History & Show-Case
Brentano's "Booksellers to the World"
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BRENTANO'S, INC . , is one of the oldest and most respected names in bookselling. With 31,000 square feet of selling space and 250,000 volumes, its Fifth Avenue headquarters is New York City's largest bookstore. In the United States the only larger bookstores are the Cokesbury store in Dallas, 66,000 square feet, and Kroch's & Brentano's in Chicago, a former affiliate, with 40,000 square feet. There is a Brentano's in Paris, France, once but no longer part of the firm , and a score of branches stretching from Boston to the City of Paris department store in San Francisco, and including The Pentagon in the District of Columbia, which are owned by the firm.
The business was founded by an enterprising immigrant news vendor shrewd enough to supply sporting news ahead of his competitors. August Brentano was young, ambitious, and newly arrived from Austria in 1853 when he set up a newsstand in front of the New York Hotel. Newspapers and magazines at that time usually were peddled from door to door; but the hotelkeeper allowed Brentano this desirable space because he was handicapped by a withered arm.
Discovering that the hotel guests, who included visitors from abroad, were betting on the great English horse races, Brentano ordered newspapers from England and met the clipper ships bringing them at the dockside. The Atlantic cable was still in the future and Brentano's newspapers made him first with the racing news. He prospered and moved his stand to a hallway of the old Revere House, at Broadway and Houston Street. Above the table, which offered some books as well as papers, he had an imposing sign reading "Brentano's Literary Emporium."
The John Heenan-Tom Sayers prizefight in England, in which an American and an Englishman fought a bloody thirty-five-round draw for the heavyweight championship, aroused so much interest that young Brentano sold great bundles of papers at $1 apiece, and became rich enough to open a real emporium in 1860. His store was a basement at first; seven years later it took up half the building at 708 Broadway. The other half was occupied by the Frohmans' tobacco business, conducted by the fathers of Charles and Daniel Frohman, famous theater managers.
Brentano's, because it catered to a cosmopolitan patronage and offered foreign books and periodicals unobtainable elsewhere, became a rendezvous for the fashionable hotel guests from across the street, and for "the carriage trade" from all over the city. By 1870, when August moved his store to an even better residential neighbor-hood, at 33 Union Square, next door to the Goelet mansion and just down the block from Tiffany's, Brentano's was already one of New York's landmarks. In the next two decades, the Union Square store acquired a reputation throughout the country. Sightseers came to gape at the browsers, who included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Lillian Russell, John Drew, Charles Dickens, James Russell Lowell, General U. S. Grant, and other socially important or wealthy customers.
August, by his enterprise and resourcefulness, created a successful business. His nephew, Arthur, who started in the store in 1873 and sold books from the floor for seventy-one years, made Brentano's an institution. He was fifteen years old at the time he first set foot in the store. A cholera epidemic in Cincinnati had killed his father, a sister and brother. His mother moved with the remaining six children to Evansville, where she had two brothers, and soon thereafter Arthur was sent to his uncle in New 'York to earn his fortune.
His first job was a paper route for the store, from Broadway to the East River. Later, because he did so well at it, he was rewarded with a route that reached to Central Park. He delivered papers morning and evening; during the day he sorted books and also delivered them, becoming so familiar with the stock that he was consulted by the customers in preference to the senior salesmen. The best sellers with which he dealt in those days were by such authors as Louisa May Alcott, T. B. Aldrich, Lew Wallace, Bret Harte, Mark Twain, and William Dean Howells.
A few years after Arthur's arrival at the store, his younger brothers, Simon and August Brentano, came from Evansville and were taken into the business. The store was open seven days a week, 9 A.M. to 8 P.M. All worked hard. In 1882, the three brothers bought out their uncle. August, Sr., by then an elderly man, wanted to retire and make a tour of the world. Afer extensive farewells, he got as far as Montreal, when nostalgia brought him back to the Union Square store. Until his death in 1886, he remained there, working at the cashier's desk.
Meanwhile, in 1884 Brentano's opened a Washington branch; and in 1895 Arthur went to Paris to open another branch . Three years later, in Paris, he married a California girl, Maria Louise Sepulveda Lan Franco. His best man was Robert Chambers, the novelist, and another friend at the ceremony was Whitelaw Reid, publisher of the New York Tribune and American Ambassador to the Court of St. James's.
