A Morsel of Culture on the Upper West Side   

Matt Scheffler

Located at 2246 Broadway, Westsider Books is lodged between a ten-story apartment building and a Starbucks coffee shop. The Upper West Side is lined with chic boutiques, trendy cafés, and luxurious glass high-rise apartments, but this small, cubic building is saturated with the cultural history of a grittier New York. Built in 1902, Westsider’s interior is dimly lit, almost closet-like. Books overflow from shelves that line the narrow walls from floor to ceiling.  Sections range from “photography” to “Kabuki Theater.” The atmosphere is earthy, archaic, and idiosyncratic. On my first visit, I could not help but breathe in the sentimental musk of yellowing pages and mahogany. I walked out with a dated volume on method acting and an anthology of Woody Allen screenplays. Despite its musty ambience, Westsider Books is imbued with an iconic identity of the surrounding area. It isn’t just what’s inside the store that makes it important, it’s what the store embodies: built in the style of neo-classical architecture, the structure preserves and celebrates a forgotten culture and local heritage.

The Upper West Side did not see its rise to prominence until the late nineteenth century. According to historian Sarah Waxman, the advent of the apartment building was the catalyst for the Upper West Side’s growth. Moving New York City’s wealthy denizens from West End townhouses into high-rise apartments created a new real estate market and a residential milieu. By the turn of the century, the Upper West Side soared with high-rise apartment buildings (Waxman). In 1902, developer William C. Dewey commissioned well-known architect John H. Duncan, known for his use of the Beaux Arts style, to design a ten-story flat on the corner of Broadway and 80th street. The establishment of the building was not the first partnership between Dewey and Duncan; they also collaborated on Hotel Wolcott earlier that year (“NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission”). Yet it was this burgeoning appeal for high altitude luxury that lured property tycoon Dewey and architect Duncan to the Upper West Side.

Little is known about William C. Dewey’s career in New York City, except that he was the owner of “considerable property” (“In the Real Estate Field”). According to a report by the Landmarks Preservation Commission, William C. Dewey lived in Springfield, Massachusetts before he moved to New York City in 1891. Originally a real estate broker, Dewey became a developer at the turn of the century and purchased property all over the city, including the plot of land on the corner of Broadway and 80th street (“NYC Landmarks”). However, Dewey’s career as a developer was short-lived. By 1905, a lawsuit brought the Hotel Wolcott to foreclosure and, in 1908, the ten-story flat was foreclosed (“In the Real Estate Field”).

John Hemmingway Duncan enjoyed a career as a popular architect between the end of the nineteenth century to the dawn of the twentieth, studying architecture both in Binghamton, New York and abroad (Pearson, Marjorie, and Urbanelli). Known for his design of historic monuments in New York City, Duncan’s rise to prominence in the architectural community came in the early 1880s, when he and his contemporaries founded the Architectural League of New York in 1881 (“New York City”). By 1886, Duncan had established his own design firm and designed both the 1886 Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Memorial Arch at Grand Army Plaza (dedicated to Union soldiers in the Civil War) and the General Grant National Memorial in 1890. After completing these high-profile projects, Duncan moved to the forefront of the city’s architectural scene, which led to more commissions for commercial and residential buildings, such as the Knox Hat Company and Dewey’s Upper West Side flat (Gray).

At the time of the ten-story flat’s construction, America was undergoing what historians Donna and Jonathan Fricker call a “cultural inferiority complex,” stemming from an obsession with Europe (Fricker and Fricker). This sentiment was exemplified at the 1893 Columbian Exhibition, also known as the Chicago World’s Fair, where Greco-Romanesque architecture, in all of its grandeur and regality, seduced American architects. The Beaux Arts movement in the United States grew out of L’École des Beaux Arts, an institution of fine arts in France. Indeed, many American architects, perhaps even Duncan, studied at the Paris school and brought what they learned back to the States. That same year, with funding from industry titans like Andrew Carnegie and J.P. Morgan, the Society of Beaux Arts was founded as the American cousin of the French École. The wave of influence from the Columbian Exhibition and the growing intellectual push towards Beaux Arts established this style of architecture in America’s cities. Characteristic features included white edifices, arches, domes, vaulted ceilings, and columns. Symmetry was prized, along with aesthetic embellishments such as molding and sculptures (Fricker and Fricker).

