If, as the old saying goes, business and family don’t mix, then Adina Cohen, Naomi Hample and Judith Lowry should long since have stopped speaking to each other. For almost 60 years, they’ve worked together in the same bookstore, Argosy, arriving together every morning and leaving together late in the evening. They begin every day with a work meeting, make all the decisions together and jointly maintain one of New York’s oldest and most colorful cultural institutions.
Argosy, they say proudly, is the oldest bookstore in the city. It has some 300,000 titles arranged on hundreds of shelves sprawling over seven floors. Piles of additional books, waiting for someone to put them in their places, are strewn in disarray over reading tables made of heavy wood which are positioned throughout the store.
Portraits of statesmen and cultural giants hang on the walls. Impressive globes are placed on some of the tables alongside large reading lamps, which give the place the appearance of an academic library. Hundreds of posters are displayed on special stands in the center of the store, alongside cartoons and records from the 1950s. There are also quite a few historical documents and, most important of all, many books. Some were published this year, others several decades ago, and more than a few are from the 19th century or even earlier.
It’s Thursday afternoon. Inside the store, random visitors mingle with curious tourists armed with maps and cameras who have come specially to visit the site. They wander from floor to floor like they would in a museum. Some are searching for a rare book, others browse through the piles looking for anything that catches their eye and still others want thick volumes with impressive covers that will look good in their living rooms.
An elderly woman in a fur coat, her face made up in glaring colors, comes up to Ben Lowry, Judith Lowry’s son and a third-generation bookseller, to offer him her wares — about 1,000 used books that she has at home. She shows him pictures of her library and explains that she will soon move to a new apartment, without the books.
He tells her there are some books the store will buy in almost any condition. It will almost certainly take Hemingway or Fitzgerald, William Faulkner or Shakespeare, unless they’re in really terrible condition. On the other hand, he says, he wouldn’t take Moliere even if she offered it for free, because the store doesn’t need any more Moliere books. It already has plenty, given that no one wants to buy Moliere nowadays. “Though that could change someday,” he adds.
A Darwin for $60,000
If Madison Square Garden, home to the New York Knicks, is a Mecca for basketball, Argosy is a Mecca for readers. You get a feeling of cultural richness the moment you cross the store’s threshold, and it sends you back decades in time, to a world that has supposedly disappeared.
There are best-sellers in flimsy covers alongside first editions of 18th-century classics, historical letters by Queen Elizabeth II alongside modern cookbooks. There’s a crammed bookcase full of books on sale, $3 to $5 per book, and on the other side is an original edition of one of Shakespeare’s plays, which is kept in a safe up above and is priced at $150,000. A first edition of Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” is priced at a more modest $60,000. There was also a first edition of “Moby Dick,” which sold for $20,000.
It’s been like this for 93 years already, ever since Louis Cohen, father to Judith, Naomi and Adina, founded the store in 1925. The three sisters know little about their father’s family background. After some discussion, they agree that his parents immigrated from Poland and Russia.
Adina Cohen, at 76, the youngest of the three, says that when they asked Lou, as they call him, about his past, he would say it wasn’t important. In that era, she says, everyone was preoccupied solely with how to become American.
But they do know something about their father’s history through his bookshelves. He was the youngest of eight brothers, and when he was still in high school, he worked at a bookstore in New York. With the money he earned, he would go to book fairs and buy piles of books, which he hid under his bed at home.
In 1925, at the age of just 21, he borrowed $500 from a relative and opened Argosy on Fourth Avenue in southern Manhattan. In the early 20th century, that street was considered the city’s avenue of books.
He came from an Orthodox Jewish home, but he was completely secular, a diehard left-winger, says Naomi Hample, 80, the middle daughter. Yet he remained very proud of his Judaism, she adds.
Judith Lowry, 83, says he saw religion as the opium of the masses. But even though various people proposed that he change his surname, arguing that a name like Cohen could hurt his business, he never considered doing so, she notes.
On the other hand, Naomi points out, he was practical enough to understand that it wasn’t smart to put “Cohen” in the bookstore’s name.
Argosy was named after a Spanish trading ship. But Ben Lowry offers another explanation: His grandfather wanted a name that began with the letter “A,” so that anyone looking for a bookstore in the telephone directory would find him first. Judith and Adina nod in agreement.