Financial difficulties first afflicted Brentano's after the great business depression of 1893. Another disaster occurred in 1898. The Union Square establishment and all its stock were destroyed by a fire that started in the house next door, and the store had to be rebuilt. To straighten out their finances at this crisis, Simon Brentano sued his two brothers for dissolution of the partnership, and in 1899 the firm was reorganized. Simon became president. Charles E. Butler, president of the American Booksellers Association, who represented the publishers' interests in working out credit, became secretary; and Clive Mecklim, a veteran employee, was made treasurer.
Arthur, who hated office work, fled from financial statements and wanted to stay with his books, was named vice president. Arthur had never been to high school, a fact which embarrassed him all through his life. "I don't know a scrap of Latin or Greek," he once explained, "and for more than sixty years I have been in perpetual fear of being exposed." He learned French and German fluently, however, and through the books he handled gave himself a remarkable education. His courtly manners, his impeccable appearance-he always wore a navy-blue suit, starched collar, dark tie, and pince-nez-and his considerable knowledge made him a great favorite with the customers; indeed, in the store he became the good friend of many eminent men and women in art, politics and society.
He inaugurated the old and rare department, which became his special pride. As well as collecting fine old books of great value, the store was also offering a service at that time unique among bookstores-scouring the market to locate any publication requested, no matter when and where published, including privately printed pamphlets, books and periodicals in foreign languages, first editions, out of print, and other rare items. This service brought Brentano's orders from all over the world and gave it international importance in the book world. Arthur Brentano once listed the two things that he liked most about his business: "Getting a nice library . . . good, solid, useable, permanent books," and "Making a good sale-getting those good, solid, useable, permanent books into the hands of an appreciative buyer." Arthur's idea of hospitality-that each customer should be greeted at the door and made welcome-was followed as long as he was alive.
A reporter for Publishers' Weekly, who interviewed this gentleman when he was eighty, remarked that Arthur Brentano was always at the door. For years the reporter had been visiting the store and talking to him without realizing it. "Brentano," he wrote, "had been as gracious, as friendly, as urbane, as kindly, as communicative when I bought nothing as if I were negotiating for the four Shakespeare folios."
Sales clerks hired by Arthur Brentano were carefully selected and instructed by him to maintain the store's tradition of boundless erudition and limitless, unhurried service. Laurence Gomme, long head of the old and rare department, recalled that, when he arrived from England in 1907 and applied for a job, Arthur subjected him to a lengthy test of his knowledge, manners, and grooming, then hired him at $12 a week. It was considered a distinction and rare privilege just to work for Brentano's.
In 1907, Brentano's, keeping up with the fashionable trend, moved again, this time to Twenty-seventh Street and Fifth Avenue. In this new headquarters, a great deal of literary history was made. "I can remember the wonderful store they had down there," recalled Bennett Cerf, the publisher, years later in the Saturday Review.2 "There were originals of all the magazine covers in the side-street windows and the huge pile of periodicals from all over the world in the basement! Theodore Roosevelt came in one day and ordered the pigskin library that he took with him to Africa. The store had an indescribable glamour; the staff harbored some rare and congenial personalities." Mayor William Jay Gaynor of New York, Andrew Carnegie, J. P. Morgan, Henry Clay Frick, George Ade, Oliver Herford and other celebrities of the period congregated at the Twenty-seventh Street store. There an autographing party for Gertrude Stein was mobbed by her readers and nonreaders. The firm discontinued the sale of sheet music, newspapers and theater tickets but there were more books and magazines. Displays of art work for the covers of these by Charles Dana Gibson, Montgomery Flagg, Maxfield Parrish and others attracted a daily crowd.
When Simon Brentano died in 1914, Arthur became president. The sons of these brothers-Lowell and Arthur Brentano, Jr., joined the business. Since the elder Brentano continued to avoid administrative details and devoted himself to rare books, his son worked at retailing, store management and the development of branches. It was a period of expansion for the firm. Additional New York branches were established, and stores followed in Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Philadelphia.
