Visiting The Drama Book Shop

I had one question above all others when I visited the reopened Drama Book Shop over the weekend in its new location at 266 West 39th Street, a very long 28 months after a rent hike chased the century-old theater bookstore out of its old location a block away:

Will I be able to hang out at the new Drama Book Shop the way I did at the old one?

The Drama Book Shop is now glamorous and gorgeous – bought (and thus saved) by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Tommy Kail et al, the creative team that put together “In The Heights” (which was developed in the old shop’s basement theater) and “Hamilton.” I had heralded the announcement in May of its reopening, and eagerly  read the follow-up articles and interviews about how the new space, designed by “Hamilton” scenic designer David Korins, offered 3,500 square feet featuring custom-made wood bookcases, a coffee bar selling beverages and sandwiches, a pair of armchairs like the ones George Washington sits in on stage at “Hamilton,” and a gravity-defying sculpture made up of thousands of books that snake in mid-air around  the store, which Korins cleverly calls a “bookworm.”

But these details made the answer to my question all the more uncertain. This seemed especially the case since they recommended I make a “shopping reservation” online in advance in order to visit the store, and the website explained: “To ensure a safe shopping experience and to maintain social distancing, capacity will be limited to 40 people at a time.”

I made the reservation for Saturday morning, two days after its official opening on June 10, that coincided with the opening of “In The Heights.” I figured this would be after the hoopla. 

Outside there was somebody in an HBO Max mask, t-shirt and cap, next to a huge purple pin, promoting the new movie “In The Heights.” It’s part of a weekend campaign, the man tells me, promoting 20 locations in Manhattan connected to HBO shows, ranging from Succession to Gossip Girl.

The storefront window was emblazoned with gold lettering

SINCE 1917.”

Inside, a store employee in a blue Drama Book Shop mask checked the reservation on my smart phone.

“How long will I be able to stay?”
“As long as you want.”

I sat on a banquette – presumably the one modeled on a piece of furniture in the 1940 film “The Shop Around the Corner,” that Korins had mentioned in one of his interviews – and read for almost four hours.

I took breaks. I took pictures. I ordered a sandwich, a tea, got cups of water. I wandered around, looked at the staff picks, the theater posters that lined the walls, the first editions in glass enclosed book cases, the tchotchkes and branded apparel for sale. I noticed items on prominent display (books, pins) connected to Hamilton/In The Heights/Miranda/Kail, which (added to the HBO Max campaign on the sidewalk) made me nervous. I wondered: Since they now own the store, does this count as self-promotion? Will the venerated book shop be overrun by tourists, who will turn it in effect into Hamilton:The Store 2.0, just another brand outlet in Times Square like Hershey’s Chocolate World? But then I thought: Wouldn’t any theater book store be taking advantage of what’s happening right now? What’s happening right now is the nationwide opening of a summer movie based on a Broadway musical. Time will tell whether the new owners will exercise restraint and emphasize diversity.

I peered down into the roped-off basement, another 3,000 square feet of space not yet used. Marcus, a staff member whom I recognized from the old store, noticed my gaze and started talking to me about the plans for another theater down there, like the old one.

And I followed that “bookworm,” which begins with Greek texts up on the ceiling and ends in a pile at the first display table when you enter, with some of my favorite recent books, such as “The Theater of War” by Bryan Doerries and “Shakespeare in a Divided America” by James Shapiro.

I also used the rest room, or I should say, one of the rest rooms; they’re individual gender neutral bathrooms now, along a beautiful hallway lined with posters. This was a highlight of my visit, as anybody who hung out at the old Drama Book Shop would understand. Some things really do get better.

Mostly, I read, undisturbed, my main question answered. 

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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