These elements adorn Duncan’s building on Broadway and 80th Street. The building is formal, regal, and lavish. The roofline is ornately ribbed and there are small crest-like medallions on some of the windows. Dewey and Duncan’s structure, like the Upper West Side in general, is representative of a culture that reveled in regal pedigree. Synthesizing pre-existing European flavor with American taste for high-rises, this neighborhood is stately, grand, and illustrious. Duncan’s Neo-Classical Beau-Arts aesthetic appealed to wealthy property owners (Pearson, Marjorie, and Urbanelli).

Not only does Westsider Books evoke older eras in its architectural, it also recollects them through literature. In 2002, owners Dorian Thornley and Brian Gonzalez purchased the shop, originally established in the 1980s under the name Gryphon Books, and endowed it with its current name, Westsider Books (Fantozzi). At one time, the books on the store’s wooden shelves may have been readily available, but most of them are out of print today. The books inside Westsider are no longer books, but artifacts, small fragments of an older culture. Everything in Westsider Books is old. There are vinyl records caked with dust, rickety reading stools, and a decrepit bookshelf ladder that appears to be rotting away. However, within the small store, books are ordered with care. One can tell by perusing their shelves that Westsider Books celebrates the old and the historic.

That Westsider Books exists as an independent bookstore acknowledges a dying culture in New York City. Joanna Fantozzi writes that Westsider Books holds “the unofficial title of the last used bookstore on the Upper West Side” (Fantozzi). Unlike in Manhattan, there are no more independent bookstores in the Bronx, and the only bookseller that remains in that borough is a Barnes and Noble (Beekman). With the emergence of large retailers like Barnes and Noble and the availability of Kindles and iPads, the market share for independent book sellers is shrinking quickly. Physical books are less available, and the rare books at Westsider are relics of that reading culture. Independent bookstores, according to NPR, bind communities and foster the education and enlightenment their residents (Neary). Without Westsider Books or other independent bookstores, New York’s urban may be at risk.

Westsider Books is a landmark worth preserving because it is of historical, architectural, and intellectual significance. Whether through its structural aesthetic, where its architecture alludes to the splendor and might of an archaic age, or its hidden gems stashed on sagging shelves, Westsider Books embodies the city’s urban and reading history.

Work Cited

Beekman, Daniel. “Last Independent Bookstore in the Bronx – Books in the Hood – Will Close This Month.” NY Daily News, 4 Dec. 2011. Web.

Fantozzi, Joanna. “Dying Breeds: Upper West Side Book Store Holds Out.” Nypress.com, 30 Jan. 2013. Web.

Fricker, Jonathan, and Donna Fricker. “The Beaux Arts Style.” Louisiana Division of Historic Preservation, Feb. 2010. Web.

Gray, Christopher. “A Building Befitting the Hat’s Heyday.” The New York Times, 11 Apr. 2011. Web.

“In The Real Estate Field.” The New York Times, 4 Feb. 1902. Print.

Neary, Lynn. “End Of Days For Bookstores? Not If They Can Help It.” NPR, 14 Dec. 2010. Web.

“New York City.” Landmarks Preservation Commission. Nyc.gov, 20 Dec. 2011. Web.

Pearson, Marjorie, and Elisa Urbanelli, eds. “Upper West Side/Central Park West Historic District Designation Report Volume I: Essays/Architects’ Appendix.” New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission 1 (1990). Nyc.gov, 24 Apr. 1990. Web.

Waxman, Sarah. “The History of the Upper West Side.” NY.com. 03 Dec. 2014. Web.