New Yorkers get pretty accustomed to beloved shops being shuttered unceremoniously in favor of yet another condo or Rite Aid or bank. If you’re going to survive here emotionally, you learn pretty early that it’s dangerous to get too attached to anything. But there are some losses you just can’t prepare for, some mom-and-pop stores so thoroughly woven into the fabric of their neighborhoods that their disappearance makes even the most jaded among us gasp. So it was that a collective howl went up from brownstone Brooklyn this week when the owners of BookCourt, the homey independent bookstore that had been the literary heart of Court Street for the past 35 years, announced that they would be retiring and closing shop at the end of the month. (Emma Straub, the Brooklyn author who was also a BookCourt employee for many years, says she’s looking to open up a store to take its place.)
I can trace the last 30 years of my life as a reader, writer, and New Yorker through my relationship with BookCourt. As a provincial Manhattan native who scarcely ever set foot in Brooklyn during my first 17 years, I was more or less introduced to the borough through the bookstore. In the mid-1980s, my oldest sister, Tracy, lived upstairs from the shop at 163 Court Street, occupying the top two floors of the three-story antebellum clapboard house with her boyfriend. This was pretty much my first glimpse of adult life. The building felt like a dollhouse, and the apartment was a charming mess, piled high with so many books, many purchased downstairs, that a friend referred to the passageway through the volumes as “the goat path.” (Their P.G. Wodehouse collection comes immediately to mind, along with Time and Again, Jack Finney’s tale of New York time travel.) Below BookCourt’s storefront was a dirt-floor basement that was prowled by Chester, a striped stray tomcat with a ripped ear.
In 1984, the building came up for sale. My sister and her boyfriend briefly considered buying it, but its foundation was compromised and so were their finances. Instead, BookCourt’s husband-and-wife owners, Henry Zook and Mary Gannett, who had been renting the storefront, bought the house and moved into the apartment themselves.
In 1994, while getting my MFA in writing, I moved to Carroll Gardens with my future wife. Our cramped apartment was at the edge of the world on Fourth Place, hard by the rumbling BQE; trekking over to BookCourt from there for literary stimulation felt like visiting the library of Alexandria from the fringes of the Egyptian empire.
When we moved to Boerum Hill in 1996, BookCourt became our local bookstore. By this time, the Zooks had expanded their little shop into the level beneath it. Now it was I who prowled that basement for nourishment, pouncing on I, Claudius, Claudius the God, and a handsome hardcover volume of Suetonius.
As our family grew, so did BookCourt, almost as if anticipating our needs. The shop expanded into the neighboring building at 161 Court Street, the former home of Albert’s Floral Shop, which had once had a cameo in the movie Moonstruck. My wife and I bought our daughter’s first books at the shop in 2001, and one of my abiding memories of those early parenting years is reading Dr. Seuss’s Fox in Socks to my 2-year-old girl on the bench outside the store, racing through the book’s comically tricky tongue twisters as she curled up under my flannel arm. (“Come under my wing,” I told her.)
We moved again, to Prospect Heights, but BookCourt remained our favorite bookstore. All three of our children go to school near the shop, so our family’s purchases there — from cardboard books (Good Night, Gorilla) to children’s classics (The BFG) to YA fare (Catching Fire) — have marked our kids’ development, from infants to avid readers. There are seven Harry Potter books, but I’m pretty sure we’ve bought more than 15 copies.
Whenever I’ve finished reading a book over the past few decades, I’ve written the date inside to mark the occasion. As a result, I can track my appetites as a reader — from Cormac McCarthy and Michael Ondaatje to Colum McCann and local boy Jonathan Lethem — through all the books I’ve discovered on BookCourt’s shelves. I’ve also celebrated the progress of friends’ writing careers at the shop, which hosts wonderful readings in its expansive yet welcoming skylit “greenhouse.” In 2014, the year before Joshua Mehigan, a pal from graduate school, won a Guggenheim fellowship, I joined scores of our local friends to help him launch his second book of poetry at BookCourt, which was his local, too. It was all very intimate and satisfying.
Until earlier this week, I had planned to launch my own debut novel, The Gargoyle Hunters, at the bookstore in March; the shop and I had been discussing dates. What a dream that was going to be: reading your first novel at your neighborhood bookstore, the one that had nurtured you as a reader and writer for 22 years. As it happens, the book is all about the anguish so many New Yorkers feel every time a new wound — a demolished favorite building or shuttered storefront — opens up in the streetscape. Towards the end of the story, the novel’s narrator ruefully lists all his favorite city buildings and businesses that have vanished in just the past dozen years. I had hoped to read that passage aloud on Court Street next spring. But now BookCourt, rather than being midwife to the birth of the book, will instead become just one more name on that dismal list.