An author and playwright himself, Lowell Brentano in 1918 took charge of the firm's publishing department after his graduation from Harvard, where he attained Phi Beta Kappa despite a serious con-genital hearing defect. This part of the business previously had been directed by Volney Streamer and the late Temple Scott. From 1879 to 1881, Brentano's published a magazine of field and water sports; from 1881 to 1882 it issued a chess monthly. In place of catalogs, announcements, and a monthly bulletin previously supplied to its customers, the store in 1907 started Book Chat, advertised as "a periodical which should be chained to the desk of every man in search of literary information." Subscription was first 25 cents, then $1 a year. Book Chat offered news about books and authors, notes written by prominent authors, answers to queries, scholarly information about old and rare books and manuscripts offered for sale at Brentano's; and, of course, announcements of the new books-including those in Spanish, Italian, German and French-which Brentano's stocked. South American literature and foreign Christmas cards also were advertised.
At the same time Brentano's published noteworthy books. It was the first to print the plays of George Bernard Shaw in America and the letters in the company's files attest to the fact that, even then, Shaw was a vigorous and unorthodox correspondent. Other Brentano authors included George Moore, Margaret Sanger, whose books on birth control were the subject of violent controversy; David Loth, Robert Briffault, Eugene Brieux, and Channing Pollock.
The Brentano family once went to meet the unpredictable Shaw when he landed in New York. An elaborate program was planned but the great dramatist remained only a few hours and sailed home the next day. Later in London, Arthur Brentano one day rushed in to his daughter, Rowena, and said, "Come, Lambie, it's time for lunch with Mr. Shaw." Rowena replied, "Papa, I'd rather stay here and knit if I may."
All Brentano departments were profitable as the main store moved northward again in 1926 to its present location. The new store, a journalist noted, had the "same admirable features" as the old with "The varied and enormous stock, the easily accessible galleries, comprehensive foreign department administered by clerks who under-stand the languages of the literature to which they are accredited, and the fascinating display of periodicals on the tables of the basement." The Bible, a steady seller at Brentano's, was stocked in several versions and a dozen languages. There were thousands of technical books.
Books of its own authors sold well and those by Sinclair Lewis, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Anita Loos went by thousands to the customers. American tourists going to Europe read books from Brentano's in New York on the way over and from Brentano's store in Paris on the way back. In 1928, Arthur Brentano, Jr., told the convention of the American Booksellers' Association that the store had delivered as many as twenty thousand books to one liner. The firm's sales were more than $3,000,000 a year.
The stock market crashed the next year just as the first novel of a writer named Thomas Wolfe appeared. The book business was hit hard. With a huge inventory of expensive books, several new branches, and a big new main store, Brentano's was in serious financial trouble. Because it was one of the largest retail outlets for books in the world, publishers could not afford to see it go out of business. A publishers' committee took over the management.
Salaries were cut drastically, in some cases to as low as $7 and $12 a week, but employees continued loyally at their jobs. The American rights to the plays of George Bernard Shaw were sold to Dodd, Mead & Company. The remainder of the Brentano book publishing department went to Coward-McCann. At this point, Lowell Brentano left the firm, except for an interest in the Paris branch, and devoted himself successfully to his own writing. He lived until 1950, turning out plays, novels, motion-picture scenarios, anthologies and a final book, Ways to Better Hearing, inspired by his own lifelong struggle against deafness.
As the depression deepened, the business shrank further. All outlets except the main store in New York and the branches in Washington, Chicago and Paris, were discontinued. But even these economies were not enough. After the "bank holiday" in 1933, Brentano's was bankrupt. The Irving Trust Company was named receiver.
A savior appeared in the person of an urbane Brentano customer, Stanton Griffis, a partner in the investment banking firm of Hemphill, Noyes & Co. and a man of many other interests. He was chairman of the executive committee of Paramount Pictures and the Lee Tire & Rubber Co., and a director of Madison Square Garden. He had backed some Katharine Cornell stage productions and reorganized many corporations. He heard of the plight of Brentano's in the course of a bridge game on his yacht and promised to help. "I thought it would be amusing," he explained later, "to see what a hard-headed businessman could do in such a situation with a famous name like Brentano's as an asset."
