High life

Another New York institution bites the dust

One by one the taverns that made the city hum with Runyonesque characters are being replaced by the sleek and the glitzy

6 December 2014

9:00 AM

6 December 2014

9:00 AM

Except for sickness in one’s family or the loss of a life, is there anything sadder than to see a bookstore shut its doors? I used to live on a street that had three bookstores within 50 yards of each other. All three are now boutiques selling expensive bric-à-brac, or whatever the junk that tarts wear is called. Browsing in a bookstore has to be every bibliophile’s wet dream, a perfect way to stand upright, in a correct posture, and lose weight while reading blurbs. Excelsior! It is every frustrated or unsuccessful writer’s dream to own and operate a bookstore, but nowadays it’s like selling sunlamps to Australians: there are no takers. And how could there be? No one under the age of 60 reads books, and those who do move their lips because they’re going gaga. Mind you, if a bookstore shut because it was being replaced by an old-style drugstore, with blonde girls serving BLTs behind the counter, it’d hurt much less. But a jewellery shop? Even a whorehouse would give more value for money, and believe me, I know.

Fifteen years ago, the chairman of Fiat cars Gianni Agnelli, my boxer friend Count Roffredo Gaetani and I went down past Wall Street to the port where Gianni’s brand-new Stealth was anchored waiting for a trial. The Stealth was made of carbon and some other lightweight material that enabled it to sail in light winds in excess of 20 knots. Even the sails were titanium. We blasted off and did about 30 knots running under Brooklyn Bridge and showing off up and down the Hudson River. After a couple of hours Gianni said he had had enough and expressed a desire to have a ‘real New York pastrami sandwich’. There’s only one place, I told him, Café Edison. ‘228 West 47th street,’ I instructed his driver.


Once there, Gianni sat at a table and the boxer and I were dispatched to get the borscht, the blintzes and the pastrami. The café used to be an ornate ballroom, so those who hung out there — stagehands, agents, actors and musicians — felt right at home. The man slapping the pastrami sandwiches together seemed hurried and in a bad mood. So when my Italian buddy asked in heavily accented English if the pastrami was any good, the real Noo Yawker came out in the sandwich-maker: ‘If you like to eat pussy, you’ll like pastrami; if not, you won’t.’ The count was shocked, shocked at such impudence, but when we told Gianni the story the octogenarian agreed with the sandwich man that pastrami and pussy had a lot in common.

Café Edison will close at the end of this year after a hell of a good run — yet one more New York institution biting the dust. Jackie Mason used to sit at its Formica tables and create punchlines, and Neil Simon’s 45 Seconds from Broadway was based on the café. Another dinosaur, Smith’s Bar and Restaurant, a Broadway statute, shut its doors last month, as, of course, did Elaine’s a couple of years ago. One by one the taverns that made the gritty city hum with Runyonesque characters are being replaced by sleek multimillion-dollar condos and glitzy boutiques for expensive tarts. It’s the way of the world, at least in New York.

What makes the passing of these saloons even sadder is the fact that so many writers cut their teeth describing the characters who hung out there. John O’Hara, one of my favourites, was a real city writer, drinking in Irish bars with cops and sports stars, and hacks who wrote about sport and crime. Toots Shor was a very famous restaurateur and character, and as New York and Irish as they come. He loved Joe DiMaggio, who could do no wrong, and Joe only stopped speaking to the rudest man in New York, as Toots was known, when Toots badmouthed Marilyn Monroe after she left the Yankee clipper. Toots regularly threw O’Hara out when the novelist became too aggressive with customers after a few drinks, but he was always welcomed back the next day with open arms and a few Irish tears. O’Hara was the master, along with Papa Hemingway, of leaving things unsaid, unwritten actually, as he followed boxers and detectives in their chosen professions and got it all down on paper.

