"That's our trouble," said my friend Roger, "everything used to be something else." I had just told him about meeting my brothers and their families for the third Chanukah candle, 13 relatives in all, at a glatt kosher restaurant called Taam Tov in the Diamond District, on the very site of the legendary Gotham Book Mart. On November 17, 1986, my book, Kerouac's Spontaneous Poetics, one of the first full-scale studies on the iconic beat poet and novelist, was celebrated here. A sign, "Wise Men Fish Here," marked the spot, a literary emporium on a bejeweled street. The James Joyce Society met here. Among many other book parties, a reissue of Junkie was feted here too, in 1977. Carl Solomon and Patti Smith attended, honoring William S. Burroughs' work. Poet Allen Ginsberg, who had clerked here back in the day, snapped my picture.
The parties raged one flight up. Book covers in frames lined your ascent. These literary events were officiated by book dealer Andreas Brown, who acquired the place from Frances Steloff, who resided in the apartment above. Miss Steloff insisted on serving a dip concocted from Lipton's onion soup and sour cream, scooped up on Frito's corn chips. This was her favorite treat with the free flowing wine. She died in 1989, at age 101, but her salon tradition continued until 2003, when Brown was forced to move.
The sign is now gone; the door, a cheap glass job that blends in with the commerce of the street, leads to a humble dining space adorned with Middle East tableaux. My family sat at a table overlooking 47th street. Many cars were parked illegally, but the police were not ticketing. Mountains of food: falafel and pilaf and kasha and stuffed cabbage, chicken, lamb, beef kebabs, arrived on generous platters, a delicious heimish feast. Max (almost 2) sat on a table making finger puppets with his aunt Jane. Jonathan announced he was applying to medical school. Paulina made Dean's List. And newly weds Lindsay and Noah showed off iphone shots of their new arrival, a fleecy white puppy. We paid homage to our parents, Holocaust survivors, who would be proud to see their offspring proliferating and prospering. I engaged the children with stories of the Gotham's starry past, a literary history fast faded, and hard to imagine in our world today.
A version of this post also appears on Gossip Central.