The Books of New York Past


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There’s nothing better than getting lost among the shelves of a used book store, especially if it has over “18 miles of books”. Strand Books, located in the East Village of Manhattan, trumps all big-box bookstore chains. While a certain Goliath bookstore has closed three(!) NYC locations in recent years, Strand Books proudly stands as the last survivor of Book Row.

The Strand's original location in 1938.

Book Row, running along Fourth Avenue below Union Square, comprised as many as three dozen bookshops at one time. Strand Books originally started out as a small shop opened up by Benjamin Bass in 1927. With only $300 cash and a $300 loan, Bass offered up his personal book collection to initially stock his store; the cash register was an old cigar box.

The shops of Book Row. Credit: Strand Books.

Bass’ son, Fred, started working at the store when he was thirteen and took over operations in 1956. The business struggled in its early years and their landlord was generous enough to give them rent breaks. During that time, Union Square was considered a dangerous park to walk through, and Patti Smith used to work in the book store’s basement.

Left: A younger Ben Bass. Right: Fred Bass working in the store as a young man. Credit: Strand Books

The store moved to Broadway and 12th Street shortly after it lost its lease when the landlord passed away in 1958. After forty years of renting, the Bass family purchased the building in 1997 for $8.2 million. Since then, an elevator and air conditioning has been installed (the days of sweating profusely while browsing through the shelves on a humid summer day are long gone), and the store now encompasses 55,000 square feet, with additional kiosks in Central Park.

Ben Bass in his later years. Credit: Strand Books

The thing that makes Strand Books so special is that you never know what treasure you might come across as you graze among the rows and tables of books. It might be a popular title offered at a discount, or an out-of-print paperback for a few dollars. Every time you come here, there’s always something different. Unlike other bookstores, many of the salespeople at Strand Books are deeply knowledgeable about various subject matters and are quick to recommend titles that they have personally read.

With the printed word rapidly giving way to the digital age, Strand Books reminds us of the tactile pleasures of picking up a gently used paperback, leafing through its yellowed pages, and wondering what New York soul read this book before you.


A Gentleman Named Valentine


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A colonial-era house made out of local stones and homemade mortar might be an anomaly in the Bronx, but this very house lies in its Norwood neighborhood. The Valentine-Varian house, built in 1758, is the second-oldest house in the Bronx and a beautiful example of a pre-Revolutionary War farmhouse. Currently the site of the Museum of Bronx History, the story behind the Valentine-Varian House can be traced back to a time when New York was called New Amsterdam.

The acreage upon which the house stands was owned by the Dutch Reformed Church, who called the land the Manor of Fordham. The land was later sold when the Church encountered financial difficulties brought on by lawsuits and a depletion of timber resources. Developers turned the real estate into plots for farming, and Isaac Valentine, a wealthy blacksmith, purchased the property for £934. The house most likely started out as a one-room edifice with structures added over time. Isaac moved in with his wife and their five children were born in the house.

A map showing colonial-era Bronx, including Valentine's farmstead.

Isaac strategically located his house on Boston Post Road, which today is Van Cortlandt Avenue East. Boston Post Road at the time was heavily used as a transportation artery for mail and farmers bringing cattle and produce into Manhattan. Isaac had access to travelers who would relay news, and he was able to expand his blacksmithing business in a rural area.

During the Revolutionary War, the farm was often the site of military skirmishes. Forced to choose between fleeing the area or remaining on the property, which was later occupied by British forces, the Valentines opted to stay and defend their property from plunder and destruction; leaving would have most certainly guaranteed financial ruin. After the War ended, Isaac continued to have a hard time paying his debts in a depressed economy. Sadly, his land was put up for auction. No buyers surfaced until Isaac Varian paid £1,550 for its 500 acres of land, including the farmhouse.

The Varians pose in front of their home in its original location, circa 1874.

