Yes, this is the same Drama Book Shop that was perched precariously on the second floor of a shabby-genteel (emphasis on shabby) office building at Seventh Avenue and 48th Street for some 20 years. The dark, dusty room always had a makeshift feel to it--it was, in fact, never intended as a permanent home for the store. But theatrically minded New Yorkers knew it, along with Applause Books on the Upper West Side, as the first and best resort for obscure plays, theatrical biographies, complete Broadway scores, stage techie magazines, or that elusive anthology of audition monologues.
The main problem with the old venue, says Allen Hubby, the new co-owner of the DBS, is that "there was no way to display things." That has been solved spectacularly in the new location. From the gleaming plate glass storefront to the tidy balcony in the back, the space exudes the warm aura of the underdog establishment that Meg Ryan fought to save in You've Got Mail. No Barnes & Noble impersonality here--not with tall blonde-wood shelves, terrazzo floors, and a sales team that actually cares about the theater. All of it evokes an earlier era. (The store even has that rarity New Yorkers crave: a clean public bathroom.) It may remind you of the late, lamented Scribner's on Fifth Avenue or the careworn Fourth Avenue used bookstores of old, like the one in the movie Funny Face. You can easily imagine Fred Astaire pushing Audrey Hepburn down the aisle on a rolling ladder--which, in fact, will be installed shortly.
The family feeling of the store is no fluke: Hubby co-owns it with his aunt, Rozanne Seelen, widow of the previous owner, Arthur Seelen, who took it over from the founder, Marjorie Seligman. Seligman was the stage-struck debutante who, in 1917, began hawking theater books from a card table in the lobby of the ANTA (now Virginia) Theatre on 52nd Street. In 1923, Seligman set up a full-time shop on 47th Street between Fifth and Sixth; it was at a later 52nd Street location that Seligman retired, in 1956, and the journeyman actor Arthur Seelen took over, along with some business partners who drifted away over the years.
Seelen mainly employed his fellow theater lovers, including Rozanne, an actress-dancer who signed on in 1969. "Arthur was the sweetest person, but he just wasn't organized enough to get married," she now chuckles; he lived in a musty Bronx apartment, she was in a Village walkup, and the courtship that began shortly after she joined the team didn't lead to matrimony until 1980. By then, her nephew Allen had begun working there, too. He was an arts administration major conscripted to help clean up after a 1979 fire gutted much of the 52nd Street store ("On my birthday," Rozanne notes wryly). After the move to 48th Street the following year, Hubby stuck around for a couple of summers and then moved on, becoming (among other things) director of operations for Dramatists Play Service for a decade. He returned last year, when the Drama Book Shop's days appeared numbered: Arthur had died and the 48th Street landlords, caught up in the high-rent fever of the Giuliani-era Times Square, were looking to get older tenants out. That's when Hubby and his aunt first mulled co-ownership and scouted locations--no easy thing for an independent retailer in the frenzied real estate climate of the late '90s.
"We wanted to stay in the theater district, but you know what real estate is like there," says Rozanne. "We looked all over: SoHo, the West Village." Finally, when they were shown the former fabric emporium at 250 West 40th, "I grabbed hold of the real estate man, started jumping up and down, and said, 'I want this!'"
There was one problem--well, there were dozens of problems, but one whopper: The place was a mess, gloomy and neglected, with antiquated fixtures. It required a total rethinking, and architects are expensive. So "Allen designed the store--everything--and he's not an architect," Rozanne says proudly. Hubby consulted with experts, took courses, pored over an architecture CD-ROM the contractor had given him, and replaced the prehistoric infrastructure. He and Rozanne also got the necessary permits, fixed the broken balcony, carted out three dumpsters' worth of grime and garbage, and secured financing. It was roughly a nine-month makeover, and the doors opened on schedule on December 3, despite the unavoidable post-September 11 slowdown.
The space does have an air of work-in-progress about it--there's the faint whiff of fresh paint, not every last tile is laid down, and the walls beg for more decoration. Hubby has lots of theatrical and cinematic goodies in storage, ready to go up: framed Playbills of the original Hair and Sweeney Todd, a signed Helen Hayes photo, a quill from the movie Quills. What's already on display is suitably idiosyncratic for a family-run specialty bookshop. The tiny piano upstairs is like the one Rozanne had as a little girl; it was purchased through eBay, as was a 1960s-style shelf from X-Men. The pièce de résistance is an antique, red-velvet sofa warmed by Nicole Kidman in Moulin Rouge.
In the basement you'll find the Arthur Seelen Theater, a 60-seat performance space in need of a little TLC. "It's been a dream of ours for decades," says Rozanne. The theater already has a resident troupe, the Back House Players, who write their own material and recently had an Off-Off Broadway succès d'estime (at an earlier venue) with Hello, Herman. The Seelen will also be a space for touring authors to hold readings and, possibly, for other acting groups.
The new Drama Book Shop is put together with a rare combination of imagination and love. The question is, can it endure in the land of Barnes & Noble and Amazon.com? (The venerable Coliseum Books at Columbus Circle is roadkill and the townhouse space that houses the beloved Gotham Book Mart is on the market for some $7.9 million.) Hubby will only say that business, to his surprise, has been stronger in the new space than it was for the same period the year before, even though many patrons aren't yet aware of the move. Unlike the old second-story bookstore, this one is attracting walk-ins, and Hubby thinks the generous display space is boosting sales. So the next time you're in Times Square and depressed by the Disneyfication of the area, you might want to slip around the corner and relax with a good theater book--on Nicole Kidman's sofa, yet. The store is open seven days a week and you're welcome to browse. Given the temptations inside, I recommend bringing a credit card.