A new kind of bookshop in 1930s New York City

Drew elizabeth pic 001Discovered in a copy of The Publisher’s Weekly for March 22nd 1930 is this feature by John D. Stannard on a New York bookshop that aimed, with its decorations and objets d’art, to emulate the comfort and charm of a private library.

Elizabeth Drew, a graduate of Vassar College and her ‘ associate’ , the artist Jessie Leach Rector, opened their (unnamed) shop on 43 East 60th Street in September, 1929, just a few weeks before the Wall Street Crash. Designed to be an antidote to the ‘ graceless ‘stores that most booklovers had become used to, the couple had created a ‘ bookish background’ in which old furniture and rare objects of art competed with books for the attention of customers.

Everything in the shop was for sale, including the ‘ lamps, lampshades, old prints and watercolours, framed and unframed mirrors, screens and tables’ provided by Rector, who specialised in interior decoration, and the ‘primitive Indian pottery and Spanish colonial silver which Drew imported from Peru. Drew emphasised that although her store was sophisticated, had an exclusive list of patrons, and sold old and rare books, including modern first editions and fine bindings, her ideal customer was the ‘middle-class ‘type who travelled into town on the subway.

A key innovation devised by Drew was the monthly review of new books in the fields of fiction, biography, essays, Book-of-the Month, Literary Guild, Crime Club and best sellers, which was sent out to a hand picked 6,000 names, half of whom came from friends of the two booksellers, and which bore the testimonial ‘ Recommended by Elizabeth Drew’. In fact, the reviews came not only from Drew herself, but by these friends, who signed their work.

Thanks both to the unusual appeal of the shop and the couple’s innovative advertising methods, the shop had shown a profit every month since its opening, despite the Depression, and the present stock was approximately three times larger than at the beginning.

On the matter of new books Drew deprecated the dishonest methods of publishers, especially regarding blurbs and flashy wrappers. To her a worthless book with a “glowing, wonderful, unusual! You must read this !” jacket was not only an insult to a reader’s intelligence, but was sure to hurt sales of books from the same publisher.

John D Stannard was sufficiently impressed by his visit to the bookshop that he was drawn to echo the sentiments of its owners:

‘ Just as a play needs a stage setting to bring out its best qualities, so do books need a background that induces restful and enjoyable reading.’

For all their significant innovations in presentation and marketing, it is astonishing that Elizabeth Drew and Jessie Rector seem to have been totally forgotten. A trawl of the Internet has revealed nothing. Perhaps readers in the Jotosphere know more.
[R.M.H]

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3 thoughts on “A new kind of bookshop in 1930s New York City

  1. karl of karl

    These guys sound like the Heywood Hill ( https://www.heywoodhill.com ) of their day. HH now use a similar book sales scheme with their loyal following. It’s surprising that D & R have been so forgotten but once a bookshop is gone this often seems to happen.

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  2. Elizabeth

    Mrs. Rector decorated the library of my great-aunt’s house in Old Greenwich, Connecticut in the late 1930’s, done up in a slightly bohemian “English Country House” style that she was known for, quite like Robert Kime’s style today. She was best known for her lamps and tables, some of which were antique, that she then repainted with her art or embellished with silver or gold gilt work. I vaguely remember my mother bringing me to a shop Mrs. Rector had after this one, when I was a little girl. The name of the shop was Mrs. Rector’s full name and it was full of her lamps and furniture, heavy on glass. I remember it because it was so dreamlike with reflections in silver and glass. That shop was in the East 40’s, from what I remember. I think she died in the 1950’s.
    I don’t think the American “middle class” these pioneering ladies sold to still exists, if it ever did, really. Their customers may not have been the very rich, but they were the sort of people who had a house in the country and an apartment in Manhattan, both with decorated libraries or studies in need the of the books and furniture found in such shops.
    I live on the Upper East Side near the location of the shop mentioned in your article and can report that, perhaps unsurprisingly, the original building is long gone and a luxury 52-story “super luxury” residential tower called the Zeckendorf Tower has risen in its place, designed by Robert A.M. Stern.
    Call me a cynic, but I doubt there will be a single book in any of those finished luxury flats, let alone a library.

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