While pondering the Edward Hopper exhibit at the Whitney recently, I thought often of the term “ambivert.” Many of the artist’s works, such as Nighthawks, Automat, and New York Movie, feature introverted extroverts having solitary moments in theaters and restaurants. These were people craving a quiet community; company but not necessarily conversation.
As a writer, I’m in touch with that emotion. After hours working alone, I sometimes want a hushed way to transition into the cacophony of companionship. A good read over a good cocktail perfectly provides that shift. So when the world started to dine and drink indoors once again, one of my first thoughts was: Where could I peacefully enjoy reading, and drinking, without being rushed through a timed seating, jostled by an ever-growing crowd, or sneered at by that guy who got dragged on social media by tweeting, “Please know, if you’re someone who brings a book to the bar… nobody likes you.” Remember him?
I came upon the ultimate safe space at Gotham restaurant, which, shortly before reopening in November 2021, redesigned its front area into a book nook adjacent to the bar. The spacious alcove is lined with colorful leather couches and cylindrical coffee tables crying out for tomes and tipples to top them. Though creating the area meant losing a few tables for diners, Gotham owners Bret and Cassandra Csencsitz were inspired by the idea of a “little, welcoming place where people could feel comfortable, especially after they were stir-crazy at home during the pandemic.” Bret enlisted James Biber, the restaurant’s original architect when it was built 40 years ago, to design the area and fashion a showpiece on the east wall: an 8’ x 9’ bookcase which could hold hundreds of hardcovers and paperbacks.
It made perfect sense in a neighborhood renowned for its literary history, and for a restaurant with a wall inscribed with an E. B. White quote. If the layout of the niches within the case looks familiar, it’s because it mimics the street grid between Union Square South and Washington Square South (top-to-bottom); 6th Avenue to Lafayette St. (left-to-right). Fifth Avenue dead-ends in the middle of the cubby that denotes Washington Square. The slants on the upper right represent Broadway and 4th Avenue. The little triangle in the lower third? Astor Place. The half-shelf floating above Washington Square? MacDougal Alley.
To fill the case, the first idea was to have a “curated selection of books that would rotate,” Bret explains. “We talked to our neighbors, The Strand, about doing this but they didn’t have the bandwidth at the time.” No matter. The couple populated the space with some books from their own personal library: volumes of Shakespeare, bar manuals, and cookbooks, including former chef Alfred Portale’s Gotham Bar and Grill, of course. But then locals mobilized to turn it into a community bookshelf, co-opting the curation by gifting their own books.
What’s in the stack not only reflects on the restaurant’s surroundings — books about New York City, Greenwich Village, and the legends who have inhabited the area — but also the patrons, bookworms, and barflies who frequent the restaurant. Marc Chagall’s granddaughter donated Chagall Et La Musique; real estate developer-literary agent, Francis Greenburger gave his own Risk Game and How to Ask For More and Get It; authors Alafair Burke, Sophie Flack, and Jay Newman also claimed space for their own works.
One of the restaurant’s tequila purveyors dropped off books by her friends, Andrew Cotto (Pasta Mike) and Mariann Yip (Un-hinged: What I Learned By Saying ‘It’s Not You, It’s Me,’ in the New York Dating Scene). My personal favorite, The Greatest Street in the World: Broadway, written by Stephen Jenkins in 1911, chronicles what was at the time the “longest of the modern streets in the world,” and is packed with fascinating photographs, line illustrations and fold-out maps of turn-of-the-century Manhattan. “The question is often asked whether New York will ever be finished. It does not seem so,” Jenkins wrote. “For there is such continual tearing down and building up.” This beautiful work of history was gifted by regular, F. Murray Abraham.
“Anything you can reach, you can read,” Cassandra says, adding that they often rotate the positions of the books to vary the arm’s-length offerings. “We’re encouraging people to put the phone aside, take a digi-break, and read hard copy,” Bret adds. They are also holding literary events in the lounge: April will feature Jonathan Leaf (City of Angles), and the poetry of Rachel Hadas.
I pulled Suze Rotolo’s A Freewheelin’ Time: A Memoir of Greenwich Village in The Sixties from the shelf when I was in for lunch at the bar recently, and was happy to notice a handful of others browsing a book, a newspaper and The New Yorker. The scenario — all of us, alone in public — certainly brought Hopper to mind (he lived five blocks away at One Washington Square, the lower edge of the bookshelf grid, by the way). It was consistent for a restaurant that championed solo bar dining for decades, and a restaurant that so lived up to its name, it served me the perfect only-in-New-York moment just then.
I looked up from A Freewheelin’ Time when I heard a familiar voice engaging the bartender. I spotted F. Murray Abraham sitting a few stools down. He smiled at me and raised his glass. I smiled back, nodded, and mentioned that I loved his gift to the Gotham collection.
“Isn’t that bookshelf just wonderful?!” he said.
I agreed. He went back to his drink. I went back to my book. And the two of us sat, alone, together.