“I never said no to anything”

Cora McDevitt loved poetry. She was very spontaneous and if there weren’t any customers around, she’d say, ‘Girls, do you know this by Kipling?’ Then she’d recite his poetry. In those days Kipling was a modern like Dylan Thomas. I loved it. One time she recited “The Painted Desert”, which is about the joy of working. No one shall work for money, but for the joy of working. This struck home.

Eventually I left there. One of the girls wanted me to go to Maine for our vacation. I made arrangements but in the meantime one of the mail order boys left and Mr. Wilson asked me not to go.

I said, ‘It’s the end of the summer and nobody takes vacations after Labor Day.’ He said, ‘Well if you want to go, you needn’t come back.’

This was a great blow, but I went to Maine. I thought I’d never have such an opportunity. The place I was to go cost only $5.00 a week and had animals–a newborn calf, dogs and cats–all the animals that I love, so I went.

I never went back to McDevitt-Wilson’s, but after my vacation I went to Brentano’s, my last job before starting the Gotham Book Mart.

One day I was going over to the Astor Hotel to see my sister who was working there in the office, and as I was crossing 45th Street, I saw this homemade sign in a window. It said, ‘space for rent.’ This was in December 1919. In those days space was very rare, because during the War there had been no building. The milliners and dress shops were merging with jewelry shops. I went over to the door and could see sewing machines and girls at work. I went in to see it and was thrilled at the thought of having a room for nothing but books. My spine began to burn, and I thought, ‘This is it! THIS IS IT!’

The rent was $75.00 a month, and I asked for an option until the next day. I had liberty bonds that I could cash and had collected some out-of print books on the theatre. A friend told me that it was good for a book shop to be on the downtown side of the street. He said also not to worry about what books to stock, but to let my customers educate me. He thought I just might make a go of it, which was the most encouraging thing anyone had said. And finally he advised that if I did take the shop to make sure my first customer was a young person.

I paid my first month’s rent and then looked around for a carpenter to build shelves. I had one bookcase, a desk, a table and chair. New Year’s Day my friends found a horse and wagon and loaded it with my books and helped me to get settled as well as they could. I didn’t have enough books to fill even one side of the wall. So I stretched out the books, spreading them all out as wide as I could. The first day I saw an old man tottering down the stairs holding on to the banister. I didn’t know whether to be thankful or not, as we didn’t have the book he wanted. The next day I saw a handsome young man looking in the window. I had one book on costumes. I opened it as wide as I could on the floor of this little window. I said to myself, ‘if only he would come in and find a book!’

I no sooner had the thought when down the steps came this young man who said, ‘Can I see that book — that costume book?’ Boy, I went to the window and laid it out on the table. It was the most expensive book I had — $15.00

He took out $10.00 and said, ‘Here’s the deposit. After the matinee I will pick it up.’ He gave me a little card, which said Mr. Glenn Hunter.

I thought, ‘Oh, my first sale and an actor!’ ‘And handsome and young!’ As he went out, I saw him duck into the stage entrance near by the theatre where Billie Burke and Glenn Hunter were in Booth Tarkington’s play, Seventeen. Again I said, ‘Oh my first sale!’ I couldn’t afford to frame the $10.00 bill. If it had been $1.00, I would have kept it.

That started me off. I asked Glenn afterwards when we became very dear friends, why he came back after every matinee and very often in the evening on the way to a performance?

He said, ‘I came back because I felt there was a need.’

A NEED — that stayed in my mind. Of course by the time that I asked him, I was in the next shop, where we had more books than we had room for. Every time he came it was wonderful. He told all his friends, like Helen Hayes and Billie Burke.

Across the street from the shop a play, The Gold Diggers, with Ina Claire was the hit of Broadway. All of the cast would come over and that’s how I came to stay open until midnight. I just felt that I couldn’t disappoint anybody. So I was there. Then Ina Claire decided that she needed a vacation, and David Belasco said that if she insisted on having a vacation the play would have to close. And it did, which was a great loss to me.

I had a hard time getting through the summer after The Gold Diggers left. By that time I had opened an account with Baker and Taylor’s who carried books of all publishers. I shocked their proper old salesman once when I ordered 500 copies of J.M. Barries’ one act plays. I would always get uncontrollably excited about some books! It was pure honest enthusiasm that made me order 500 copies, but Mr. Scribner, the publisher, was so impressed that he wrote a whole page in appreciation of my interest in their one act plays. And after that Scribner’s let me take books on consignment. Things like that were always happening to me. In those days we didn’t have books on consignment. If a book didn’t sell we were stuck with it. But he said that I could have these on consignment and not pay for them until they sold. If I needed an extension of time, he’d arrange it. I never knew there could be such kindness.

So I got beautiful art books on my shelves. I thought I would have to be in business for years before I could stock books like that. But this is how we build Karma. This enabled the book shop to go on.

At another point I had so many expenses that I thought it was goodbye, little shop, goodbye. I saw a man looking in the window one day. He didn’t look as if he could buy any books. He wore baggy pants and a soft shirt. His hair was tousled. He didn’t look at all important. But he came down and began to look at the books on the tables. Then he stacked them on the chair.

I thought, ‘What’s he doing that for?’ He kept picking up these books and after awhile he didn’t even look in the books, he just looked at the covers and put them on the chair.

When the books were piled up to the top of the back of the chair, he said, ‘Can you get those around to me at the Hippodrome?’