The building of the New York and Harlem Railroads greatly increased the number of residents in the area. Part of the original estate was developed into the Jerome Park Racetrack; the property north of the farm became Woodlawn Cemetery. The City of New York also purchased some land to create the Williamsbridge Reservoir Oval. The rest of the property remained in the Varian family until 1905, when it was sold to Alfred E. Hanson for $260,000. Hanson, in turn, sold the property to Mosholu Parkway Realty Company, who was interested in developing the property into individual home lots. The Valentine-Varian House was in danger.

The Valentine-Varian House in 1905.

Recognizing the importance of historic preservation, a man named William Frank Beller purchased the farmhouse in 1905 for $4,000. Beller died in 1936 and left the estate to his son, William. During a number of legal disputes between Beller, real estate developers, and the Daughters of the American Revolution, who were interested in its maintenance as a historic landmark, the house remained empty and was frequently vandalized. After matters were resolved, the Valentine-Varian House was moved to its present location on July 1st, 1965. William Beller filmed the moving and a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the opening of the Bronx Historical Society followed in 1968.

By 1934, apartment buildings had sprung up around the house.

The house is physically moved across the street in 1965.

The house is built in the Georgian Vernacular style and comprises two rooms, both with fireplaces, and separated by a central hallway that provided relief during humid summers. The exterior’s stones are originally from fields surrounding the house. The wood-plank floors were cut from oak and pine trees on the site and the nails were hand-forged, possibly by Isaac Valentine himself. Structures were also in place for livestock and crop storage. Fields were designated for grazing cattle and crops such as corn and tobacco. The farmhouse was situated on a gently sloping hill by the side of a curving road that led travelers from Boston to New York.

The kitchen's hearth in the Valentine-Varian House, now restored.

An exposed section of wooden lathes used to construct the interior walls were cut from chestnut trees on the property.

It's actually quite easy to imagine the rolling hills of Valentine's farmland when looking at Van Cortlandt Avenue East.

The Valentine-Varian House is a unique structure that has weathered many changes through the history of the Bronx from an agrarian land to a heavily urbanized borough. Visitors to this site will be delighted by the charm and simplicity of a homestead that started its life in an age that would be unrecognizable to most Bronx residents today.

Leave the Gun, Take the Cannoli


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The feel of an early 20th-century Italian immigrant hangout is evident after noticing DeRobertis’ Pasticceria’s original tiled floors and patterned tin ceilings. But the sweetness of its cannoli cream belies its historical connections to notorious crime bosses, rumored to have run operations from its back room over cups of espresso.

Credit: Greenwich Village Historical Preservation Society

Caffe Pugliese was a bakery opened by Paolo DeRobertis in 1904. His family lived in the neighborhood on East 11th Street and owns the building occupied by the bakery. Paolo handed the business over to his son, Robert, in 1928 and it was renamed DeRobertis’ Pastry Shoppe.

Although most people associate Manhattan’s Little Italy as the center of Italian crime, the East Village was home to many mafia members. Charlie “Lucky” Luciano grew up in the neighborhood on East 10th Street after immigrating from Sicily.

Luciano grew up in this building on 265 East 10th Street.

Born as Salvatore Lucania, Luciano was a tough bully who would extort aka offer “protection” to classmates for a penny a day at P.S. 19, then on Fourteenth Street. One of those kids was Meyer Lansky, who stood up to him, won his respect, and ultimately began collaborating together, often holding meetings in the back room of De Robertis’ Pastry Shoppe.

Lucky Luciano in 1936.

Meyer Lansky in 1958.

Salvatore Lucania changed his name to Charles Luciano after his illegal activities brought shame to his family. He avoided being drafted during World War I by intentionally catching chlamydia. During the Prohibition era, Luciano ran a large bootlegging venture which brought in over $100,000 a year. By that time, he was ascending mafia ranks but growing impatient with his partner, Joe “The Boss” Masseria, who wanted to exclusively deal with Sicilians; some did not want to work with Luciano’s friend, Frank Costello, because he was a “dirty Calabrian”.

