Lynne Tillman


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Bookstore Summary

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American author Lynne Tillman’s Bookstore: The Life and Times of Jeannette Watson and Books & Co (1999), a work of oral history, recounts the 20-year lifespan of Books & Co, a New York City bookstore and literary hub, in the words of its owner Jeanette Watson and some of the many writers who passed through it. Tillman’s account mourns the loss of a beloved cultural institution.

The book’s central figure, whose voice dominates the text, is Jeanette Watson. The daughter of Thomas Watson—the man who turned IBM into a world-leading company—Jeanette grew up with as much money as she would ever need. From a young age, she was determined to spend her life in service, and her first jobs were in education and health care. After a divorce, she began to struggle with depression. Then she was diagnosed with congenital hip dysplasia. She needed surgery and faced a long, grueling recovery.

Soon after her diagnosis, Jeanette had a dream, in which she found herself in a cozy bookstore. Each of its two stories was crammed with books. When she woke, she knew she had found the talisman that would help her through her long recovery; throughout her “ordeal,” Jeanette’s dream of owning a bookstore sustained her. As the months went by, the dream acquired increased detail. She decided that she wanted her bookstore to look like an old-fashioned private home. She wanted to curate the books on sale and host readings and other events.

After she recovered, she went in search of a suitable building, eventually lighting on an old brownstone near the Whitney Museum of Art on Madison Avenue. As it turned out, the Whitney owned the building, and Watson approached the Museum to negotiate a lease on the building. Her father provided seed capital, and she signed veteran book trader Burt Britton to start putting together the stock. Over the course of a year, Britton and Jeanette put together “The Wall,” a display of the “best” of literary fiction, past and present. However, Britton’s appetite for new books was bottomless, and Jeanette was eventually forced to discontinue the partnership or go broke.

Jeanette’s dream had come true. Her two-story bookstore was crammed with a carefully curated selection of books focused on literature, philosophy, art, and children’s fiction. The second floor had a cozy sitting area, built around a much-loved green couch.

Soon, the bookstore was hosting readings by the great and the good of the New York literary world. Many of these figures—including Brendan Gill, Albert Murray, Susan Sontag, Fran Leibowitz, Paul Auster, and Simon Schama—remember the bookstore in their own words. Their reminiscences make clear that Jeanette was not merely a bookseller, but a literary figure in her own right. She championed aspiring young writers, made introductions, and promoted works she believed in.

As a bookseller, too, she played an important role, and Jeanette’s own most treasured memories center on the times she was able to connect a person with just the right book. Some of her customers were famous people—Woody Allen and Michael Jackson both make appearances—but most were ordinary New Yorkers. Jeanette sets out her conviction that introducing people to books is significant, even dramatic, because “books can and do change people’s lives.” She remembers with pride a woman who once told her that before the bookstore opened, she hadn’t been a reader, but with Jeanette’s help had ended up enjoying Balzac. Over the years, Jeanette built hundreds of individual relationships with New York readers.

These pleasures were always intermixed with struggle. Books & Co rarely broke even, and Watson invested a lot of her own money to keep the business afloat. The commercial side of the business could be stressful. Jeanette recalls meeting with publishers’ representatives and distributors, and difficult decisions about acquisitions. Some of Jeanette’s former employees chip in to offer a rounded view of the bookseller’s world.

By 1990, the writing was on the wall, and Tillman makes it clear that the story of Books & Co reflects wider trends in the publishing industry. Big chains like Barnes and Noble and Borders appeared, offering discounts that Jeanette couldn’t match. Sales began to decline. Amazon, though small in those early days, took another slice of Jeanette’s slender profit. Worse, cable television and video were supplanting reading. Jeanette’s customer base was getting not only smaller but older.

In the end, it was none of these things which finally made Jeanette’s business untenable. Rather, it was the rising cost of Manhattan property. Over the two decades of its existence, Books & Co. had co-existed happily with its landlord, the Whitney Museum. However, rents on Madison Avenue were rising, and the Whitney was forced to collect higher rents to meet its own financial needs. Jeanette explored the possibility of a merger with the gallery, but this plan came to nothing.

Jeanette announced the store’s closure in 1996. Patrons and writers rallied round to try to save it, but there was nothing they could do. Tillman allows the last voices in her account to emphasize that something of real value was lost when the bookstore closed, something which cannot be replaced.