Thursday, October 6, 2011
In the early 1920s, noteworthy visitors to Frank Shay’s Bookshop at 4 Christopher Street began autographing the narrow door that opened into the shop’s office. Signed by over 240 artists, writers, publishers, and other notable habitués of Greenwich Village, this unusual artifact is a literal portal to the past, revealing the rich mix of innovators— from anarchist poets to major commercial publishers—that defined this slice of Bohemia from 1920 to 1925.
The shop was a haunt of legendary figures: novelists Upton Sinclair and John Dos Passos browsed alongside artists John Sloan and James Earle Fraser. Poets Edwin Arlington Robinson and Vachel Lindsay rubbed elbows with publishers Thomas Seltzer and John Farrar. Playwright Susan Glaspell and Theatre Guild founder Lawrence Langner crossed paths with Algonquin Round Table members Donald Ogden Stewart and Heywood Broun.
This narrow pine door began its life in a flat at 11 Christopher Street once occupied by the novelist and prominent Villager Floyd Dell. In 1921 the building was demolished, but not before Frank Shay saved the door—painted red at the time—and took it across the street and installed it at the back of his shop. As Christopher Morley tells the story, Shay enjoyed an afternoon drink in his office and hung the door to hide this then-illegal activity; these were the days of Prohibition.
According to Morley, the first signer was artist Hendrik Willem Van Loon. His name appears in the center front, accompanied by a cartoon ship. We do not know whether signing the door was a privilege reserved only for some customers. The vast majority of signers were well known; a small number were local businesspeople or friends of the shop’s various owners.
As the number of signatures grew, the door became a well-known curiosity, and people visited the shop to see it. Over the five years that the shop was in business, the door was covered with approximately 242 signatures, most in pencil. Shay likely added the blue “frame” before he sold the shop in 1923. Varnish was added at some point, protecting most of the signatures, though some had already smudged or faded beyond recognition.
When the shop closed in 1925, then-owner Juliette Koenig moved the storied door to her New York apartment. In 1960 she put it up for sale, and the Ransom Center purchased it.
The Greenwich Village bookshop door can be seen in the current exhibition The Greenwich Village Bookshop Door: A Portal to Bohemia, 1920–1925, on display through January 22, 2012. Many of artist Van Loon’s cartoons appear on the walls throughout the exhibition.