In today’s world, O’Hara would have to rely on magic realism, or some other gimmick, in order to write how people actually speak. Places are so noisy. The music is blasted rather than played, people just play with their apps, and there’s no conversation at all. Céline, who made his name by listening to how the French working class spoke, would have remained a doctor and unknown. In O’Hara’s fiction there is a lingering sense that the best days of the city are in the past, as are those of the characters he writes about. John O’Hara was a hell of a fellow. Hemingway used to make fun of him, and always considered him a snob who wished he had been born an aristocrat. But Papa was wrong. The old Irishman wrote the snobby side to perfection — in Appointment in Samarra, From the Terrace, Ten North Frederick, and the epistolary Pal Joey. He was admired by his peers and if ever proof were needed that he was a great writer, a ghastly Japanese-American book reviewer for the New York Times once called him a bad writer and a lout. Almost as good as a Nobel Prize for literature.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10


Show comments
  • ghostoflectricity

    Toots Shor was Jewish, was born and raised in Philadelphia, attended institutions of higher education in that city (Drexel U. and The Wharton School at Penn), and did not move to New York on a permanent basis until 1930, when he was in his late 20s. So as usual Taki is as accurate as he is tactful and tasteful.

    It is interesting that Taki quotes one of his interlocutors as saying “if you like to eat pussy, you’ll like to eat pastrami.” This is the same Taki who routinely uses his columns to denounce the vulgarity of present-day life, presumably in his .01% elite milieu, as opposed to the sophistication, charm, and refinement of the way things used to be in his golden youth, a supposed golden age. And Taki then uses such comparisons to denounce all the vulgar and boorish present-day nouveau riche, who inevitably are Arabs, people of color, and most especially Jews, who are inevitably depicted as fat, ugly, greedy, big-nosed, money-obsessed, cowardly, and gluttonous, with atrocious table manners. Thus saith sage Taki, he who likes comparisons between a salted meat and a woman’s private parts. And of course the T magazine supplement of the Sunday New York Times provided him with another outlet/mouthpiece a few weeks back, denouncing the degradation of his favorite winter playpen Gstaad. Ugh. Enough.

    • Malus Pudor

      So, Taki pretty much got it right then… have you eaten pastrami recently ?

      • jjjj

        And guess what…Taki’s alter ego (and what an ego) is back. Any comment on Taki’s mentioning of whorehouses?

        • Malus Pudor

          Whorehouses are essential for degenerates like you…

          They reduce the danger of knuckle-dragging inadequates such as yourself preying upon the more discerning members of the fair sex !

          • jjjj

            LOL!

          • Malus Pudor

            I trust that’s not meant as a compliment ?

          • jjjj

            I don’t know about a compliment but it was a funny response. I acknowledge that.

    • jjjj

      Excellent! But take care, Tacky’s acolytes will soon be out in force. There’s this one, Malodorous or something who will soon leap to his master’s defence.

  • ghostoflectricity

    Taki calls to mind an aphorism that’s been floating around in my mind for some time:
    There is no bigger bore than a person who constantly denounces others as boring, and there is no bigger boor than a person constantly harping on others’ boorishness.

    • Monkish

      Taki: Will Self for right-wing anti-semites.

  • Mnestheus

    If losing a bookstore is bad cultural news , how about a great university losing half its libraries and eight million books ?

    Knuckling under to bean counters and blindered librarians, Harvard has shed over fifty libraries and tens of thousands of hard copy journal subscriptions , and consigned eight million books and journals to suburban repositories where they will never be browsed again.

  • Fritz123

    Those are the small things that make up life. Debord comes to mind. The ways of a young lady in Paris.

  • Ambientereal

    If we want progress, that´s what we get. Computers have taken all the fun from many things making them too easy and too affordable. Today we can see the best opera with the best ensemble in our kitchen or living room and if we have enough money to buy ten opera tickets we can buy an extraordinary sound device to feel like we are hearing it live. The fun of buying books is also taken as well as to buy clothes (between others) trough the on-line business.

  • Popular Front

    I read a depressing story the other day about a woman trying to sell or donate her late father’s extensive library and having booksellers cherry-pick a few choice titles then telling her to bin the rest. It further went on to another person advised that “if you want to sell this (furnished) house, get rid of all the books”.
    Here I sit typing this, surrounded on three sides by wall-to-ceiling bookshelves packed tight with volumes mainly history and politics but all sorts as well. It includes my late fathers’ library also – we had similar tastes – so in order to avoid duplication I combed out those books which we had in common, kept the best edition and donated the rest (and a small contribution of my own, as I rarely dispose of books) to the local charity book sale. I went back to that sale after a week and everything I had donated was gone to new owners which was fulfilling somewhat.
    My point is, I can do without tv, (and do, apart from Test cricket and rugby) but not to have books and music is unthinkable. Read a book and the entire text runs inside your mind as you do so, better than any so-called ‘blockbuster’ movie could ever do.

Close