At the Sign of the Sparrow: The Legacy of Alfred Goldsmith

As I noted at the end of my last post, Joseph J. Felcone, the author of The Old Book Table. A Record of its First Seventy-Five Years, 1931–2005 (New York: The Old Book Table, 2006), helped me learn more about my cousin Alfred Goldsmith and his famous bookstore, At the Sign of the Sparrow. He also gave me permission to use some of the images from his book.  I am deeply grateful to Mr. Felcone for his generosity and all his help. With his permission, I can share this wonderful self-portrait that my cousin Alfred drew as his response to an invitation to dinner with the Old Book Table, the antiquarian book club to which he belonged:

Courtesy of Joseph J. Felcone, The Old Book Table. A Record of its First Seventy-Five Years, 1931–2005 (New York: The Old Book Table, 2006), p. 5.

From Mr. Felcone, I also learned about three other sources with information about Alfred Goldsmith, including accounts from two men who knew him personally, Walter Goldwater, a fellow bookseller,  and Edward Naumberg, Jr., a patron of the arts and book collector. The third source is a book published in 2003 by Marvin Mondlin and Roy Meader entitled Book Row: An Anecdotal and Pictorial History of the Antiquarian Book Trade (Carroll & Graf Publishers, New York, 2003).1

Although I still don’t have a photograph that I can post of Alfred’s store, the descriptions I found create a vivid picture. The New York Times provided this description in its obituary of Alfred:2

With its entrance a few steps below street level, the shop reflected the intimacy of its owner; it was small, laden with all kinds of books and enmeshed with cobwebs. A mecca for theatrical personalities, the shop specialized in books on the stage, pictures of famous actors and old programs.

Mondlin and Meader describe the store in similar terms in Book Row:3

The entrance to the small, quaint (as some said) shop at 42 Lexington Avenue required walking down steps from street level.….Inside, the shop presented a diverse congregation of books, rather jumbled, and a hint of age, cobwebs, benign neglect, and intimate charm. The faux Gothic ambiance fit the proprietor, who typically stood waiting, book in hand, smiling in welcome.

Edward Naumburg, Jr., who knew Alfred well, provided these details:4

Outside was a wobbly bookstand offering 10-cent and 25-cent bargains. The shop was dimly lighted, warmed by a gas stove, lined of course with bookshelves, and divided by a flimsy partition beyond which was the inner sanctum where rarities were kept.  The average customer was not invited to enter.

The store was allegedly the setting of two mystery books: Christopher Morley’s The Haunted Bookshop5 and Carolyn Wells’ Murder in the Bookshop. Carolyn Wells, as previously noted, was Alfred’s collaborator on works about Walt Whitman, and according to Naumburg, Alfred told him that Wells did in fact visualize his store as the setting for her novel.6 Perhaps then the illustration from the cover of her book conveys some sense of the appearance of the exterior of Alfred’s store.

Naumberg’s essay includes two photographs of Alfred inside the store, but I’ve been unable to find someone who can give me permission to use them; however, if you go to the link for his article here, you can see them.

I also found this old photograph of Lexington Avenue looking north from 24th Street, so although Alfred’s store is not in this photograph, it does depict the neighborhood where he worked and lived.

Irma and Paul Milstein Division of United States History, Local History and Genealogy, The New York Public Library. “Manhattan: Lexington Avenue – 24th Street (East)” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1931. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47dd-4410-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

But what happened inside the store is more important than its appearance. Naumburg said it “was often the scene of quite wonderful arguments and discussions.” 7 Mondlin and Meader noted that “Customers, scouts, collectors, bibliographers, writers, and librarians … made the Sparrow a friendly hangout at the outer border of Book Row.”8   In addition, they observed that “[h]is shop became a theatrical oasis specializing in stage books and ephemera. Broadway enthusiasts and personalities browsed at the Sign of the Sparrow for books, theater programs, and pictures of actors.”9 Serious historians, book collectors, and theater fans all shopped together in the little store.

What I most enjoyed learning from these sources were the insights into Alfred’s personality. Walter Goldwater described him this way:10

Goldsmith never sat down; he always stood behind his little counter and made cute remarks to people who came in, usually the kind of things where you’d have to say, “When you say that, smile.” He always did smile, so nobody took it quite to heart….He said it in such a sweet way that nobody could really believe that he really meant those terrible things that he said.

Naumburg shared this humorous story, which exemplifies Goldwater’s comment:11

One of my favorite stories concerns the time a rather shabby man entered the shop and said, “Mr. Goldsmith, you are the Whitman expert.  I have here Whitman’s eyeglasses and his cane which I’m sure you’d like to buy.” Alfred didn’t reply.  He took a scissors from his desk drawer, reached down and clipped a few hairs from his pet dog, Chris, who was lying at his feet, handed them to the man, and said, “And here are clippings from Walt’s beard. They’ll go well with the eyeglasses.”

