The Door to Mr. Shay’s Bookshop

Last evening in Franklin. I have to get up early tomorrow to catch my plane, and I should be packing now. I’m procrastinating.

Killed half an hour listening to Darkly Lit Podcast’s Christmas Eve ghost story (only a month and four days too late, I know, I know…). It was, to me, a vaguely unsatisfying story, and also vaguely familiar. It turns out that I had the story, in a 1922 collection I found on Project Gutenberg called Masterpieces of Mystery, Volume 1 (Ghost Stories), edited by a Joseph Lewis French. Reading it instead of listening to it did not make it any more satisfying.

But I still didn’t want to pack. So I googled the author, and found nothing (as the Darkly Lit post had already warned that I wouldn’t). Then I googled Joseph Lewis French. Why not? I found this:

Photo: Greenwich Village Bookshop Door Website, Harry Ransom Center, UT Austin

This is the door to Frank Shay’s office, in his bookshop, which was located on 4 Christopher Street in Greenwich Village from 1920 until 1925.

Frank Shay, a friend of Christopher Morley, was in the center of the Greenwich Village literary and artistic scene of that period. Everyone came to his shop, and somehow, the custom began of signing his office door. Eventually, the door collected 242 signatures of Greenwich Village locals and “visiting dignitaries”.

Shay sold the shop in 1924, and the new owner shut it down the following year. She saved the door, though, and eventually sold it to the University of Texas, Austin, in 1960. At the time, only 25 of the signatures had been identified. Twenty-five more signatures were identified by a UT Austin doctoral student in 1972. Then nothing.

In 2010, the Harry Ransom Center at UT Austin began compiling a web exhibit to recreate the life and times of The Greenwich Village Bookshop, its denizens, and their work. In the course of their research, they identified 191 more signatures.

Joseph Lewis French signed the door, which is how I found it. Scanning quickly through the list of signatures, I spotted Theodore Dreiser, John Dos Passos, Upton Sinclair, Sinclair Lewis, and Susan Glaspell (whom I know mainly for her short story, “A Jury of Her Peers”). Many other names that I recognize, several that I don’t.

The exhibit has a page on each of the identified signers, along with an artifact: pages from the draft of Main Street, a letter from Upton Sinclair to a woman who wanted to translate one of his plays to Spanish. It’s fascinating browsing. And a whole list of new things I want to find, and read….

It was, in large part, the web that enabled the exhibit curators to flesh out the story of the door’s signers. The irony of that isn’t lost on them:

The rich resources of the web are, of course, a bittersweet development for those of us who have long loved browsing, talking, and learning from each other in bookstores. While resources on the internet have fostered this project, they have also led directly to the closure of thousands of bookstores over the last decade. We hope that telling the story of this shop and its community will encourage audiences to be mindful of the history of bookstores, bookselling, book buying, and the power of place, as we experience this moment of enormous change.

Definitely worth checking out.

6 thoughts on “The Door to Mr. Shay’s Bookshop

    • It is, indeed. I may have to take up a friend’s longtime invitation to visit him in Austin just so I can browse some of that stuff in person.

    • I agree. It brings home the fact that all those names, which in my mind were abstract labels, attached to works of literature, are in reality attached to real people who hung around in shops and offices, shooting the breeze.

      It must have been quite a time and place, all those creative minds together. Did they know it, or was it just ordinary life to them? Is it happening someplace now, and do those people know it?

  1. I wanted to draw your attention to Lucy Wood’s “Diving Belles” which sounds like it might be right up your alley. Here is a review: http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/reviews/diving-belles-by-lucy-wood-6292735.html

    It looks like it won’t be out in the US until August, though.

    Another review, in the Guardian, says “Wood’s finely wrought collection has touches of a benign Angela Carter and recalls the playful yet political transmogrifications of Atwood and Byatt.” Which reminds me — can I request a Multo (Ghost) review sometime of Angela Carter?

    • Oooh. That does sound interesting. I’ll have to check it out. Thanks!

      And coincidentally, The Books Without Any Pictures blog just mentioned A.S. Byatt’s new novel Raganarok, which also sounds interesting. And so does the series that it belongs to, the Canongate Myth Series. My list grows longer and longer….

      An Angela Carter review sounds like a great idea. I pulled down her Collected Short Stories when I wrote the “Losing Melanin” post, because I remembered a great anecdote from one of her stories, about henna. Hopefully I didn’t put it back on the shelf, because we are in the middle of temporarily moving to another apartment (home renovations), and the bulk of the bookshelves are boxed, to be put in storage.

      It kills me, but when you’ve filled 40+ fourteen gallon bins with books, you realize you can’t take them all with you to a 700 sq ft. sublet….

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