crosby, ‘yes’ to magazines and ‘yes’ to unknown writers and ‘yes’ to unknown books, she created a treasury in the cellar. The books you couldn’t find anywhere else, you found in the Gotham Book Mart.

Her achievement as a woman, keeping this warm place not only as a bookshop but as a center for friendship and relationships to writers and critics and poets, makes tremendous literary history, which has not been written as fully and richly as it should have been. She was too modest to do it herself. Frances Steloff couldn’t possibly tell you all the things she could.

Frances Steloff: (Frances delights in telling humorous stories about herself that break everyone up into raucous laughter. At the same time she projects the seriousness and inner light of a Pilgrim.)

I think the Gotham Book Mart just grew because of people like Anaïs. She will never know what it meant in those early days to have a letter from her saying that the Book Mart is well known to us on the Left Bank and for her to have the confidence to send all her books and tell me to use my own judgment about price. But there are many wonderful people who had this confidence. I seem to have been a natural born catalyst. I just had this very strong urge to get the right books, special books, into the people’s hands. I often judged my books by the people who bought them.

When salesmen brought certain books, I’d say, ‘Oh, this one is good’, and they’d look at me wonderingly because I’d order very large quantities for a small shop. I’d say, ‘This is important, everybody ought to have this.’ I thought all I would have to do is have the book here and everybody would realize what a wonderful book it was. I would put it in the window, get cards printed, and put it in our catalogue. In this way I didn’t know that I was doing this for others but just because I felt that it had to be done.

I didn’t take books because of large discounts! In one instance I felt a book on hypnotism wasn’t right, because it is wrong to take control of other people’s minds. When the salesman said, ‘This book is a best seller,’ I said, ‘I can’t sell books on hypnotism.’ Then the author came in and wanted to know what I had against his book. I said that I just don’t believe that it’s right to encourage people to become passive and let other people control your mind. I think he understood finally but it took a lot of explaining.

I had the same feeling for people. For instance, the Joyce Society was born because Professor Tindall at Columbia had lames Joyce Seminars, and sent his students to the Gotham for books by and about Joyce. The students were always asking questions that I couldn’t answer so I thought somebody ought to have a study group on Joyce. I asked two or three of my customers-John Slocum was one, because he had a wonderful collection of Joyce-to lead a group of Joyce students.

Oh no, Slocum couldn’t be bothered. I asked James Gilvarry – a Dubliner who has a great collection of Irish authors-he said, no, but he’d give me his private telephone number if I needed to ask questions. I saw Roland von Weber, who was acting in Joyce’s Exiles. I went backstage and asked him after the play but being an actor meant he couldn’t always be around. So I thought, well I’ll just have to wait until I find somebody.

One day, one of my nice customers who was a lawyer, a very fatherly sort of person, said, ‘How are things and what are your problems?’

‘I’ve always had problems’, I said chuckling, ‘Well you know, there ought to be a study group for Joyce because all these young ones come in and ask questions and we ought to find answers for them.’

He said, ‘Well do you know anybody?’

‘Yes, I’ve asked them but they’re not willing to take it on.’

He said, ‘Give me their names and telephone numbers.’ And I did. In a week he called up and asked, ‘Would it be all right to come over this evening?’

‘Why yes of course.’

So he came along with a set of people, like Ted McKnight Kauffer, the publisher, McNight Alpert, the artist, and a lot of wonderful people, who knew Joyce but whom I wouldn’t think of approaching. We talked about it. I said that I’d be happy to have them meet here but I couldn’t do any more. Then I worked up front and let them have their own way of deciding.

When they left, they said, ‘We’ll be back. In a few days they called up: ‘This is the 3rd of February 1947-the day after Joyce’s birthday-can we come tonight?’

‘Yes, of course.’

That was the night that the Joyce Society was born. And everything else happened in the same way. The thing seemed to take form. The people that were meant to do these things came and did them. I really had very little to do with it.

Anaïs: That’s what you say, but Professor Tindall says in a letter that you were the Joyce Society.

Frances: He’s just being generous.

Anaïs: Tell us the story of how you made the window of women’s work?

Frances: When Anaïs finally came in person to the Gotham I was grateful and showed it. Anaïs talked to me about not being able to find a publisher and her courage to go out and buy a press. What an undertaking it was to find a press and then to learn to run it and set type! This was no small accomplishment. She did it beautifully but of course she is a perfectionist. At the time the Book Mart had a huge window. I thought it would be great to have a window on the theme “Women At Work.” I tried to get one of those signs, ‘Men At Work’, and all the people I asked thought I was a bit goofy. Finally I had to have a sign made called “Women At Work”. I collected all the books by women for the window display.

Anaïs: This was in the 40’s wasn’t it? The beginning of Feminism!

Frances: Yes, also I had a picture of Anaïsworking at her press, showing the making of a book from the beginning of the manuscript to the end.

Well, that’s how things happened at the shop. Everything came. I didn’t reach out really. I always said ‘yes’ to everyone who came to the shop. I thought that if they came to me this was an opportunity for me to be helpful; at the same time I was helping myself.

In all my most wonderful experiences people came with a problem, something they needed, and I helped them. I believe that first you learn to give and then you get. Usually people say, ‘How many hours do I have to work?’ and ‘how much do you pay?’ but they never think what do I have to give or am I qualified? That’s true today more than ever and I think this attitude is one of the reasons for the condition we’re in.

