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Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Penguin Book Shop - 1920s Greenwich Village


In 1924, an employee of the Penguin Book Shop in New York used this company post card to reply to a customer about an order. "J" informs the customer, whom he (or she) seems to know, that one of the books, Psychopathology of Everyday Life is on the way. Another book, Cowboy Songs, has been ordered. An eclectic reading list to be sure. What is not sure is the history of this book shop with the playful typeface in its logo.

For some reason, I thought this would be an easy one to research. That's not proving to be the case. All the vital stats are on the card: Thirty-nine West Eighth is the address. The phone number is STUY 0693. And they're no help.

But I did find a book with an interesting title that provides some sense of the backdrop against which the Penguin Book Shop operated. That book is Tea at the Blue Lantern Inn: A Social History of the Tea Room Craze in America, by Jan Whitaker (St. Martins, 2002).

The Bohemian lifestyle and culture flourished in Greenwich Village in the 1920s and that's where the Penguin Book Shop was located. Tea rooms dotted the landscape and often shared space with other businesses such as gift shops, boutiques, and the like.

Whitaker mentions a weaving studio named Kraftwoven that shared the same address as the Penguin Book Shop at West 8th St. So perhaps you could pick up a copy of Psychopathology of Everyday Life and a wool sweater at the same location.

Artists flocked to the area and I can only assume that, for awhile at least, the Penguin Book Shop was a cool little book nook to browse and hang out. Likely, they weren't the only book shop in the Village, so I don't really know how they stacked up against the competition.

I guess I had this place hooked up with Penguin Books, but that old publisher ain't that old. They got started in 1935, some nine years after the postmark on this post card.


One other thing in the message on the card... After a status report on the books ordered, J thanks the customer for the "very liberal poirboire." I don't know a poirboire from a po'boy sandwich, so I got educated on poirboire, which in business terms is a tip or gratuity. So J's got a pretty generous customer. Whitaker lends support to that theory in her book, reporting that prosperous middle-class Americans became fascinated with the Village and began visiting from all over during the 1920s.

Alas, the Penguin Book Shop barely reveals itself in a google search in the 21st century, a modern-day gauge for determining various levels of past achievements or status.

I like the look and feel (as best I can grasp it) of this little book shop from nearly 90 years ago, but I'm afraid there's just not much else to report on. This card from the Roaring Twenties seems to represent a bookselling concern that went out with a whimper. An incorrect supposition? No... not unless I can find out more about this flighty Penguin.

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