On June 4, 1933, Griffis paid $150,000, only $72,000 of it in cash, for nearly all of the firm's assets. It had grossed $1,500,000 the previous year, listed assets at $745,983 and liabilities at $511,445. Three-year notes were signed for the remainder and book publishers assured Griffis liberal credit. He was joined in the purchase by Adolph Kroch, a leading Chicago bookseller, who acquired a 20 percent interest. After three years, Kroch was given the Chicago branch and bought out in New York. Merged later in larger quarters on South Wabash Street, Kroch's & Brentano's advertises as "the world's largest bookstore."
Griffis became chairman of the board of Brentano's, Inc., as the new firm eventually was titled. The courtly Arthur Brentano continued as president until his death in 1944 and his son, Arthur, Jr., remained as vice president and general manager. Some of Griffis's bookish Wall Street friends, Amos Tuck French, Winky Thomas and Bruce Ryan among them, came to work in the store for a time but Griffis himself remained so much in the background that fifteen years later a noted Broadway columnist breathlessly printed: "Has Stanton Griffis purchased the Brentano bookstores?"
While Griffis had counseled his friend, Arthur Brentano, Sr., against expanding earlier, the financier, when he took charge, believed on the basis of business trends that a chain of bookstores could be run something like the A & P, or even Woolworth's, and bookselling could profit from an application of similar large-scale merchandising. This seemed valid for a time. Under his regime, the business quickly began to improve. Thousands bought Anthony Adverse and Gone with the Wind, the heavyweight historical romances that were the best sellers of the depression. "Best sellers are the vitamins of the book business," explained Joseph Margolies, formerly Washington manager who then became vice president and chief buyer. "They bring in the customers who buy not only the best seller but a classic like David Copperfield for a niece or nephew."
Griffis amazed his publisher creditors by paying their notes after only six months, giving them a 35 percent return on their claims against the old company. The firm earned profits in 1937, operated at a deficit of $16,918 in 1938, and from the next year onward had profits through World War II.
A branch was reopened in Philadelphia. More branches were opened in the Washington area, including one on the concourse of the Pentagon Building. Under the management of Mrs. Virginia Ward it soon numbered the highest military brass as customers. A leased department established in the City of Paris store in San Francisco under Sybil Bardshar became the largest bookstore west of Denver. Lillian Friedman was promoted from there to be chief buyer for the firm. Several other branches were opened, including one at Waikiki Beach, Hawaii, to which Horace Hutchins was dispatched as manager after a hilarious hula-hula party.
World War II caused a boom in the book business. With gasoline rationed and television still in the future, some bought and read books to forget their worries. Brentano's sold twenty-eight thousand copies of Kathleen Winsor's Forever Amber. More bought books to help them qualify for commissions or to obtain jobs in war industry. Soaring taxes created a demand for the works of J. K. Lasser, Brentano's own tax adviser. Hundreds of copies of Professor Smyth's Atomic Energy for Military Purposes were sold. Governments bought books in quantity for instructional and propaganda purposes.
At the request of the Free French government, Brentano's returned profitably to publishing during the struggle. With French publishing plants in the hands of the enemy and the sale of their books banned in occupied countries, Brentano's produced paper-backed editions in French of the works of writers like Andre Maurois, Pierre Lazareff and Andre Girard. These were shipped by the thousands to North Africa, the French colonies and via the underground into occupied France.
The Brentano branch in Paris, at 37 Avenue de 1'Opera and extending through to Rue des Petits Champs (Nowadays called Rue Danielle Casanova), felt the tramp of Nazi soldiery. As the Wehrmacht marched into the city in June of 1940, the store executives, who were British subjects, fled by motorcycle and bicycle to the coast. The French employees remained until the Nazis took over. But first an official of a German library walked in and placed an order for 6,000 books, including 349 assorted titles in Everyman's Library, a variety of art books, the unexpurgated Lady Chatterley's Lover and some expensive erotica. He paid 755,000 francs for his order and sent trucks to carry the books away.
