The Life and Times of Jeannette Watson And Books & Co.

By Lynne Tillman

Harcourt Brace. 337 pp. $25

Reviewed by Henry Wessels

The bookstore is a potent symbol in the minds of most readers: It is a place of discovery, whether one enters to browse alone or to partake of the peculiar conviviality that is found where people and books come together. Each of us can likely recall one or two landmark shops. But these are unsettled times for booksellers: Corporations such as Barnes & Noble and Borders erect palatial superstores in a rivalry founded upon prime real estate and vast inventories, and and other Internet booksellers claim to be the shape of the future, while pundits proclaim that the printed book as we know it will give way to some as yet unknown form of electronic book.

Independent booksellers have been closing their doors in record numbers during the 1990s (independent stores in the American Booksellers Association dropped from 5,132 in 1991 to 4,047 in 1998). The majority of these bookstores have vanished without a trace. Not so Books & Co., the subject of Lynne Tillman's engaging chronicle, Bookstore, deftly assembled from interviews with the store's founder, former staff and customers.

For nearly 20 years Books & Co. was a cultural institution on New York City's Upper East Side. Founded in 1978 by Jeannette Watson and Burt Britton, the shop became known for its eclectic stock. Books & Co. attracted a clientele of literary celebrities that included Roy Blount Jr., Susan Sontag, Calvin Trillin, Susan Cheever, the late Brendan Gill and many others.

Watson called her store a "nineteenth-century idea," but after a shaky first year it proved to be a success. The store's highly regarded reading series featured notable authors and rising talents alike, and also reflected Watson's personal interest in Latin American literature. Paul Auster and Michael Cunningham are among the authors whose careers were launched at the store.

By the mid-1990s, however, the store was under pressure from forces affecting booksellers across the country: discounting, superstores and rising rents. In 1997, Books & Co. closed, largely because Watson was unable to renew her lease at an affordable rate. The store's plight received much attention in the newspapers, for the landlord in question was the neighboring Whitney Museum of American Art.

Bookstore is a composite portrait of the shop and its founder, and their place in New York's literary landscape. Tillman, a novelist and essayist (No Lease on Life, The Velvet Years: Warhol's Factory 1965-1967) notes in her introduction that "writing this book was a combination of doing history, cultural history, and biography. I hadn't expected it to be biography. Once I started working with the material, I realized I needed to tell Jeannette Watson's story. The impulse to start Books & Co. was hers, and her desire and commitment gave birth to the store and kept it going. . . ." Tillman's narrative is written in Watson's voice and interspersed with anecdotes, recollections and well-chosen comments from publishers, independent booksellers around the country and others with links to the store.

The daughter of IBM chairman Thomas Watson, Jeannette Watson had to learn the bookselling business from the ground up. She and her former employees discuss daily operations as well as the books and events that marked high points in the store's history. The store's problems, too, are candidly addressed, from changes in staff to the key decision that ultimately determined the future of Books & Co.: "I had wretched financial advice around this time," Watson explains, "from an adviser who proposed `special situations,' all specially bad situations. My father had said, `The only way you're going to make it in this business is if you own your own building.' By the time I could have bought 939 Madison -- early on I thought why buy it for a bankrupt bookstore? -- the Whitney had." There were overtures toward a possible partnership between Watson and the museum, but after these talks broke down, "The countdown for Books & Co. began."

Thoughtful and frequently witty, Bookstore is spiced with accounts of celebrity customers and the comments of prominent literary figures, but these passages are inseparable from the store's history as "a community of people who care about the same thing." Tillman's judicious inclusion of observations by booksellers and others broadens the scope of the book to encompass an incisive reflection on the idea of the bookstore in America.

Henry Wessells is managing editor of AB Bookman's Weekly and co-editor (with Grania Davis) of "The Other Nineteenth Century," a forthcoming collection of stories by Avram Davidson.