Now, what else can I tell you?

Daisy Aldan: I would like to say that in 1946 when I was a young teacher and poet and made a book with wallpaper and laundry cardboards and calligraphy, I wanted to take it to the Gotham Book Mart first of all. The same boy who had first given me Anaïs’ book helped me take it there. He went in and I waited outside trembling, sure that Miss Steloff would never take it. I knew how the Gotham was the place where everybody knew you could get Anaïs’ books and all the books of poetry and I badly wanted my book there.

When the boy came out, he said, ‘She’s some character! I was afraid to talk to her, but she took your book! I was very thrilled about that. But she didn’t put them out for sale. She was saving them for something! A few years ago when the Gotham Book Mart gave a party for me, I saw one of those books for sale at such a tremendous price that I couldn’t buy it But Frances probably never realized what encouragement she was to me. Later on she gave my magazine, Folder Editions, a window display.

Frances: I tried to display every magazine and book that came in. So many of the authors would expect to see their work in the window whenever they came by. In fact they made special trips to check on it, but others had to have a chance too. Some of the young magazine editors, the real youngsters, didn’t have the money to even buy the materials to make a magazine.

I’d say, ‘can’t you find a magazine to publish your poems without starting another one?’

‘No, No!’ No magazine was just right for their poems. Either the table of contents had to be in the back or it had to be in the middle … ! They felt that if I would put their magazine in the window they’d be assured of success. I always did, I never failed them.

The same way with the parties. People thought that if the Gotham would give them a party, that’s it! There was an author in Boston, published by Harvard University, who asked if we’d have a party in our garden.

I asked, ‘Are you all coming from Boston?’

The publishers said that they allot a certain amount of money for publicity for everything they publish and that the author said he would rather have a party at the Gotham than any other publicity. So they all came. The garden was wonderful because parties didn’t take any preparation. When we moved to where we are now, we no longer had the garden but had the back room, which gave us the advantage of having parties year round. But it was a lot of work to empty it each time. We put everything on wheels, or made it collapsible, like a stage set. We’d have to take all the books off the tables and set up a big board. I don’t think I ever refused a party for a book, so a great many people were encouraged, the young ones especially. I saw so many young people go wrong in the pool rooms and race tracks of Saratoga Springs that when I saw a young one do something useful and interesting like writing, I was eager to help. I never turned a deaf ear to a young person!

Valerie: Frances, you were a very courageous young person, being on your own in New York at the age of 17.

Frances: Everything in my early life seems to have been a preparation for what was to come. When I was living in Boston my older sister was getting married, and there was a family reunion in New York. My aunt said to me, ‘Well, why go back to Boston if your sister is being married. Stay with me in Brooklyn.’

That was okay with me so I went to work at Loeser’s Department Store in the corset department. I was grateful to be anywhere in those days. A job was very difficult to find and I thought this would satisfy me temporarily.

Christmas came and the floorwalker said that I was to work at a temporary book table. Well, I was delighted to be with books instead of corsets. Every evening at 6:00, closing time, a man would come to replace the books that had been sold. I never hurried away like the other girls did.

One night he said, ‘If you like the books so much why don’t you ask the buyer to keep you here?’

‘Who is the buyer?’

He told me and the next day I watched for him but he looked very discouraging! I thought, I can’t talk to him today, but maybe tomorrow. I walked trembling up to him and asked if I might stay in the book department instead of going back to corsets. ‘Ho, Ho,’ he said. ‘We have all we can do to keep our own staff and we can’t make room for any new people.’

I thought, ‘Oh dear, my last hope gone.’

I reluctantly turned away and then he said, ‘Wait a minute, wait a minute, do you know anything about magazines?’

‘No, but I can learn very quickly.’

And he took me over to where the carriage trade was, near the swinging doors. He said, ‘This girl is always out sick.’ I said, ‘Oh, I’m never sick.’ There was nothing between this long counter and the outdoors but swinging doors. There was a constant draft! I thought that I would just wear plenty of clothes. I wore two pairs of stockings and all the sweaters I could find. So that’s how I started in the book business.

A man there in the old rare books department would often come over and ask how was I doing. I’d always say fine. After about a year he asked if I’d gotten a raise.

I said, ‘no.’ He said that I should go up to Mr. Cooper and tell him how I had doubled the business in the department. So finally after much urging I went up. I was afraid of Mr. Cooper too — he had bulging eyes. But I promised that I would go up and I did.

I told him that we were selling so much more. He said, ‘the more you sell, the more we lose.’ I didn’t know how to figure that one, but I learned it was because Loeser’s and Abraham & Straus were always competing, and if one sold more books, the other would lower the prices, so in the end, the more I sold, the more they lost. ‘I can’t give you a raise.’

I was getting $7.00 a week. My friend was annoyed and said that he would get me a job at Schulte’s.

I rather dreaded to make a change because I loved my magazines. However, I never could say no to anything and so I landed at Schulte’s, a real bookstore. I had charge of the circulating library and the Sunday School supplies.

One day, Ms. McDevitt-Wilson, who had a beautiful book shop, came in to look for some out-of-print books and I was able to help her. She was pleased and whispered to me as she was going out and said, ‘If you ever consider making a change come and see me.’

McDevitt Wilson’s meant one less streetcar fare for me, so I went down to see her. She offered me $8.00, a raise of $1.00. I was very happy there for three years.