Manhattan’s Famous “Book Row”

If you were to stroll down 4th Avenue between Union Square and Astor Place in Manhattan in the 1950s when the area was called “Book Row,” the sights and sounds would have differed greatly from those of today. While these 6 blocks are now lined with a variety of restaurants and stores, they were once dominated by secondhand bookstores. In fact, 48 bookstores once spanned that segment of 4th Avenue. The pioneer of the 4th Avenue book business was George D. Smith, who co-founded a bookstore at 830 Broadway around 1890. Soon after, carts and shops filled with books, catalogs, prints and sketches populated the area, making it a bustling haven for bibliophiles and even some famous writers. Jack Kerouac and Robert Frost were two of the many famous customers of a shop called “Books ’N Things.” These bookstores often specialized in products or genres and only sold secondhand, or rare items, unlike large retail bookstores today. Unfortunately, the passion shoppers had for their books couldn’t compete with rising rent prices of the 1950s, and many booksellers had to either close completely or relocate by the 1960s. In 1996, Steve Crowley opened the Alabaster Book Shop at 122 4th Avenue. He was the first person to open a bookstore on the former Book Row in 20 years. Book Row’s decline was only the start of a broader trend in America. The number of independent bookstores nationwide fell from 2,400 to 1,900 between 2002 and 2011.