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Story of the Week: Hamilton Creators Rescue the Drama Book Shop

Lin-Manuel Miranda, Thomas Kail, Jeffrey Seller, and James L. Nederlander team up to buy the century-old business that became a New York theater institution.

Thomas Kail and Lin-Manuel Miranda speak at another bookstore in 2018, surrounded by original cast members of In the Heights.
(© Tricia Baron)

This week's biggest story proved that Christmas miracles are real, even if they sometimes come in early January. In discussing his part in saving the Drama Book Shop, Hamilton director Thomas Kail was right to reference the Frank Capra holiday classic It's a Wonderful Life, in which the whole town pitches in to save a small business. By purchasing the shop and pledging to move it to a more sustainable midtown location, Kail and his partners are preserving a beloved institution for the next generation. Sure, it's a measly one-horse business, but this town needs the Drama Book Shop if only to have some place where thespians can go without crawling to Jeff Bezos. To understand why that's important to the future of live theater and of New York City, read on.

Why does the Drama Book Shop matter?
Founded in 1917, the Drama Book Shop has served the New York theater community for over a century with a vast selection of theater-history books, sheet music, and, most crucially, scripts. It currently keeps over 8,000 plays and scripts in stock, a number unparalleled by any other brick-and-mortar shop in the city. While it has had several locations over the past hundred years, it has occupied its present storefront at 250 West 40th Street since 2001. Kail had his first New York directing gigs in 2002 in the small black box theater in the basement (named after Arthur Seelen, who purchased the store in 1958). That's where Kail and composer Lin-Manuel Miranda worked out a lot of what would become In the Heights, their first Tony-winning musical. Extraordinarily friendly to browsers (whether theater writers or fans), the store has long been a vital nexus for members of the theater community, a place where they can share ideas as the accumulated knowledge of their craft stares down at them from the shelves.

TheaterMania critics Zachary Stewart and Hayley Levitt browse the stacks at the Drama Book Shop.
(© Seth Walters)

Why was the shop in trouble?
Like a lot of brick-and-mortar bookstores, the Drama Book Shop faces fierce competition from online retailers, especially Amazon. Combine that with a proposed rent hike (from a monthly $18,000 to $30,000) and you have a recipe for certain death. But unlike similar specialty stores that folded (the LGBT-centric Oscar Wilde Bookshop in 2009, the anarchist-friendly St. Mark's Bookshop in 2016), Drama Book Shop received a lifeline in the form of new management: On January 8, it was announced that longtime owner Rozanne Seelen (widow of Arthur) sold the store to a group of Broadway heavyweights for the cost of the remaining inventory and rent support during the old location's remaining weeks. The new owners have pledged to retain Seelen as a consultant.

Who are the new owners?
There are four: Kail and Miranda have teamed up with Jeffrey Seller, the producer of Hamilton and In the Heights. The fourth partner is James L. Nederlander, president of the Nederlander Organization, which owns theaters across the United States (including the Richard Rodgers Theatre, where Hamilton is currently playing). They intend to move the store to a new midtown location with a more reasonable rent situation, which seems quite doable for this group: When it comes to securing a lease with good terms, it helps to have Broadway's second-biggest landlord in your corner.

James L. Nederlander (right) appears with his wife, Margo Nederlander, at the 2018 American Theatre Wing Gala.
(© Tricia Baron)

When will we get to shop there?
While the new location for the Drama Book Shop has yet to be announced, the partners plan to reopen this fall, when the shop will once again be a place for casual theater enthusiasts to mingle with working professionals (and perhaps some future Tony winners) at readings and special events, or to just browse the shelves. Until then, shoppers have a little over a week to say goodbye to the West 40th Street location: It closes its doors on January 20 — the end of an act, but by no means the final curtain.