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Brazenhead Books

Photograph of eclectic book shelf and seating by Brian W. Ferry
  • By Jessica Loudis
  • Issue 9
  • Shelf Life

It’s not mandatory to bring a bottle of whiskey to Brazenhead Books, the unmarked bookshop hidden in a nondescript walkup on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, but failing to do so could be considered bad form. That, however, is as far as formalities extend. Michael Seidenberg has been running Brazenhead out of his former apartment for decades, and though it’s no longer his home, the space retains that intimacy. Business comes through word of mouth. After being greeted at the door, strangers strike up conversations that trail off once a desirable acquisition is spotted and then stay for hours, squeezing into narrow rooms teeming with classic paperbacks and pristine first editions. Seidenberg is former puppeteer and street book salesman. Last time I went to Brazenhead—having visited only once, a year earlier—he told me he had been expecting my visit, as I had made a cameo in his dream the night before.

The four small rooms contain a Sontagian breadth of essays and poetry, philosophy and history, science fiction, and anything else worth reading, or, failing that, worth owning and displaying as literary camp. Perhaps because of its quasi-exclusive status, perhaps because of Seidenberg’s attentiveness to his wares, Brazenhead doesn’t feel picked-over the way other secondhand-book shops in New York City do. The good-citizen gesture of checking one’s local bookstore for a title before resorting to Amazon works differently here; browsing is likely to turn up books that you will soon discover you need.

I was once invited to an event at Brazenhead (a conversation on the “utility of strategic ignorance”) and was reminded that “unrepentant freeloaders will be excommunicated,” but it is possible to enjoy a long evening at Brazenhead without being pressured into spending a cent. On the night of the event, I had a long flirtation with I Couldn’t Smoke the Grass on My Father’s Lawn, an out-of-print marijuana tell-all by Charlie Chaplin’s son, Michael, before leaving with Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook and Evelyn Waugh’s The Razor’s Edge.

Last summer, Seidenberg announced that Brazenhead’s days were numbered. Rent was rising. Eviction was supposed to happen last October, but the Upper East Side moves at its own pace, and I saw no signs of change when I visited the store on a warm night in mid-November. Seidenberg hadn’t yet arrived—it was only eight—and my friend and I were welcomed by a friendly Irishman manning the door. As I thumbed through a copy of the original Best American Essays (edited by Elizabeth Hardwick), a trio of women sat in the center of the store and discussed, not without an edge of one-upmanship, the travails of various creative professions—how tricky it is to find a stringer in rural Turkey; how to publicize a novel-in-translation on a shoestring budget; the difficulty of holding a crucifixion pose for hours onstage. In the rearmost room, a coterie of finely aged gentlemen were sharing a bottle of appropriate whiskey. The night was just beginning.

Jessica Loudis is a writer and editor living in Brooklyn.

Photos © Brian W. Ferry