December 06, 2014

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Except for sickness in one’s family or the loss of a life, is there anything sadder than to see a bookstore shut its doors? I used to live in a street that had three bookstores within 50 yards. All three are now boutiques selling expensive bric-a-brac, or whatever the junk that tarts wear is called. Browsing in a bookstore has to be every bibliophile’s wet dream, a perfect way to stand upright and, in a correct posture, lose weight while reading blurbs. Excelsior!

It is every frustrated or unsuccessful writer’s fantasy to own and operate a bookstore, but nowadays it’s like selling sun lamps to Australians, with no takers. And how could there be? No one under the age of 60 reads books, and those who do move their lips because they’re going gaga. Mind you, if a bookstore shut because an old style drugstore replaced it, with blonde girls serving BLTs behind the counter, it’d hurt much less. But a jewelry shop? Even a whorehouse would give more value for money, and believe me, I know.

“In O’Hara’s fiction there is a lingering sense that the best days of the city are in the past, as are those of the characters he writes about.”

Fifteen years ago, Gianni Agnelli, the chairman of Fiat cars, along with my boxer friend Count Roffredo Gaetani and I, went down past Wall Street to the port where Gianni’s brand-new Stealth was anchored, waiting for a trial. The Stealth was made of carbon and some other lightweight material that enabled it to sail in light winds in excess of 20 knots. Even the sails were titanium, and we blasted off and did about 30 knots, running under the Brooklyn Bridge and showing off up and down the Hudson River. After a couple of hours Gianni said he’d had enough and expressed a desire to have a “real New York pastrami sandwich.” There’s only one place, I told him, the café Edison. “Two-twenty-eight West 47th Street,” I instructed his driver.

Once there, Gianni sat at a table and the boxer and I were dispatched to get the borscht, the blintzes, and the pastrami. The café used to be an ornate ballroom; hence those who hung out there—stagehands, agents, actors, and musicians—felt right at home. The man slapping the pastrami sandwiches together seemed hurried and in a bad mood. So when my Italian buddy asked in heavily accented English if the pastrami was any good, the real Noo Yawker came out in the sandwich maker: “If you like to eat pussy, you’ll like pastrami. If not, you won’t.” The count was shocked, shocked at such impudence, but when we told Gianni the story the octogenarian agreed with the sandwich man that pastrami and pussy had a lot in common.

Café Edison will close at the end of this year after a hell of a good run, yet one more New York institution biting the dust. Jackie Mason used to sit on its Formica tables and create punch lines, and Neil Simon’s 45 Seconds From Broadway was based on the café. Another dinosaur, Smith’s Bar and Restaurant, a Broadway staple, shut its doors last month, as did Elaine’s, a couple of years ago. One by one the taverns that made the gritty city hum with Runyonesque characters are being replaced by sleek multi-million-dollar condos and glitzy boutiques for expensive tramps. It’s the way of the world, at least in New York.


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