After that the Nazis confiscated without payment all leather goods, stationery, fountain pens, guidebooks, dictionaries, encyclopedias, maps and atlases; and converted the premises into the official film and camera supply center for the Wehrmacht in Paris. The firm name on the windows was covered over with black paint; the fixtures and remaining stock were moved to the rear of the store and to the basement. In a period of almost five years, the converted photo shop, which was also a place where German soldiers could have their pictures taken or developed, made a profit of a million francs ($20,000). Deposited in a Paris agency, and left behind when the Nazis departed hurriedly, that money was turned over to Brentano's by the French government after the liberation.
When Arthur Brentano, Jr., who became president of the firm at his father's death, reached Paris on March 15, 1945, he found that, along with hundreds of pictures of German soldiers, in the cluttered-up basement and rear of the store approximately one-third of the previous stock remained-about twelve thousand books. The concierge and his wife, who had lived in the concierge apartment on the premises all through the occupation and had tried to protect what they could of Brentano's property, and the office secretary were also waiting for him. While they were all digging through the debris to clean up and refurbish the place, a truck arrived with a shipment of five hundred books; these had been ordered from London early in 1940, had been stored in a Paris warehouse during the German occupation, and were now being delivered per order.
To determine prices in the new inflated currency Brentano simply marked up each item 500 percent of its prewar price. That was in line with the inflated prices existing in other Parisian bookstores and also permitted the firm to buy books in France, where they were expensive, to restock the depleted shelves.
By great effort and much slashing of red tape, he managed to reopen the store on April 19, giving it the distinction of being the first American retail establishment in the city to resume business. The first customer on the day of reopening was an American sergeant who bought two Penguin books-Walden and City of Beautiful Nonsense. This Parisian shop, which since its beginning in the eighties has been a favorite meeting place for Americans traveling abroad, began to do a thriving business with European customers, too, filling the great demand for American technical books useful in rebuilding war-devastated areas.
Sales volume of Brentano's passed $4,000,000 in the years following the war but profits dropped and some branches failed to develop enough volume to sustain themselves. Beginning in 1948 the firm operated at a loss for three years. By this time the versatile Stanton Griffis was far away. During the war, he had embraced a chance to make history as well as sell books about it. He headed government missions to England, Finland, Spain, Portugal and Sweden, in the last stopping the export of vital ball bearings to Germany. He served as Red Cross Commissioner in the Pacific. He then became successively ambassador to Poland, Egypt, Argentina and Spain.
He wrote of Brentano's and bookselling as well as diplomacy, in an autobiographical volume, Lying in State, published on his return from Spain in 1952.3 Among difficulties besetting a bookseller, he listed: the book clubs, which sell some current books at lower prices than the wholesaler can buy them; and the department store "loss leader," a method of attracting customers into the department store by selling items such as books at lower than cost. These practices, Griffis charged, have been promoted by publishers. "In no other industry," he said, "does the manufacturer go to such lengths and use such vicious means to destroy his outlets." Finally, in this list of forces that cut profits in the bookselling business, he mentioned unions. In the old days, he related, bright young intellectuals found the satisfaction of working in a bookstore to be payment enough, and so they worked for very little. At present, the unions "tell us what we should pay everyone in the business from the shipping clerk to the buyer." Years earlier, incidentally, Arthur Brentano and some other book-sellers had protested the book clubs by refusing to sell the early selections of the Literary Guild. The gesture was abandoned when it was found that its only effect was to deprive the stores of more sales.
His investment in Brentano's, Griffis said, had brought him fun rather than cash. "I would spend sleepless nights of horror if I heard that any customer of Brentano's felt that we had made a profit on his purchase," he wrote. "We are in trade only for dignity, atmosphere and service." And to make this point even more emphatic, he added, "I am happy to have had the experience of high hopes and failure in the retail bookselling business."
But even as the diplomat wrote, his son, Nixon Griffis, was making the century-old enterprise again a profitable one. Like his father Nixon was a graduate of Cornell University, where he studied astronomy and became a boxing champion. After Army service and work at Hemphill, Noyes, he joined Brentano's in 1947 as secretary of the firm. In 1949, he became president and the next year, on the retirement of Arthur Brentano, Jr., became chairman of the board as well. Young Griffis was then thirty-two. Leonard Schwartz, who had been with the firm since 1937, except for war service, became vice president.
