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. 

Alfred Goldsmith, Book Lover

As seen in my last post, Alfred Goldsmith’s ill-fated 1905 marriage to Beatrice Miller ended in divorce in 1913, and I was unable to find anything about the eight years in between. But what happened to Alfred after 1913?

The first record I have for Alfred after his 1913 divorce was a record of his second marriage on July 24, 1918, to Ray Solomons in Troy, New York.1 Ray was the daughter of Myer Solomons and Caroline Weinberg. Myer was originally from Warsaw, Poland, and Caroline from Austria. They had both immigrated to England, where Ray was born in 1891. The family immigrated to the US in 1910 when Ray was nineteen. On the 1915 New York State census, her father listed his occupation as a dyer; later records show he was in the fur business. Ray was employed as a bookkeeper in 1915. She was living with her family in the Bronx. 2

Solomons family 1915 NYS census, New York State Archives; Albany, New York; State Population Census Schedules, 1915; Election District: 06; Assembly District: 34; City: New York; County: Bronx; Page: 34
Ancestry.com. New York, State Census, 1915

So why did Ray and Alfred marry in Troy, New York, a city about 150 miles north of New York City? At first I worried that this was another elopement, and perhaps it was. But happily for Ray and Alfred, this marriage lasted. Ray was 27 when they married, Alfred was forty. They stayed together until Alfred’s death. It does not appear that they ever had children.

Like his half-siblings Milton and Emily, Alfred loved books. He had a life-long interest in literature and in particular authors: Lewis Carroll, Edgar Allen Poe, and especially Walt Whitman. According to his obituary in The New York Times, Alfred “was only twelve when he became captivated by Whitman’s poetry and started to collect rare Whitman editions.” 3 That interest in Whitman stayed with him throughout adulthood.

When Alfred registered for the draft on September 12, 1918, six months after their wedding, he and Ray were living at 2593 Eighth Avenue in New York City, and his occupation was “bookseller” at 42 Lexington Avenue. That would remain his place of business for the rest of his life. Alfred’s bookstore, known as At the Sign of the Sparrow, became very well-known, as we will see.

Alfred Goldsmith, World War I draft registration,
Registration State: New York; Registration County: New York; Roll: 1786673; Draft Board: 140
Ancestry.com. U.S., World War I Draft Registration Cards, 1917-1918

In 1920, Alfred and Ray were living at 304 Second Avenue in New York City, and Alfred listed his occupation on the census as “Books” in his own business.4 The 1922 New York directory also has his occupation simply as “books,” and the 1925 New York State census lists his occupation as “bookseller.”5

In 1922, Alfred and Carolyn Wells, the author of over 170 books for adults and children, collaborated on The Concise Bibliography of the Works of Walt Whitman (Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 1922), which was “affectionately dedicated to Ray S. Goldsmith.” The book is, as the title indicates, a bibliography of all the books written by Walt Whitman and all the books written about Walt Whitman. It was for many years considered one of the authoritative works of scholarship about Whitman.6

Alfred Goldsmith and Carolyn Wells also collaborated on another project, editing a collection of Whitman’s essays entitled Rivulets of Prose (Greenberg, Publishers, Inc., 1928). That also was dedicated to Alfred’s wife Ray: “With Affection to Ray S. Goldsmith for Her Sympathetic Assistance.” It is evident from the foreword to this collection that Alfred and his co-editor had quite a scholarly approach to Whitman and his work.

In addition, Alfred organized a major exhibit at the New York Public Library about Walt Whitman in 1925. He collected from many private collectors Whitman’s manuscripts and books and other materials and prepared them for the exhibit. According to the November 8, 1925 Brooklyn Daily Eagle (p. 11), interest in “Whitmanania” was so intense that the price of these materials had risen sharply and were mostly in the hands of private collectors; the purpose of the exhibit was thus to give the public a chance to see these materials.

Alfred was very active in book auctions, buying and selling first and other editions of books on his own behalf and for collectors. The Harrisburg Telegraph reported this amusing story about Alfred’s experiences at one book auction:7

It will cost you money if you arrange signals with a bookseller at an auction and then forget those signals. The idea is Alfred F. Goldsmith’s, a bookseller, and it grew out of this incident.

At one of the numerous book auctions (New York has dozens of them each month) a wealthy collector authorized Goldsmith to purchase a certain volume for him. “I’ll pay as much as $125,” he instructed the seller, who was to do the bidding for him.

