December 13, 2003

Despite my best efforts, last weekend I found myself slipping into December torpor.  Even in the best of years, December is a tough, harried, wearying month, and this is certainly not the best of years (although my brother’s wedding in October did bring a lot of sweetness to it).  This has been a particularly hard year for my mother, as my grandfather died in October and my grandmother continues to be robbed of herself by Alzheimer’s.  Last Sunday I was overcome by the realization that I was a rotten daughter, that Mom would be having a particularly tough Christmas this year, and that I hadn’t spoken to her since Thanksgiving weekend, when she and my stepdad brought my cousin, visiting from L.A., into the city for a trip to the Metropolitan Museum and dinner.  I called her, got the answering machine, and left a long rambling message about how I hadn’t called in a while, I wanted to make sure she was okay, I’m sorry I’ve been so low-profile, I love you, Mom.  I didn’t hear anything from her for the rest of the day.  I went to bed worrying.  At 3 a.m. I snapped out of a cluttered and exhausting dream with the realization that the reason Mom hasn’t called is because she and my stepdad are in France, on a vacation that they have been planning, and I have known about, for six months. I felt a momentary surge of relief, followed by a bigger, longer-lasting surge of embarrassment.  I’d forgotten about the trip that was one of the only bright spots in my mother’s year.  I *am* a rotten daughter.  Fortunately, my rottenness gave Mom something to tease me about when she called tonight to say that they were home.

Even with the toughness of this particular December, I do have something else to celebrate, and while it may sound frivolous, I am still celebrating.  For the first time in two years, I will be buying the lion’s share of my Christmas presents at Coliseum Books.  Coliseum is an independent bookstore in Manhattan, 100,000 titles strong.  For 27 years it occupied the corner of 57th Street and Broadway.  Much has been made of the ugliness of this space, at least compared to the new Barnes & Noble and Borders superstores.  If Barnes & Noble is a comfortable reading room, Coliseum was a supermarket, all hard surfaces, neon in the windows, no seats except for occasional footstools purloined from the store staff who used them for reaching the high shelves, shelf stock shrinkwrapped to keep it clean in a location where dirt was easily tracked in.  And yet, I loved this space, found it the most browsable bookstore in the city, whiled away hours in there, bought so many books that my co-workers used to joke that I should just sign my paycheck over to Coliseum.  I used to go to cosmetic industry happy hours at Le Bar Bat, leave in a tipsy, ebullient mood, head to the subway, pass Coliseum and think, hmmm, no harm in just taking a peek.  The next morning I would wake up, take my little Pez dispenser of Excedrin, mutter never again, and curl up with my new books.

Of course, there were whisperings of trouble for years about Coliseum’s lease, that once the lease was up, they would never be able to renegotiate their old terms, as the space had become too valuable.  I crossed my fingers that the store’s owner and the building’s owner would be able to renegotiate; then I plugged my fingers into my ears in an attempt to stave off hearing the inevitable.  Coliseum closed on January 25, 2002, and I felt as if my heart had been torn from my chest.  The first time I walked by the building after the store had closed, I wanted to kick all the windows in.

This may seem like an extreme reaction to the closure of a shop, even a well-loved bookshop, and it was, but then, it was an extreme year.  There was, of course, That Event on That Day.  (Everyone has a 9/11 story to tell, and I am no exception, but it is another story for another day.) I was lucky in that everyone I knew or cared about who worked in or near the towers got out and got home safely.  I knew too many people who did not have that luck, and lost someone dear to them.  I remember days, weeks, of walking around the city, feeling grief everywhere, literally breathing it in, as if it were part of the ink-scented air.  While we were trying to make sense of it all, wondering if there was even sense to be had, anthrax was discovered at NBC, literally down the street from us, and suddenly everyone around me was on the phone with their spouses, arguing over whether they should try to get Cipro prescriptions for their kids.  In November 2001 my company moved from our funky little office across the street from Coliseum to our parent company’s office on 49th and Park.  We were promptly greeted by bomb threats, which forced us to evacuate the building twice a day for six weeks.  (The “bomber” was eventually discovered to be a mailroom employee of a tenant that has since vacated the building; he confessed that he had called the bomb threats in so that he could get some additional break time while he was out delivering mail to the company’s other locations.  The NYPD, the FBI and the Secret Service were not amused.) Every day seemed like a fresh assault, another day to question just what was going to happen to us now, and how much more could we absorb?  I felt that there was no quarter for goodness in the world.  I had the darkest thoughts about my fellow man that I had ever believed possible.  Walking into Coliseum in those days was like being greeted by a friend, or the kindest teacher you’d had in high school, who would listen to you rage about your dark thoughts and then say, well, maybe you’re right, but just in case you’re not, why not immerse yourself in someone else’s thoughts for a while, and see if you change your mind?  And I always did, right up until the week before Coliseum closed, when I watched people fill up baskets with books marked down 20%, while I stood in line with my lone copy of Daniel Handler’s The Basic Eight, thinking, is this really the last book I’m going to buy at Coliseum?

George Leibson, the owner of Coliseum, vowed to find another space.  I waited, patiently.  Finally, in January 2003, he announced that a space had been found on 42nd Street, across the street from the New York Public Library and Bryant Park.  He noted that he would do the best he could with the space, but it would still be only 2/3 of the old store space, not counting the space that would be dedicated to the cafe (his investors required that he put in a cafe to remain competitive with the chain bookstores).  More than one person, including friends of mine who should have known better, made snotty comments about how long Coliseum could last when people could just go across the street for free books.  (The pedant in me is honor-bound to point out that the NYPL’s actual lending library is two blocks to the south of the main NYPL building, the one with the lions in front.)

Coliseum reopened on June 17 of this year, and yes, I was there as fast as I could possibly walk.  I am still trying to figure out how George only got 2/3 of the space of the old store, yet managed to make it feel so much bigger.  It feels like a bigger space.  But the old shelves, the old fixtures, the old signage dots the store, which now has friendly wooden floors, the better to stand on and browse.  On that day I walked around, touching everything.  As I was browsing the new paperback fiction aisle, I felt a touch at my elbow and a voice saying, “I thought you might be here.” It was Lloyd.  (Since Coliseum is between my office and his office, we bump into each other there a lot.) I bought a Lidia Bastianich cookbook and Christopher Moore’s novel Lamb:  The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal.  All around me were people like me, people who lost a piece of their hearts the day that Coliseum closed, who got that piece back when they heard the news that Coliseum would be back.  “Have people been telling you how thrilled they are that you’re back?” I asked the clerk at the register.  “You have no idea,” he said happily.

Posted by Bakerina at 12:39 AM in please support these fine businesses • (0) Comments
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