Today, a 21-year-old with no money probably couldn’t even open a hot dog stand in Manhattan or any of the nearby towns. But back then, the sisters say, anyone who rented a store in New York got the first three months rent-free. And during those three months, their father bought and sold enough books to pay for the next few months’ rent.
As evidence of their father’s flair for business, the sisters tell a story from the economic crisis that erupted in the late 1920s, when many people were in dire financial straits. Lou Cohen bought penny postcards and sent them to many people with an offer to buy their used books, Naomi relates. By 1933, he had enough books to move to a new location, on 59th Street between Lexington and Park avenues, in the area that had become the city’s new literary center. Today, it’s one of the most desirable locations in Manhattan, a five-minute walk from Central Park and a few blocks from Rockefeller Center.
Louis Cohen’s bookstore became a byword. Former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt used to order books from it. Jacqueline Kennedy, the first lady, was a regular customer, as was former President Bill Clinton.
A more surprising customer was Michael Jackson, who used to go there as a young child and went back on several occasions after becoming a global pop star. Naomi says he was mainly interested in music books — and also, not surprisingly, in books about Peter Pan.
Louis never pushed his daughters to go into the family business. Just the opposite, in fact. “In my sophomore year of college I told him I wanted to work in the store,” says Adina. “He asked me if I knew how to type. When I said no, he said then he had nothing to offer me. A year later I went back to him to ask for a job and again he asked me if I’d learned how to type. When I said no, he said he had nothing to offer me.”
Naomi has her own version of a job interview with her father. “During college I went to him and asked to work in the store and he said he’d only take me after I worked somewhere else first. He wanted me to work for a very strict boss and said I needed someone who would teach me a work ethic. I remember pleading with him, telling him I promised never to be late, if he would only give me an opportunity. And from then on, I really was always on time.”
Naomi has been arriving on time for 60 years now. “The day after I graduated college in 1958, I started working here full time and I’m still going,” she says proudly. Judith began working there a few years before, and Adina began when she finished college. “We love what we do and we have no intention of stopping any time soon,” says Adina. Her sisters nod in agreement. None of them has any thought of retiring. “Our father died in January 1991, when he was 87,” Adina says. “On Saturday he was in the store, working as usual, and on Sunday he died.”
It really does seem like the long years of working in the shop, the contact with customers and the love of books has been good for the sisters. All three well-dressed women are brimming with energy as they flit from one part of the store to the other, keeping everything looking spiffy. And all have very pleasant personalities. “One time we had a customer who wanted to buy all the books that were published in 1922, the year he was born,” says Naomi. Another customer, a tourist from Indonesia, just happened to come into the store and ended up walking out with $60,000 worth of purchases.
Still, they admit that the store’s glory days are past. “People read much less these days. Everyone’s busy all the time with other things,” says Judith. “There were times when, before Christmas, people would come here to do their shopping and you’d see a line all the way to the door of people with bags full of books. That doesn’t exist anymore,” Adina adds.
The block where Argosy still stands once was home to five book stores. All the rest went bankrupt. They fell victim to the Internet, then to Kindle, Amazon and the major book chains, which are also barely managing to stay afloat. Judith, Naomi and Adina have no illusions. “Our great good fortune is that our father bought the building decades ago so we don’t have to pay rent. Otherwise, we would have closed a long time ago,” says Judith. “We have 12 employees and have to pay a quarter of a million dollars just in taxes each year.”
Owning a building in such a central Manhattan location means they’ve gotten some remarkable offers. “You can’t imagine how many developers and builders have offered to buy the building from us,” says Judith. The women say they could easily get $20 million for the place, which makes sense when you consider that the land rights would allow for the construction of a nine-story apartment building. But despite the endless flow of offers, they’ve never seriously considered selling. “And we’re in total harmony on this issue,” Adina says.
“I remember him telling us more than once that if we sell the business after he dies, he wants us to donate all the books to Israel,” she says. Judith remembers her father telling her the same thing during the last years of his life. But as long as it’s up to them, or to grandson Ben Lowry, Israel won’t be seeing those books anytime soon.