Changes involved both expenditures and economies. The Paris branch was modernized. At a cost of $100,000, the main New York store was refurbished and rearranged to do the same business in less space. The Waikiki Beach branch was sold and Horace Hutchins returned to take charge in Philadelphia. Several branches were closed. Machine bookkeeping replaced a hand ledger system with a reduction in cost and a gain in efficiency. Modern window displays were introduced.
Branches established for a time on the Independence and Constitution, new liners of the American Export Line sailing to the Mediterranean, proved reasonably profitable from a business standpoint and tremendously successful from a Brentano's morale point of view. The floating branches and libraries were managed each cruise by a manager or employee who had done an outstanding job in New York or Washington. Many cruise passengers, however, felt that their passage should include free library service, as it does on many liners, and the free voyages to Naples, Capri, Sorrento, Genoa and the Riviera came to an end.
Efforts were made to find merchandise that could be sold along with the books, magazines and stationery that are the backbone of the business. Sophisticated greeting cards by artists like Rosalind Welcher proved successful. So did games like Scrabble, which Brentano's discovered early; many purchasers were found for a $15 toy planetarium. Seashells, records, 16-millimeter films and rare postage stamps did not work out at the main store though stamp albums continued to be sold. More successful were reproductions of museum statuary which, in most cases, had been available previously only in the museums owning the Aphrodites, Han Dynasty horses and Egyptian Sacred Cats.
In 1953, Brentano's centennial year which passed without any special celebration, it all added up to give the venerable enterprise a modest profit on sales of $2,823,326. This was roughly a million dollars more than the volume from many more outlets a decade earlier. The unique commerce between Brentano's far-flung customers and its erudite employees continued.
Much of Brentano's durability is due to its employees, remarkable both for their learning and their loyalty to the enterprise. Scholarly George W. Stair, who formerly ran his own bookstore in Rockefeller Center, came out of retirement to head the rare-book and fine-binding department.
Customers of Brentano's include the famous, the learned and the eccentric. Most notable of all, perhaps, was twenty-three-year-old Dorothy Arnold, daughter of a millionaire. On December 12, 1910, she bought a novel from Ernest Dell, a salesman in the New York Brentano store. She then stepped out into the Fifth Avenue traffic and was never heard from again. Her family exhausted its fortune seeking her and the case remains New York's leading unsolved mystery.
Many of the names on Brentano's charge accounts have been the subject of books. They include the country's artistic, social, political and financial leaders, as well as scientists and specialists in every field. The firm's mail-order business is even more remarkable. It has a mailing list of seventy-five thousand persons living in every corner of the globe. To customers from Allahabad to Zomba, Brentano's importance rests not only on the forty thousand titles it keeps in stock, and on its long-standing ability to obtain others, but also on the fact that the United States for years after World War II was the only country where so many books were freely obtainable. The war's destruction of great libraries abroad, paper shortages, political and economic restrictions in other countries enhanced the value of American books. Also in many underdeveloped countries and those rebuilding after the war, there was a great curiosity about this country, especially about our technical skills. Brentano's, as the best-known American bookseller, became a kind of literary United Nations.
The Brazilian government, for example, ordered $8,000 worth of books to be sent to its embassies all over the world. One of the books listed in the order was out of print, and Brazil wanted a thousand copies. So Macmillan, the publisher, printed a special edition at Brentano's request.
Unless asked to do so, Brentano's does not attempt to guide or improve a customer's taste. An order for "60 feet of white books" to fit the decorative scheme of a customer's new apartment was filled without comment largely with volumes from Italy, where publishers favor such bindings. Attempts of pressure groups to censor or prevent the sale of books usually are ignored by Brentano's though titles likely to incite any important segment to riot are not displayed prominently.
Early in his career as a bookseller, Stanton Griffis refused to stock The Truman Merry-Go-Round by Robert Allen and W. V. Shannon because it was critical of Griffis as an ambassador. Drew Pearson reported the fact and the book received more notice than it would have otherwise. Since then the Griffis policy has been: "Brentano's believes that the condemnation of any given book should be deter-mined by the courts and the publishers themselves, and not by the booksellers." Friends of Senator Joseph McCarthy were ignored when they attempted to stop Brentano's selling copies of a Senate report on his financial affairs; so were his foes when they protested display of an admiring biography of him.
