Brazenhead Books in Manhattan has closed. Most of us never went there — it was an illegal store. Access, and the address, were shared amongst insiders. “The secret was known to a small number of discreet patrons and shared strictly by word of mouth,” says Brian Patrick Eha, in a bittersweet New Yorker article about the store, and its owner Michael Seidenberg.
I love the romantic idea of these secret hidden places — so long as I’m on the inside, of course (sucks to not know). But then the romance gives away to head scratching. Did Brazenhead take credit cards, or cash only? Did Seidenberg pay his taxes? How off-the-books was he, really? Did he have a business license? What about the assistant, mentioned in the article — were they paid under the table (he paid a fourteen year-old Jonathan Lethem in books for his work in a retail store)? The article conveniently skips the questions its very reporting begs.
Small businesses are hard work. The regulations and hoops you have to jump through — especially in New York City — are tremendous, and probably unreasonable. Which turns my thoughts to the indie bookstores who do jump through them to keep their doors open. At least they get some nice illustrations from time-to-time.
Not so long ago, Ken Kalfus lamented on these same storied (web)pages: “Only a few of the city’s bookstores remain in business and they each need my patronage desperately.” I guess that goes for the secret illegal stores, as well as the ones anybody can walk into and browse to their hearts content.