Walt Whitman, 1872.
By Photographer: G. Frank E. Pearsall (1860-1899) (NYPL Digital Gallery) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Mondlin and Meader wrote that “his knowledge, amiability, probity, humor, and punctilio made him such a congenial square shooter that he elevated the hospitality tone of Book Row all by himself.” 12

The one characteristic that all the sources commented on was Alfred’s lack of entrepreneurial drive. Mondin and Meader said that he was “more interested in having a leisurely talk about books than a chance for monetary gain.”13 Goldwater commented:14

Most of us knew that, at some price or another, Goldsmith would buy a book. How in the world he could do it, since it didn’t seem to us he ever sold anything and he certainly was very cheap in price, we never could understand. But he always would buy a book at some price or other. If we were broke during those early thirties, we would go to Goldsmith and be able to get fifty cents or a dollar, because he would buy.

Goldwater said that Alfred was known for coining the statement that “the book business is a very pleasant way of making a very little money.”15 Mondlin and Meader quote book collector John T. Winterich, who wrote this about Alfred:16

How Alfred Goldsmith contrived to convert the mutually effacing principles of buying high and selling low into anything resembling the profit motive is beyond my economic comprehension.  But I am sure he had a good time in the process….And although he lived by selling books, he was about the poorest—or possibly the best—bookseller of my acquaintance. He never talked up a book.  He never priced up a book.

His financial burdens were amusingly depicted in this cartoon he drew:

Courtesy of Joseph J. Felcone, from The Old Book Table. A Record of its First Seventy-Five Years, 1931–2005 (New York: The Old Book Table, 2006), p. 5.

In addition to his book collecting and selling activities, Alfred was active in the Old Book Table from its earliest days in the 1930s. His financial challenges were described in his tongue-in-cheek comments and in a cartoon he drew in March 1933, humorously depicting his intended means of raising three dollars, the charge for attending the monthly club dinner:16

Today I made a neat little barrow holding a small oil stove and a tin tray and tomorrow I start out at 7 A.M. selling hot hamburger sandwiches at 5 cents each. If I do not make three dollars at this, I will pawn a first edition of Leaves of Grass to make up the difference….

Joseph J. Felcone, The Old Book Table. A Record of its First Seventy-Five Years, 1931–2005 (New York: The Old Book Table, 2006), p. 7

According to Naumburg, in addition to his drawings, Alfred was also known for the short poems he often read at the Old Book Table meetings.17

Here is the one photograph I have of Alfred that I can share on this page, thanks to the generosity of Joseph Felcone. Alfred is standing, fourth from our right.

Alfred F. Goldsmith (fourth from right) and other members of the Old Book Table. Courtesy of Joseph J. Felcone, from The Old Book Table. A Record of its First Seventy-Five Years, 1931–2005 (New York: The Old Book Table, 2006), p. 15.

Alfred’s wife Ray joined him in his work in the Sparrow; the 1940 US census lists her occupation as “saleswoman, bookstore.” (Alfred himself was identified as “storekeeper, bookstore.”)18 Goldwater and Naumburg had conflicting views on her role in the store and her personality. Goldwater’s assessment was rather harsh: “His wife was an Englishwoman who was Cerberus sitting at the door, hating everybody who came in and trying to keep them for fear they might bother her husband.”19

Naumburg was much kinder in his view of Ray:20

Alfred’s wife, Ray, was almost always present.  She was British with a charming London accent and a shrewd, intuitive sense for sizing up browsers. On first acquaintance she seemed a bit aloof; later one found her warm and understanding. Ray was a splendid cook, and her own collection of cookbooks was an appropriate hobby for the wife of an antiquarian bookseller.

Alfred Francis Goldsmith died on July 28, 1947.21 Goldwater recalled seeing him “grimacing in pain” from what Alfred believed was sciatica, but what was in fact cancer. 22 According to Alfred’s obituary in The New York Times, the day after he died was “the first time since it was opened [that] At the Sign of the Sparrow was closed to its frequenters.”23

Mondlin and Meader wrote that after Alfred’s death, his widow Ray asked a friend, Frederick Lightfoot, if he wanted to take over the store, but Lightfoot declined because he did not think it would be financially viable. Ray kept the store open for a few months, “But without Alfred Goldsmith, the spirit of the store was gone.” The store closed, and the inventory was sold to Swann Auction Galleries.24 According to Walter Goldwater, that inventory proved to be less valuable than expected, as Alfred did not in fact own as many valuable books as had been assumed.25

Alfred was only 66 when he died and was survived by his wife Ray and four of his siblings: his younger siblings Bertha, Alice, and Louis, and his oldest (half) brother, Milton Goldsmith. He certainly lived an interesting life and made his mark on the book world. He is another Goldsmith I wish I could invite to dinner.  Not only would I enjoy his humor and his intelligence, I would love to hear the stories he had about his family and his life.

Thank you again to Joe Felcone for his invaluable assistance and generosity.