When the store gave a window to The Frenchman by Philippe Halsman, a French committee protested that the book was in bad taste and would give Americans "the wrong impression of French-men." The author-photographer solved this problem by obtaining a letter from the French ambassador certifying that he found "the book delightful, in excellent taste, and fine for promoting good relations between the two countries." In the next printing, Simon & Schuster left out one of the more sexy photographs in the volume to be on the safe side.
While selling more copies of Rachel Carson's masterpiece on the sea than were initially printed, as well as hundreds of volumes of T. S. Eliot's plays, Brentano's also sold nine thousand copies of Dr. Alfred C. Kinsey's Sexual Behavior in the Human Male. Its female sequel, skimmed by countless magazine articles, was much less popular. Mention of this subject at Brentano's recalls two women customers. One with an accent asked a salesman to direct her to "Sex." He took her to the man in charge of the store's array of Havelock Ellis and similar volumes. Everybody was embarrassed. It seemed she wanted directions to the store across the street, Saks Fifth Avenue. At another time, a woman shopper stopped a Brentano employee and asked: "Do you have Fun in Bed?" As he was the store detective and unfamiliar with the writings of Frank Scully, he politely replied: "I manage to get along."
Sometimes the courtesy of the Washington staff costs it a sale. One day the embassy of a new and rather backward country telephoned frantically for a book on etiquette to be delivered within a matter of minutes. The distance was too great for this and the clerk asked discreetly what was the problem.
"Somebody left cards for the ambassador with P.P.C. written in the corner," said a desperate diplomatic voice.
"Oh," explained the all-knowing clerk, "that just stands for pour prendre conge, French for good-by."
"Thanks," gasped the relieved diplomat, "never mind the book."
Since its purchase by the Crowell-Collier Publishing Company in 1962 from Nixon Griffis and others, Brentano's has had a remarkable revival and expansion. Leonard Schwartz, who joined the main store at seventeen as a stockboy, became president. This and all its branches became culture centers, selling paintings, statuary, prints and sometimes jewelry as well as books. Sales doubled in two years, reaching $4,850,000 in 1964 and $5,660,000 in 1965.
The Fifth Avenue store has been expanded upward, downward and laterally and now has entrances also on both West Forty-seventh and West Forty-eighth streets. Inside the Fifth Avenue air-curtain door is a Wall of the Muses. Here titles of poetry, music and the performing arts are arranged under the appropriate muse of ancient mythology.
Books of epic poetry are under a sign CALLIOPE, MUSE OF EPIC POETRY. A series of Thursday-evening cultural events, including a recital of Japanese koto music, attracted hundreds to the remodeled store.
The firm owes its success to a combination of nostalgic friendliness, reminiscent of the tiny bookshop, and shrewd operation. New books cost less in quantity, the difference between 40 and 45 percent, or more, a margin which may mean profit or loss to a store. Hard-headed Brentano buyers disregard pressures of all kinds from publishers to order the quantity their intuition tells them is the optimum. Their intuition is sound and, by correctly estimated original orders, Brentano's usually enjoys maximum discounts. At the same time, clerks and branch managers, some of them women, know the tastes of many customers so well that books are sent them unordered and returns are few.
Leading writers of the day, visitors such as the King of Greece and notables as varied as the daughters of President Lyndon B. Johnson and Greta Garbo are among Brentano's shoppers. Through the years, is has managed to create about itself a blend of the romance and knowledge that its customers seek in the books it sells. It has maintained this unique fame and prestige despite fire, book clubs, bankruptcy and inroads on the time of the human race by motion pictures, automobiles, radio and now television.
Nowadays the bookstore has both a French and international clientele. There is a large selection of current British-American best-sellers.
Find specialized sections such as: handicrafts & patchwork, body, mind & spirit, sports, business & management, test preparation, tourism...
Brentano's represents American culture by participating in a wide range of cultural activities including readings, signings, fairs and
school events throughout France.
Brentanos, the American Bookstore in Paris since 1895