The business records of Eli and Ted Wilentz's Eighth Street Bookshop
The Eighth Street Bookshop. Financial Records, 1947-1980. 21 volumes, chiefly folio. Various sizes and pagination. Some mold and water damage to covers, which extends to the endpapers and initial pages of some volumes. The books have received some treatment, though they still retain a slightly musty odor. With a few exceptions, the contents overall are in excellent condition.
The complete ledgers of the legendary Eight Street Bookshop. Operated by the brothers Elias and Ted Wilentz, the store served as the literary epicenter of Greenwich Village for the writers and musicians of the Beat Generation. In fact, Eli Wilentz edited the first collection devoted to the movement, The Beat Scene, with photographs by Fred McDarrah. He published the book himself in 1960 under the store’s Corinth Books imprint, which would also publish works by Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, LeRoi Jones, Diane DiPrima, Gary Snyder, Frank O’Hara, Anne Waldman, Ted Joans, and others. The shop stocked the textbooks for the poets of the New York School, so to speak. Among their employees were Robert Smithson, Ted Berrigan, and Peter Orlofsky. An older generation of poets also met there, including Marianne Moore, W. H. Auden, and e. e. cummings.
Jason Epstein credited the store with inspiring Anchor Books, a series of classic works in cheap paperback editions (with covers by Edward Gorey); the Wilentzes supported his effort by ordering 100 copies each of the first dozen titles. The Eighth Street Bookshop was also famous for its aphrodisiac qualities – it was, as one patron recalled, “the equivalent of a singles bar in the 50s.”
The Eighth Street Bookshop occupied these premises on the corner of MacDougal Street from 1947 to 1965, when it moved to 17 W. 8th Street. Photograph by Fred McDarrah.
These volumes record payments, receipts, expenses, cash reserves, and other financial information on the store from its founding in 1947 to its final summation in 1980 – the shop closed in October 1979, but several months were required to settle final accounts. They do not offer the micro-scale data one might wish for – one cannot tell from these books how many copies of Pictures of the Gone World, Waiting for Godot, or Not Be Essence that Cannot Be were sold at the shop. But one can track month-by-month the payments to City Lights, Grove Press, and Trobar. From these ledgers one can see that in 1962 the shop stocked books published by the Auerhahn Press, Arkham House (!), and other small presses, as well as mainstream publishers and university presses. Some poets were publishers, and there are records of direct payments to Kenneth Patchen, Jack Spicer, Toi Derricotte, and Tuli Kupferberg, as well as to such local stalwarts as Fred McDarrah and the Village Voice. Daily logs for some years contain occasional notes on the weather ("heavy rain"), holidays ("Father's Day"), and newsworthy events ("Kennedy Assassination").
In the centuries before Amazon, bookstores were not simply hubs for the distribution of commodities. They were profoundly important local institutions, rooted in their particular neighborhoods, serving communities of readers, and nurturing fraternities of taste. In the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, there was no other bookstore so vital to the New York literary scene as the Eighth Street Bookshop. This archive will be an essential resource for all future research on the history of reading, writing, and publishing during this fertile period.
*An Important Note on Condition: Stored in suboptimal conditions for forty years, these books suffered from mold and mildew. We have treated them as best we can, cleaning the covers and exposing them to sun and fresh air for several months, and the books appear to be stable. But there is still some mustiness. They will likely require the attention of a specialized conservator.