In Manhattan’s Drama Book Shop, a sculpture of a bookworm corkscrews across the front of the store, its 140 feet of scripts and songbooks twisted along a steel skeleton. Starting with ancient Greek writings, the collection quickly grows to 2,400 books, including a copy of “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical.”
The new West 39th Street site of the century-old bookstore opens on Thursday, and its main attraction is a 3,500-pound monument to the history of theatre.
The shop — like so many bookstores around the country — experienced brushes with death, driven not only by e-commerce but also by fire and flood, before confronting a rent raise it could not endure, in 2018.
The much-loved institution was in jeopardy of shutting its doors, leaving no place for students, artists, scholars, and fans to research their favourite performers or read up on their favourite works.
Then Help Arrived From an Unlikely Source.
The longtime owners of the business sold it to four individuals who had all benefited financially from the success of “Hamilton:” the musical’s author, Lin-Manuel Miranda; the show’s director, Thomas Kail; the musical’s leading producer, Jeffrey Seller; and the theater’s owner, James L. Nederlander.
Kail has an especially intimate relationship with the shop – 20 years ago, right out of college, he founded a small theatrical company in its basement. The two collaborated on “In the Heights” when he joined forces with Miranda.
Kail claimed, “I wasn’t born in a trunk; I arrived in the world in the depths of the Drama Book Shop.” “The prospect of it closing hurt since so many of my earliest creative interactions and relationships took place there. I didn’t want to think about New York without it and I couldn’t think about it.
In this series, Times theatre reporter Michael Paulson talks to Lin-Manuel Miranda, presents Shakespeare in the Park, and more as they look for glimmers of optimism in a transformed city. The series “Offstage” has been documenting the closure of a theatre for the past 12 months. We’re witnessing its recovery right now.
Kail made a connection between the opening of the bookstore and the upcoming film adaptation of “In the Heights,” which will be broadcast in theatres and on HBO Max on the same day.
He explained that “Heights” was set in a different part of Manhattan where rising rents were driving firms out of business. As the saying goes, “the line is drawn in the sand.”
The “Hamilton” crew packed up shop in January 2019 at its West 40th Street site and placed everything away in storage until they could reopen at a new, as-yet-undisclosed location later in the year. Finding that spot and remodelling it took longer than expected due to the nature of New York real estate. When the pandemic hit, businesses shut down, tourists cancelled their trips, and the streets of Midtown were eerily quiet.
Now that late summer has arrived, the Drama Book Shop has reopened in time for the return of Broadway. “As the theatres are starting to put dates out there, it feels like we’re part of that opening gesture,” Kail said.
The store sells “the play that just won a prize and the play that no one’s heard about,” as well as books about theatre (such as Andrew Lloyd Webber’s memoir, “Unmasked”), according to Kail. Rare literature, such as Edward Albee’s signed first edition of “Three Tall Women” and the original script to “West Side Story,” will also be available for purchase at the shop.
The owners, like those of many bookstores, are banking on the success of their cafe and kitchen to supplement the store’s meagre book sales. But there’s a touch of personality: a mix of coffee from Miranda’s native Puerto Rico will be available for purchase as part of his endeavour to aid growers on the island, which is also the homeland of his parents.
Keeping the theatre “a centre for the theatre community” is one of Miranda’s goals. No, I don’t think we’ll get rich, but maybe if we sell enough coffee we’ll even out.
Designed by “Hamilton” set designer David Korins, the interior spans 3,500 square feet on the main floor and 3,000 square feet in the basement. There’s a pair of armchairs that look like the ones George Washington sat in during the cabinet conflicts in “Hamilton,” and an octagonal banquette that was clearly influenced by a piece of furniture from the 1940 film “The Shop Around the Corner.”
More than 125 theater-related posters decorate the walls, including 17 that literary agent Gilbert Parker gave to Kail shortly before his death in 2019 (including “Kiss of the Spider Woman” and “Crazy For You”).
Chester, a German spitz, is shown lounging by the door in an old photo; the dog is healthy and well, according to a spokesperson, but cannot accompany customers into the new restaurant because of health code restrictions.
The vendors are looking forward to hosting a number of author lectures and book signings. The unfinished basement will host workshops and other events, and it even has the piano where “Paciencia y Fe,” a song from “In the Heights,” was created.
A Representative for the Shop Confirmed that Six Former Employees are Returning to Work.
The store has a capacity limit at opening due to ongoing concerns about the coronavirus; the proprietors are encouraging customers to make free reservations online, but those who don’t do so will have to wait in line.
Asked what he hopes to see once the shop is open, Korins said, “Everyone would hope the next Lin-Manuel Miranda and Tommy Kail will be sitting there, conjuring up their next project.”