For the eight years I lived in Cobble Hill, whenever I passed BookCourt, the Brooklyn bookstore that closed its doors this past December 31, I’d think of the Hemingway story, “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.” I lived around the corner and walking past it, whether I was coming back late and tipsy from drinks with friends or grumpily heading home from work, the windows were always lit by the huge, incandescent hanging lights that bathed the books on display invitingly in their yellowy warmth. It was an almost impossibly homey vision in the big city—an atmosphere that seemed to say, “here is no harshness, no cheating or vice. Here is goodness.”
For years I was reluctant to go in, the place seemed so good. I wondered if, within its warm interior, I’d feel excluded from its specialness and, like many shy people, chose to avoid this potential pain. I walked past the store many more times than I went in. But even before I (slowly) became a regular and eventually an employee, I got to know the owners by sight on the street and I liked them. I would see them standing on the sidewalk at night after a reading or a day’s work—Mary Gannett, one of the store’s two owners, sometimes smiled at me as I hurried past. Henry Zook, her husband (now ex-), looked at every passerby with a frank, curious gaze. Once I ran inside the store just to get out of a torrential thunderstorm and was greeted by Zack Zook (Henry and Mary’s son) with: “Welcome! Come in and have some wine! We’re just about to have a reading!” I was warmed more by his heartfelt welcome than anything else. Unlike many people of status, the Zook-Gannetts don’t have an us-and-them mentality: they were interested in everyone, committed to serving the reading needs of the neighborhood, and, for some souls whom the world had treated harshly, to providing refuge or even, almost, a second home.
The Hemingway story is a good summation of what BookCourt became for many people. In the story, two waiters at a Spanish cafe wait in the wee hours for their last customer, an old man, to finish drinking his brandy so they can close up. One waiter is impatient to get home to his wife, but the older, unmarried waiter feels sympathy for the old man’s need to be out in the world, as opposed to home with terrible loneliness (earlier in the story, they discuss the man’s recent suicide attempt). The younger waiter finally cuts the old man off and sees him out.
“Why didn’t you let him stay and drink?” the unhurried waiter asked. “It is not half-past two.”
“He can buy a bottle and drink at home.”
“It’s not the same.”
“No, it is not,” agreed the waiter with a wife. He did not wish to be unjust. He was only in a hurry.
It’s not simply that you need a place to go, the older waiter muses to himself after his coworker leaves. It has to be a nice place:
It was the light, of course, but it is necessary that the place be clean and pleasant. You did not want music. Certainly you did not want music.
A peaceful atmosphere is desired. But the light is very important, especially to those who are abroad late at night, looking for a little warmth and safety. So BookCourt, beaming with its warm wood and light, functioned as a sanctuary for anyone seeking those things. No one was turned away. Those who found it hard to fit in in a crushingly upwardly mobile city were welcomed, and if their skills were very particular, not for the hurly-burly of the marketplace, Mary and Henry treated them gently and often employed them—a greater gift than nearly any that you can give to the delicate, the lost.
BookCourt was open till 10:00 pm every night, providing space for a quiet browse or, if you were in the mood for company, a place to sit with others at a reading. Over the years, literary superstars like Junot Diaz and Karl Ove Knausgaard caused lines around the block, but the store was just as likely to host first-time novelists, local humorists, and children’s authors for readings. Children were well served by BookCourt, with a huge selection of books for all ages and benches for parents to read the books aloud. The store opened their basement to the Sackett Street Writing Workshop, as well as other book clubs.
As much as any business may provide for emotional needs—and many businesses do, because it attracts people and makes money—BookCourt demonstrated respect for its customers within the whole system of commerce. Hemingway is at pains to define that same type of respect in his story.
“Each night I am reluctant to close up because there may be some one who needs the cafe.
“Hombre, there are bodegas open all night long.”
“You do not understand. This is a clean and pleasant cafe. It is well lighted.”
Lighted with more than lamps. Thank you, BookCourt, for all you gave.