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).
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:
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:
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:
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 Bookshop 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. 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.
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.” 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.” 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.” 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:
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:
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.”
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.” Goldwater commented:
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.” Mondlin and Meader quote book collector John T. Winterich, who wrote this about Alfred:
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:
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.
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.”) 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.”
Naumburg was much kinder in his view of Ray:
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. Goldwater recalled seeing him “grimacing in pain” from what Alfred believed was sciatica, but what was in fact cancer. 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.”
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. 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.
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.