“But,” explained Goldsmith, “It would be a crime to let the purchase fall through if it could be effected for a few extra dollars.”

“Then,” said the client, “keep bidding until I stop you.  I’ll be there watching the sale.  When you see me remove my glasses, drop out; that will be the signal.”

Thus agreed, both arrived at the auction. But Goldsmith soon found himself several rows removed from his client and unable to keep in oral connection. It didn’t take the book long to climb. In a trice, it was up to $125, the agreed sum. Goldsmith dropped out, for just at that moment his client casually removed his glasses.

The bidding soared. Soon it had reached $325, and Goldsmith, glancing toward his client, saw that gentleman nod and refit his glasses. Just as he launched a bid, however, off came the glasses. Then the client hastily put them on again.  Reassured, Goldsmith then began to bid in earnest, finally winning for $375.

“Congratulations,” called Goldsmith to his client, “you got it.”

“Got what?” asked the client, not comprehending.

“Why, the book,” said Goldsmith.

“Didn’t I tell you,” gasped the fellow—“to stop at $125?” Goldsmith then reminded him of the signal by glasses.

“You know,” he said sheepishly, “I’d forgotten all about that.” Then he wrote out his check for $375 and went out to his limousine, smiling at himself.

A newspapers.com search turned up numerous articles about Alfred’s success at book auctions. For example, in March 1936, Alfred bid successfully for a rare book written by Lewis Carroll, one of his other favorite authors. The Central New Jersey Home News wrote:8

The magic name of Lewis Carroll, author of “Alice in Wonderland,” made book collectors bid frantically for a little known, privately printed book at a sale here. When the hammer banged, its price was announced at $310. The purchaser was Alfred F. Goldsmith, Carroll expert.

According to one inflation calculator, $310 in 1936 would be worth about $5,500 today.

The Reading (Pennsylvania) Times reported on Alfred’s acquisition and sale of a rare book of Edgar Allen Poe’s poetry, Tamerlane and Other Poems, in April 1938; it described the book as “the scarcest and most valuable book of poetry ever published in America.” Poe, as noted above, was another of Alfred’s favorite authors.

Reading PA Times, April 18, 1938, p. 19

These are just two of the many articles I found reporting on Alfred’s purchases of rare books at auctions.

But Alfred was probably best known for his bookstore, At the Sign of the Sparrow, which was a well-known landmark in New York City. In my search to find a photograph of the store, I landed on the website of The Old Book Table, “a social club composed of antiquarian booksellers and those engaged in professions related to antiquarian bookselling.” According to the website, it is the oldest such club in the world, founded in 1931 in New York City.

Alfred was one of the early members of the club, and the history page on the club’s website had both a photograph of Alfred and one of his drawings. The history page was excerpted from a book by Joseph J. Felcone: The Old Book Table. A Record of its First Seventy-Five Years, 1931–2005 (New York: The Old Book Table, 2006).  Through the magic of the Internet I was able to contact Mr. Felcone and, with his help, learn a great deal more about my cousin Alfred. That merits a whole separate post.

 

 

 


  1. Rensselaer County, New York, Marriage Index, 1908-1935,  Volume 2, Number 9954. 
  2. The National Archives; Kew, Surrey, England; Class: HO 334; Piece: 25; Ancestry.com. UK, Naturalisation Certificates and Declarations, 1870-1916. Passenger manifest, Year: 1910; Arrival: New York, New York; Microfilm Serial: T715, 1897-1957; Microfilm Roll: Roll 1583; Line: 4; Page Number: 60. Ancestry.com. New York, Passenger Lists, 1820-1957. 
  3.  “A.F. Goldsmith, 66, Book Dealer, Dies,” The New York Times, July 30, 1947, p. 17. 
  4. Alfred F. and Ray Goldsmith, 1920 US Census, Census Place: Manhattan Assembly District 12, New York, New York; Roll: T625_1206; Page: 8A; Enumeration District: 854. Ancestry.com. 1920 United States Federal Census 
  5. New York, New York City Directories 1922, 1925, Ancestry.com. U.S. City Directories, 1822-1995. 
  6. Edward J. Naumburg, Jr., “My Favorite Bookseller,” Princeton University Library Chronicle, Volume 48, No. 2, Winter 1987, p. 185. 
  7. George Tucker, ” ‘Round About New York,” Harrisburg Telegraph, April 9, 1935, p. 8. 
  8. “Poem by Carroll Boosts Price of Book to $310,” Central New Jersey Home News, March 27, 1936, p. 27.