Penn acquires Gotham collection

Library staff with Gotham Book CollectionPhoto credit: Candace diCarlo

RBML Director David McKnight (left), Curator of Research Services at the RBML Dan Traister (center) and Vice Provost and Director of Libraries Carton Rogers (right) showcase some of the treasures in the Gotham collection.

George and Ira Gershwin used to peruse the stacks there. Edward Gorey’s works were exhibited on the second floor. Allen Ginsburg and Tennessee Williams worked there, for one day, at least.

The New York landmark Gotham Book Mart was a home to writers, critics and thinkers, and a treasure trove of modern and contemporary poetry and literature. Located in the heart of New York’s diamond district, the bookstore was an internationally renowned place of letters—a must-see for visiting or native bibliophiles.

“It was a place where writers could meet,” says David McKnight, director of Penn’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library. “It became a treasure trove over time.”

But due to financial hard times, the store closed its doors in 2007, and many of Gotham’s contents were sold at auction to the building’s landlords for $400,000.

Now, however, those valuable and eclectic contents have landed at Penn. In December, the University Libraries announced an anonymous donor had given approximately 220,000 items from the store’s collection to the University.

“What Penn has become is that other incarnation of the Gotham,” says McKnight, who is overseeing the collection.

Before researchers and scholars can get their hands on the materials, McKnight and others will have to figure out exactly what’s in the collection—which sits on 131 pallets, in 3,800 boxes, to be precise.

They have some idea of what’s in those boxes from a general list and know that primarily, the collection contains modern and contemporary poetry and literature, with works on art, architecture, jewelry, music, dance and film. Given what he knows, McKnight estimates the collection’s value at several million dollars.

Highlights include about 55,000 issues of little magazines—an essential publishing platform of modernism. There are books from the libraries of Truman Capote and Anaïs Nin, as well as 480 advanced reader copies of books—something McKnight says will be invaluable to textual studies scholars.

There is a wide selection of works from renowned boutique publisher Black Sparrow Press and the New York poetry school, specifically items published by St. Mark’s Church. There are also documents related to the New Yorker magazine and 81 boxes of materials from Andreas Brown, the rare book dealer and owner of the Gotham from 1967 until its closing.

The collection also comprises proofs, pamphlets, photographs, posters, reference works, catalogs, broadsides, prints and postcards, with items signed by some literary greats—Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Robinson Jeffers, Woody Allen, Wallace Stevens and John Updike.

But first things first. “The plan is to create, over the next three years, a complete list of the contents. ... Every box will hold a surprise,” says McKnight. “The first issue is to get all of the boxes here.” The items are being shipped in three installments from a Connecticut warehouse to the library storage facility at 30th Street. Once the collection is analyzed, evaluated and catalogued, McKnight hopes for a partnership with other institutions that hold Gotham collections, including Skidmore College and New York University. Likely, there will be duplicate copies of items—perhaps even as many as a third of the total contents.

So far, McKnight says the reception to the new collection has been very positive. As a place that once boasted literary modernism greats Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams as students, McKnight says Penn is a perfect home for the Gotham collection. “It will enable us to foster and build on some of the tools that are [at Penn] now,” he says. “This [collection] will add enormous research value.”

Originally published Jan. 22, 2009

Originally published on January 22, 2009