Frank Shay...is on good terms with all the prominent writers, artists, sculptors, etc., with all of the mighty who live in or come to the Village on a visit. Most everyone visits his shop to have a look at his queer door...
—"Magazines are Published by Greenwich Artists," The Oregonian, March 26, 1922
IN THE EARLY 1920s, noteworthy visitors to Frank Shay's bookshop at 4 Christopher Street began autographing the narrow door that opened onto the shop's office. Signed by 242 artists, writers, publishers, and other notable habitués of Greenwich Village, this unusual artifact is now housed at the Harry Ransom Center at The University of Texas at Austin. A literal portal to the past, the door reveals the rich mix of innovators—from anarchist poets to major commercial publishers—that defined this slice of Bohemia from 1920 to 1925.
This exhibition reconstructs the bookshop and its community. The door is not accompanied by an archive of the bookshop, so this project seeks to create a virtual "archive" on the web. Artifacts gathered from across the Ransom Center's collections provide audiences with documentation of the shop's operations and the lives and careers of its customers. This is an ongoing project: we hope that audience participation will enrich the project with further information. Explore The Door
to learn about the lives, careers, and relationships of almost 200 identified signatures—and help us identify those signatures that remain mysteries. Read the forgotten history of The Shop
, immerse yourself in The Village
, and visualize the many connections among The Bohemians
who browsed the shop's shelves.
The bookshop door has been in the Ransom Center's collections for more than 50 years, but until the internet made this exhibition possible, it had been little studied. After the bookshop closed in 1925, the manager (and perhaps owner, at that point) Juliet Koenig stored the door in her New York apartment. In 1960, she sold it to the Center through dealer Lew David Feldman. It was added to the Center's large Christopher Morley collection, since Morley and many of his friends and professional colleagues were patrons of the bookshop. In 1972, doctoral student Anna Lou Ashby, who was writing a dissertation on Morley, wrote an article about the door for the Center's Library Chronicle
. Ashby identified a number of signatures and provided a brief history of the shop, but since then, there appears to have been no further research on the door or the shop.
Massive databases of searchable books, newspapers and magazines from the 1920s that are now available online have made it possible to identify dozens of the more obscure names on the door in a matter of minutes or hours. The internet's flexible structure allows us to more easily reconstruct the community and its complex web of associations. The flowering of virtual social networking in recent years inspired us to see how it was now possible to reconstruct a community that was firmly grounded in the physical space of 4 Christopher Street. Finally, the web enables us to join in one place hundreds of items housed in more than 60 separate collections in the Ransom Center. Image metadata and links to catalogs and finding aids ensure that researchers can find these materials and study them further.
The rich resources of the web are, of course, a bittersweet development for those of us who have long loved browsing, talking, and learning from each other in bookstores. While resources on the internet have fostered this project, they have also led directly to the closure of thousands of bookstores over the last decade. We hope that telling the story of this shop and its community will encourage audiences to be mindful of the history of bookstores, bookselling, book buying, and the power of place, as we experience this moment of enormous change.
—Molly Schwartzburg, Cline Curator of Literature