Present-day KGB Bar on East 4th Street was originally the Palm Casino, a bar owned by Lucky Luciano. Credit: B.A. Van Sise for

Luciano was nicknamed “Lucky” after surviving a near-fatal stabbing by Masseria’s arch rival, Salvatore Maranzano. By that time, Luciano had considerable power and actually ordered a hit on his partner Masseria by Maranzano (yes, the same man who just tried to kill him–how he finagled that, I don’t know!). Luciano did whatever Maranzano wanted in exchange for establishing Luciano as his right-hand man, but like in all mafia relationships, this one turned sour when good friend Meyer Lansky informed Luciano that Maranzano was planning to have him killed, too. Lansky brought together a hit squad posing as federal agents and stormed Maranzano’s office.

The bloody aftermath of Maranzano’s murder, 1930.

Luciano was now the boss of the most powerful crime family in America and Meyer Lansky was known as one of his most trusted friends. TIME magazine named Luciano one of the top 20 influential titans of the 20th century. He was eventually indicted by New York prosecutor Thomas Dewey for extortion and leading a prostitution ring. In 1946, his sentence was commuted and he was deported to Italy. Shortly after, Luciano secretly moved to Cuba. When the US government caught wind of Luciano’s resumed operations, he was deported again to Naples, where he died of a heart attack in 1962. Luciano often expressed homesickness for the United States and said to a reporter, “I’m a city boy. Italy’s dead–nice, but dead. I like movement. Business opportunities here are no good. All small-time stuff”.

Luciano being escorted by NYPD after his 1936 indictment. Note the sharp-looking jackets and fedoras.

Lucky was not the only mob figure associated with DeRobertis’ Pastry Shoppe. John “Handsome Jack” Giordano, a capo for the Gambino family was rumored to have conducted a bookmaking business in the pastry shop during the late 80s. John DeRobertis claimed to “have never heard of this gentleman”. In 2003, Enrico “Red Hot” Gentile, known for allegedly shooting a Genovese hitman, died of a heart attack on First Avenue shortly after leaving DeRobertis’. Annie and John DeRobertis, Jr., both grandchildren of Paolo, currently work in the shop. Their other grandfather, Michael, started Lanza’s Restaurant down the block.

While DeRobertis’ seems to downplay their storied connections to mafia history, the Old-World atmosphere and lack of touristy crowds deserves attention. One wonders what plans have been clandestinely calculated in the back room. People today can watch recent episodes of Boardwalk Empire, but at DeRobertis’ you can nibble on the same pignoli cookies that were enjoyed by Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky, whose spirits surely keep watch over this long-time Italian institution.

The Bernie Madoff of…1914


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It’s a wonder people don’t resort to shoving their hard-earned money underneath their mattresses these days. Predatory lending practices and ever-rising fees have tarnished how people feel about big banks and many who had entrusted “experts” with their nest eggs have ended up in financial ruins.

In the early 19th century, banks in immigrant communities offered essential connections between its customers and their homelands. One hundred years ago, the Jarmulowsky Bank Building was erected at the intersection of Canal and Orchard Streets. Orphaned at an early age and groomed to become a rabbi, Alexander “Sender” Jarmulowsky married the daughter of a wealthy merchant and started a trans-Atlantic shipping business in Hamburg, Germany. Sender later immigrated to New York City in 1873 and established a bank with Russian- and Yiddish-speaking staff.

A steerage ticket sold by Jarmulowsky. The business is advertised as "Solid! Secure! Honest!"

Although many poor immigrants and small business owners were distrustful of banks, Sender built an honest reputation for himself and was a well-respected community member who gave generously to philanthropic causes; he was one of the founders of Eldridge Street Synagogue and known as the “East Side J.P. Morgan”. During early periods of financial panic and bank runs, account holders at Jarmulowsky’s bank were able to have the full amount of their deposits returned because of Sender’s fiscally conservative banking policies.

