January 13, 2009 / 1:11 AM / 10 years ago

New York literary treasure rescued from warehouse

PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) - A literary hoard that includes works by Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller, as well as 18th and 19th century texts, has been rescued from New York City’s storied but now defunct Gotham Book Mart.

The 220,000-item collection, including books, periodicals, posters and catalogs, has been languishing in a Connecticut warehouse since 2007 when the 87-year-old bookstore - a midtown magnet for many literary figures over the years - closed.

The University of Pennsylvania’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library has acquired the store archive and has started taking delivery - on eight tractor-trailers— of 3,800 boxes containing the collection. It will spend the next several years evaluating and cataloging it.

David McKnight, director of the library, said the books and other items are in excellent condition because they have been kept in a cool, dry environment since they had been removed from the Gotham store.

“This is something of a coup,” McKnight said. “It’s an incredible literary archive and is going to help us fill in the gaps of our collection on the history of literary publishing in the 20th century.”

The literary treasure trove has been anonymously donated to Penn - which beat four other institutions which bid for ownership — and is worth at least $4 million, said McKnight. The collection was originally acquired by the donor for $400,000 when the Gotham closed.

It contains first editions, experimental literary magazines and advance readers’ copies of well-known works. About a third of the collection is classified as “rare books,” McKnight said.

Subjects covered include poetry and prose, art, architecture, photography, music, dance and film. In addition to its modernist writers of the 1930s and 40s, the collection also contains valuable materials from the 18th and 19th centuries.

The collection also includes some 55,000 literary magazines that published early works by modernist 20th century authors.

“Literary periodicals are a great resource for literary research, tracing the career of a movement and an individual author,” McKnight said.

Some volumes will undoubtedly duplicate those already in the library’s 6-million-book collection but that won’t be known until librarians complete the painstaking task of evaluation. Some of the material will be integrated with Penn’s existing collection while other items may be kept separately, McKnight said.

The collection represents the legacy of Frances Steloff, who founded the Gotham Book Mart in 1920 and died in 1989 at the age of 101. By selling, and in some cases publishing the work of prominent writers, she championed literary experimentation, and attracted figures including John Dos Passos, H.L. Mencken, and Eugene O’Neill.

The store, on West 47th Street in Manhattan, survived for many years while many other independent booksellers succumbed to competition from chain stores such as Borders or Barnes & Noble. It was eventually forced to close its doors in response to the competitive challenge.

Reporting by Jon Hurdle; editing by Patricia Reaney

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