I said, ‘Yes, of course.’ I never said no to anything. I asked a boy to take the books for me. I counted up the books — almost all my stock — and the bill came to $299.00. Then I realized what a fool I’d been because the boy might never collect the money and I didn’t even know the buyer’s name. Well, I was terribly worried, thinking about all the money I owed for the books, and how the Gotham Book Mart was ruined forever.

And then the boy came back smiling and holding a great big roll of singles! I began to dance around the table! I said ‘I can pay my rent, and I can pay my gas, and I can pay all my bills and have money left over.’ That was a pretty close call, but I came through. This man R. H. Burnside was the greatest of the Hollywood directors now at the Hippodrome. I asked him afterwards when we became friends, how he happened to come in and he gave the same answer that Glenn did, that he felt there was a need and he could use the books.

There were a lot of close calls the Gotham had before it finally got on its feet. But something always happened to rescue it, often at the last minute when I thought there was no hope. Yet, I always seemed to know it. It happened so many times that I thought it’s not me that’s running the shop but it’s in keeping with the Plan… (She is given a long vigorous applause).

Valerie: You certainly survived doing what you wanted to do.

Frances: Very often I’m asked if such a venture could succeed today. I say, ‘yes if you have the ingredients.’

Kitty: What are the ingredients?

Frances: The ingredients are a capacity for self-denial, and hard work. Not work that you consider drudgery, for there is no such thing as drudgery unless you make it that. You must love your work and look upon it as an opportunity. When you are doing a job out in the world you are at the same time doing a job inside yourself. And you must have the capacity and the integrity to do it. It never was difficult for me to go down to work before 9:00. I shoveled the snow and swept the sidewalk and I did whatever there was to be done. Nothing was menial. I did it lovingly.

I had a boy, a shipping clerk, and told him that he was to sweep. He said that he didn’t go four years to high school to come here and

sweep. I thought, ‘Well, you are not the right one for me then.’ That’s when I became firm–I was supposed to be a very hard hearted person whom people feared–but if a person can’t do the things that need to be done, then he doesn’t belong there.

(Turning to Anaïs)

Now that’s where I take issue with my darling here. You take on everybody’s problems. You let them lean on you until you can hardly stand up on your own feet. I’m sorry, but I have to disagree with that. I think you are not doing them a favor when you take on their responsibilities. I think it is law that we help people bear their responsibility but not take it away from them. It reminds me of what Krishna says about it being better to do your own work imperfectly than to do another person’s work well.

I had all the work I could do to survive. This was my responsibility. I would put everybody’s books in the window. I would catalogue them and tell people about them. I loved books even without reading them, I felt instinctively when books offered something. Of course I had members of my family that I had to help. But I would help them as much as I could without jeopardizing that for which I was responsible. I think it’s better to let people carry their own responsibility. It makes them stronger. It gives them the experience that they need. After a certain point you are interfering with their Karma, by taking them on so completely. My heart ached when you were helping all these people to the point where you were actually ill.

Anaïs: But that was only a stage. A phase.

Frances: But you could deplete yourself so that you couldn’t go on with your own work.

Anaïs: But I was convinced that writers needed help.

Frances: Oh, how I used to quarrel with Henry Miller about that! He thought that they should be financially supported and I thought that they should not. They should be given a chance, could borrow money while they needed it, without interest, on a time limit, but they must understand that they have to pay it back. He disagreed and threatened never to come into the shop again. But I didn’t realize all that you had gone through until I read the fourth Volume of your Diary. I wish I had kept up writing my Journal.

Anaïs: It is a pity that Rogers in his book about the Gotham, Wise Men Fish Here, couldn’t write a better book about you.

Frances: I was very unhappy about that book. When he asked to do it, I thought he was a good choice, because he had written a book about Gertrude Stein, one of the “moderns”. I thought he was “with” us. He used my manuscript, but he didn’t have the feeling for it. He didn’t seem to be interested in the things I thought were important. Eventually I lost all interest in it but allowed it to be published. To my great surprise it got very good reviews. Marianne Moore told me she read it again and again because she found encouragement in it for herself.

Anaïs: All the facts were there. It was the story of overcoming great
obstacles, but it wasn’t inspiring. He told it too plain and simple. You
tell the story much better in your own words.

In the end Frances does not want to accept her lecturer’s fee but to give it to Anaïs, to us, or the staff at Wainwright House, least of all to herself: She felt rewarded enough by everyone’s response to her, yet it was she who had given herself as a gift first. In the same way she sold the books of writers and artists and through the love and art of serving them she was rewarded by distinction and honor of her own.

Joan: The tears well up inside of me and spill down my cheeks in an unending flow. Her story is one of absolute faith in spite of overwhelming obstacles. Frances is a person who has given birth to her dream. Such a person is rare and precious … Here at this weekend the magic was that I was surrounded by people who were not afraid to dream and make the dreams tangible realities.

Nadine: Feeling the determination of Frances, the synchronicity. If you’re doing what is right for you to do, it will happen, out of the respect for oneself that comes from working at something you love.

Adele: Frances at eight-four still in flow and growing, asking “What next?” She comes up to me and says, “When you asked me to come here I didn’t think I belonged. Now I see why you asked me, how I fit in, how I lived my life the way it was intended.” A true innocent. I could not believe she was who she is and not really feel the importance of her role in the lives of creators. Suppose she had missed that awareness! I realized how little people say to each other when they have achieved something. The world assumes Frances Steloff does not need to be told but that is not true.