 

 


  1. “Book Row” refers to section of New York City on and near Fourth Avenue south of Fourteenth Street which was once the location of numerous stores selling secondhand and rare books. Although Alfred’s store, which was located about ten blocks north of Fourteenth Street, was outside the section known as Book Row, his role as a bookseller was so well-known and so well-regarded that he and his store are included in Mondlin and Meader’s book.  Mondlin and Meader’s book will be referred to hereinafter as Mondlin and Meader. 
  2. “A.F. Goldsmith, 66, Book Dealer, Dies,” The New York Times, July 30, 1947, p. 17. 
  3. Mondlin and Meader, p. 52. 
  4.  Edward J. Naumburg, Jr., “My Favorite Bookseller,” Princeton University Library Chronicle, Volume 48, No. 2, Winter 1987, p. 183. Hereinafter referred to as Naumburg. 
  5. Ralph Dumain, The Autodidact Project: “New York City Bookshops in the 1930s and 1940s: The Recollections of Walter Goldwater,” (audiotape interview with Walter Goldwater by unnamed interviewer), p. 144,  found at http://www.autodidactproject.org/other/goldwat1.html  Hereinafter referred to as Goldwater, p. 144. 
  6. Naumburg, p, 181. 
  7. Naumburg, p, 186. 
  8. Mondlin and Meader, p. 51. 
  9. Mondlin and Meader, p. 54. 
  10. Goldwater, p. 144. 
  11. Naumburg, p. 185. 
  12. Mondlin and Meader, p. 50 
  13. Mondlin and Meader, p. 51 
  14. Goldwater, p. 144. 
  15. Goldwater, p. 144. 
  16. Joseph J. Felcone, The Old Book Table. A Record of its First Seventy-Five Years, 1931–2005 (New York: The Old Book Table, 2006), p. 7. 
  17. Naumburg, p.187. 
  18. Alfred and Ray Goldsmith, 1940 US Census, Census Place: New York, New York, New York; Roll: m-t0627-02649; Page: 5A; Enumeration District: 31-1066. Ancestry.com. 1940 United States Federal Census 
  19. Goldwater, p. 144. 
  20. Naumburg, p. 183. 
  21.  New York, New York City Municipal Deaths, 1795-1949,” database, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:2WPP-8JB : 10 February 2018), Alfred Goldsmith, 28 Jul 1947; citing Death, Manhattan, New York, New York, United States, New York Municipal Archives, New York; FHL microfilm 2,133,778. 
  22. Goldwater, p. 144 
  23.  “A.F. Goldsmith, 66, Book Dealer, Dies,” The New York Times, July 30, 1947, p. 17. 
  24. Mondlin and Meader, p.55-56. 
  25. Goldwater, p. 144. 

23 thoughts on “At the Sign of the Sparrow: The Legacy of Alfred Goldsmith

  1. Very interesting read on the conclusion of Alfred’s story. Alfred made a very endearing impression on me and I feel I would have been a frequent visitor to his quaint bookstore. Hopefully, you can find eventually a photo of Alfred’s beloved bookstore, Amy.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Cathy—I am glad that the post created that feeling. I felt that way reading what the others had written—as if I could imagine Alfred standing there, conversing with those who came to browse and chat.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. So so very cool post! Did you say where the shop got its name? I can’t imagine taken a pic of this hidden gem. Sounds Harry Potterish! Where are his glasses in the pic? I love his drawings!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I wonder what he would have thought of the Harry Potter books! I believe there was actually a picture or carving of a sparrow outside the shop. It’s official name was something like The Oxford, but it became known as the store “at the sign of the sparrow.” At least that is what one source I read said.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Oh what a wonderful post Amy ~ I absolutely loved it. Have you tried getting a 1940 tax photo for the address. Since he died in 1947 the store was in operation in 1940. I hope I have successfully attached the link to getting to the site. I have ordered 2/3 times and the photo’s are wonderful come in a 8×10 but don’t remember the price. Maybe as high as $35 http://www1.nyc.gov/nyc-resources/service/2297/buy-a-1940-or-mid-1980s-tax-photograph

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Sharon—what a great idea! It’s $40 because I don’t have the lot and block number. Do you know how to determine that? I’d save $5. Thank you for the suggestion! I hope it captures the store.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I don’t know how to find that out but my first thought went to Stephen P Morse and his site. Maybe he might have something to help. How about posting on a NYC genealogy page? Contacting the Antiquarian Booksellers of America? Have you tried searching the NY Public Library Digital Collection?

        Liked by 1 person

      • I did try the NYPL site and other sites with archives of old NYC photos. That’s how I got the one of Lexington Avenue on the blog. Now I have to decide whether it’s worth spending $45 (with tax and handling, etc) for the photo without a preview of it. Have you done this? Is it worth the price? Thanks!

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: Bertha, Alice and Louis: Eluding the Census | Brotmanblog: A Family Journey

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.