A relic of the past that I chanced upon this week in a collection I acquired is the visitor log of a famed bookstore in the Lower East Side of old, active from pre-WWII through 1979. Known by the name of its proprietor, Bernard Morgenstern, the visitor log contained autographs and addresses and occasional inscriptions from the store’s visitors. At the time, the Lower East side contained a large selection of Jewish bookstores, and scholars, rabbis, authors, academics and anyone interested in the Jewish printed world would spend much of their free time hopping from one bookstore to another. In close proximity at this time, one could find Rosmarin (Om Publishing) on Ludlow Street; Levine and Berger on Eldridge Street; Biegeleisen on Division Street; Rabinowitz, Druckerman and Waxer on Canal Street; Fricklas on Rivington Street; Feldheim and Morgenstern on East Broadway and many others. While by the 1950s the various denominations and religious affiliations of the Jews had parted their ways and often found no reason to interact with each other on a daily basis, the bookstores would serve as a meeting ground for the exchange of ideas and conversation.
This visitor log, containing over 1,000 names of the who’s who of the Jewish book world, is a window into the atmosphere that reigned in these bookshops. We find alongside each other, Rabbis Solomon Freehoff, Nosson Wachtfogel, Novominsker Rebbe and Baruch Mordechai Ezrachi. Numerous famous Yiddish writers stopped by the shop with inscriptions of Chaim Grade and Elie Wiesel, among others. Artists who signed in include Saul Raskin, Note Kozlovsky and Morris Katz. A family trip resulted in the inscription of Rabbi Eliezer Silver, his son Rabbi David Silver and his son-in-law Rabbi Yehuda Gershuni. Another family visit occurred with the result of the autographs of R. Moshe, Ahron and Haym Soloveitchik. Famous book collectors and dealers stopped by the shop as well, and we found visits from Michael M. Zagayski, R. Osher Katzman, R. Yaakov Kagan, Israel Friedman among many others.
Writing of the bookstore in this period, Dr. Dovid Katz (son of Yiddish poet Menke Katz) wrote:
My first year at Columbia, with all its “requirements” (from astronomy to track), gave no scope. One of my favorite escapes was walking through the Lower East Side (an equivalent of sorts to London’s Whitechapel). I stumbled into Bernard Morgenstern’s Jewish bookshop at 150 East Broadway. Only old Morgenstern could remove a book from the middle of one of the huge stacks without it toppling. There was a big sign in Yiddish and English: “Do Not Touch Anything!” (Signs on the Lower East Side never said “Please”.)
Morgenstern was a life-long bachelor and in 1979 as he aged, he sold his entire remaining stock to the University of Florida. The acquisition was made by the then new librarian at the university, Robert Singerman, whose recollection of the bookstore was: “I had learnt that Bernard Morgenstern, the owner of a secondhand bookstore on New York’s Lower East Side, was keen to sell his entire inventory (around 10,000 imprints, mostly from the 19th and 20th centuries, including books, pamphlets and other ephemera of which about 60% was in Yiddish). In Morgenstern’s bookstore – where books were precariously piled everywhere on the floor, in corners, on shelves beyond reach – I found many treasures, including editions of all the major Yiddish novelists, poets and dramatists as well as many little-known authors and scarce titles.”
While demographic shifts and the rise of the internet has eradicated any Jewish book-row, this visitor log allowed me to recreate in my mind the world that was, and perhaps one day will be again.