On an unseasonably warm afternoon in early December of 1982, I was pounding the pavement in Manhattan, trying to find my first job after graduating from college the previous spring. I had a fresh haircut, my shirt collar itched me, and I was baking inside my new moderately-priced Hagar suit of unknown fiber, and my even more moderately priced overcoat. When the pundits say that we’re heading for “the worst job market in nearly thirty years,” they’re talking about December of 1982. I was on my way from one interview to another, walking south on Fifth Avenue when the sight of something on the opposite side of the street stopped me dead in my tracks. It was one of the most beautiful buildings I’d ever seen. It was of a style from the earliest part of the century, and its size modest compared to the city that had grown up around it, rising only twelve stories. At 597 Fifth Avenue stood the Charles Scribner Building.
In my job search I had been traveling from one modern glass box to another. This was an image from an earlier, more personal time. The storefront was glass and black, with striped awnings. There were details in masonry and fine guilt-edged lettering and above all a simple symmetry of design that was both firm and tasteful. In the windows of the storefront were the latest hardcover offerings for the coming holiday season. Somewhere on one of the floors above the store I imagined was the office where Max Perkins pored over manuscripts from his discoveries: Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe.
I stood there for a few minutes, catching my breath, opening a few more buttons on my coat in an effort to cool down. People passed me by; taxis and bicycle messengers flew past me on the street in front of me, taking no notice of the masterpiece of architecture in their midst.
But it wasn’t just the architecture. It was a place where great books had been published. Every young writer imagines walking by a city bookstore and seeing their book displayed in the front window. My writing dream had temporarily been set aside during that tumultuous year when I was trying to find my first job and I was among the eleven percent of us who were unemployed.
The dream came back for a few minutes that day. Then I had to move on. I had to get to an interview in a glass box.
That beautiful building still stands, but it is no longer owned by Scribner’s Sons. The store is now owned by skin care and cosmetics retailer Sephora. The publishing company itself is an imprint owned by Simon & Schuster.
The entire publishing industry is undergoing a complete implosion. All the major publishing houses, Simon & Schuster included, are laying off employees and severely cutting back on new acquisitions. That dream of seeing your book in the window of a brick and mortar storefront has become a dream of a past age.
Here’s an article from Time about the current state of publishing.
Yet another take on publishing in the twenty-first century at Ward Six.
Some books edited by Max Perkins:
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