The restored interior of Eldridge Synagogue

The revered Jarmulowsky name quickly became tarnished when bank operations were passed on to his sons after Sender’s death in 1912. Henry, Meyer, and Louis lacked the same level of business acumen as their father. After World War I broke out, bank customers who wanted to send money back to relatives in Europe were shocked upon finding out that their money wasn’t available for withdrawal; it was tied up in speculative real estate investments in East Harlem.

Jarmulowsky Banking Room, 1911.

Although Meyer Jarmulowsky stated during a hearing that the bank would be paying back $1.7 million to its nearly 10,000 depositors, the bank lacked the necessary assets to do so and in August of 1914, the state of New York took over Jarmulowsky Bank. Rioters appeared in front of the bank building on Canal Street and marched onto City Hall. Mobs formed in front of Meyer’s apartment building in Washington Heights, forcing him and his family to escape by climbing out of a fourth-story window, skedaddling across an adjacent building’s rooftop, and fleeing in a taxi cab waiting downstairs. Meyer went into hiding but was eventually indicted for fraud; depositors lost all their money. Jarmulowsky’s real estate holdings were auctioned off and the Jarmulowsky Bank building sold for less than half of its building costs.

Today, the Jarmulowsky Building still stands, recently purchased by developers for $36 million. The addition of a dome, now long gone, once made it the tallest building in the Lower East Side. The lower floors were reserved for the bank and garment factories occupied the upper floors. At one point a piano factory resided in the building until the 1960s. Although the name Jarmulowsky may not be recognizable today, their story gives us valuable lessons on how greed can quickly destroy a good name, not to mention the financial futures of thousands of hardworking people.

Cappuccino and Nietzsche


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There are not many places left in New York City where you can spot writers furiously scribbling in leather-bound notebooks (what, no iPad?!) and reading Nietzsche.

Surprisingly, there still is a cafe where you can delve into the philosophical underpinnings of works like The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Caffe Reggio, open since 1927 in Greenwich Village, continues to be a gathering place for older and younger generations of writers, artists, and philosophers. And the sightings of students reading Nietzsche and Milan Kundera? All were recent.

The round-backed cafe chairs, Caravaggio-style paintings, and soft glow emanating from Caffe Reggio’s chandeliers contribute to the coziness of this cafe; its history is equally as romantic as its atmosphere.

In the early 20th century, an Italian-immigrant barber named Domenic Parisi was beginning to lose his eyesight. Having cut hair for forty years, Parisi took all $1,000 of his life savings and sent for an espresso machine from Italy. America was then introduced to its first espresso and cappuccino in New York City.

Domenico Parisi in 1914. Credit: Caffe Reggio

The espresso machine was a far cry from the more functional machines of today; it was a work of art. The shiny chrome exterior came adorned with dragons around its base and was crowned with a cherub at its top. Indeed, all the spigots, steam valves, and intricate skeleton of pipes made the curious contraption a monster of a machine; the noise made while brewing cappuccino rendered conversation impossible. No one except for Parisi was allowed to touch the machine and when Parisi was sick and bedridden, he simply kept the cafe closed.

The cafe was taken over by new owners Niso and Hilda Cavallaci in 1955; they rented the space for $18 a month (!). Their son, Fabrizio, continued operations in 1978, around the time when the cafe’s espresso machine was converted from coal to gas fuel. The machine is now proudly displayed against the back wall of the cafe.

Hilda Cavallacci in 1961. Credit: Caffe Reggio

Caffe Reggio in 1974. Credit: Caffe Reggio

The cafe also has a light menu of soup, sandwiches, and pastries, but you come for the espresso. The cappuccino is blanketed with a most-delightful layer of foam. Don’t gulp. Sip and linger over its warmth and gaze at the passersby outside the windows. You don’t have to be a starving artist to enjoy being in one of the last vestiges of old-school Italian coffeehouses in New York City.