Sisters Judith Lowry, Adina Cohen and Naomi Hample (left to right) are the third generation to run the family-owned Argosy Book Store. Photo: Meredith Kurz
The Argosy Book Store is where the elite and the un-elite meet, where books costing less than a small cup of coffee are displayed outside in the 'gallery,' which is the store entrance, and rare, leather-bound volumes from past centuries rest inside in barristers' bookcases. When the New York Public Library is searching for the right book, they call the Argosy; so does the Library of Congress. If you're looking for a biblio-bargain, this is also your port of call.A Family Business and a Neighborhood Treasure
The oldest independent bookstore in New York City, the Argosy was founded in 1925 and is in its third generation of family ownership. The current caretakers of the store are three sisters, Judith Lowry, Naomi Hample and Adina Cohen.
While all three sisters can switch hit for one another, Adina is the all-around expert in everything, Naomi's specialty is the sixth floor autographs and papers, and Judith's sphere is literary first editions.
Most small business families raise their children at their stores. The sisters were not encouraged to work in Argosy, yet every day at the dinner table they heard stories about their parents' adventures on their book quests, filled with movie stars, politicians, and spacious estates.
When Adina was looking for a between semester job at college, she asked her dad if she could work in the store. “Can you type?” he asked her. She shook her head no. Several years went by, and still she couldn't type, but he begrudgingly offered a job, at a pretty low salary, so she chose a higher paying city job. When she finally graduated, she got her wish and got to work in the store. All three girls couldn't wait to enter their parents' world.Presidents and Hurricanes
“President Clinton came by a few months ago,” Naomi told me. “He loves the sixth floor and will go on and on about history and the politics behind some of the letters written. Dick Cavett is also a frequent visitor and has been shopping here for decades.”
The store has survived, and thrived, through the Great Depression; a World War; a 2012 Hurricane Sandy flood (they placed damp, damaged documents in the freezer, which helps preserve them); many presidents (some of whom frequently visited the store, though President Franklin D. Roosevelt had a representative call on his behest, back when the word 'behest' was used more oft); the internet (which they are fully on board with, and where all their wares are available on their website); and major construction projects all around them on East 59th Street. And they are still bustling. Flourishing, even.
If you are a reader, it brings a lump to the throat and a little heat to the eyes.Inside the Store
I didn't see one inch of wall space on the first floor, however it may be hiding behind the wall-to-wall books. Above the shelves, oil paintings and framed prints hang, lifting your eye. The Argosy is in the circa 1900s British Library style, with broad tables and desks to plop down your finds, pluck out your glasses (if you can't find them, I bet there's an extra pair of cheaters on the premises) and take a long look at your treasures.
The manager of the map and print collection on the second floor, Laura Ten-Eyck (and if you don't love that old elevator, there must be something wrong with you) independently runs the room, where the organization rules and choices are delightfully numbing. War propaganda posters brazenly rub against old New York City maps that in turn tickle dog engravings. There's an enormous table between belly and bra height to slip out your maps and roll out your options.
“The map collection started in the 1960s, when we received hundreds of boxes from the American Museum of Natural History,” Ten-Eyck said. Naomi told me they buy large collections, the whole kit and caboodle, from estates in New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, and Washington DC.Books, Books and More Books
There's a guesstimate store inventory Judith told me, of between 200- and 300,000 volumes, not including the maps. I purchased a book of sea stories, because I always purchase sea stories, and a marbleized end leaf as thick as one of your wealthier relative's wedding invitations.
The gilding here are the books that transcend all this bargain hunting. Hand-tooled leather, the artwork of leaf pages, fonts, pale ink and the words. These books were made when few people read and fewer wrote, when words mattered, when books were dear, precious things. That's why they were bound with such care, to last and be handed down through generations. This is the worship of words, of knowledge, of the craft of the phrase. This is the Argosy Bookstore.