It was too personal, too enchanting, too Bohemian a bookshop to survive indefinitely, but for five or six years it played a very real part in the creative life of New York. —Christopher Morley, "Wine That Was Spilt In Haste," 1931
After reading Dreiser, Dell and naughty little Edna Millay, one might wonder if anything really proper and moral ever came out of the village. And then a lot of rough characters used to hang around Frank Shay's Book Shop. Seamen like Will McFee, hard eggs like Johnny Weaver and Don Marquis apparently went to Frank for encouragement in their literary work. —Robert Edwards, "The Story of Greenwich Village, Part XII" in The Quill, January 1924
In Frank Shay's bookshop the boy book reviewers, newspaper columnists and juvenile cynics are defending Cabell and damning Sumner. While about the counters girls with slip-on dresses and ponderous horn glasses peep at tomes unexpurgated. —O. O. McIntyre, "Greenwich Village" in Cosmopolitan, January 1923
He went out with us and we opened the wagon for his inspection and lo, he bought books. Bought them, I say, with a hand that was as lavish as it was careful....On he went, to the ravishing delight of a bookseller's heart. —Frank Shay, "Bookselling on the Broad Highroad" in The New York Times Book Review, 11 May 1924
In October 1920, Frank Shay opened a tiny bookshop—so small he preferred to call it a "stall"—at 4 Christopher Street. Known as "Frank Shay's Bookshop," it sold books that would interest all audiences: popular novels, socialist weeklies, avant-garde poetry chapbooks, and childrens' books. Shay likely displayed a rich selection of his two favorite writers, Joseph Conrad and Walt Whitman. In April 1922, Christopher Morley noted in his journal that he had stopped by the shop and seen his first copy of the famous blue-covered first edition of James Joyce's Ulysses, fresh from Shakespeare and Company in Paris.
Like many bookstore owners at the time, Shay published from his shop: a poetry magazine, The Measure; a newspaper, The Greenwich Villager; and elegant small editions of poetry, prose, and plays, including the Salvo chapbook series. A tall, slender man with sandy hair and glasses, he had a strong personality and a passion for his work. A 1922 article about Greenwich Village in the Los Angeles Times called Shay "the livest wire in the publishing business."
The shop's entrance was just around the corner from busy Greenwich Avenue. The large corner building possessed the aura of an earlier Bohemian moment: in a tone approaching awe, the story was often told that in the late 1890s, the English poet and legendary Village resident John Masefield had tended bar in the very spot now occupied by Shay's shop. Occupying another part of 4 Christopher Street was the art studio of Winold Reiss, where other artists gathered for life-drawing classes and conversation. In 1921, Reiss moved out and Shay doubled the size of his bookstore. It was perhaps about this time that Shay installed a door between the shop and his back office. To read more of the door's story, click here.
Shay operated the bookstore until the summer of 1924. During his time there, he not only sold and published books, but ran a circulating library, lectured on bookselling, edited volumes of plays for other publishing houses, and even won a prize for his window displays. Most importantly, he cultivated a community: publishers, writers, artists, book collectors, magazine editors, cartoonists, academics, book designers, theater directors and more. From the beginning, Shay not only welcomed this community, but followed it elsewhere. In the summer, the city became oppressive and anyone who could fled the city;the Village community headed to Provincetown, Massachussetts. Inspired by his good friend Christopher Morley's fictional travelling bookshop in the 1917 novel Parnassus on Wheels, Shay filled a souped-up Ford with books and went along, selling his stock along the sandy streets in the summers beginning in 1921.
Eventually, the pull of Provincetown was too strong to resist even in the winter months, and Shay and his wife Fern decided to move there permanently. Shay appears to have sold the shop to a man named Robert A. Hicks, who reissued at least one of the shop's 1921 publications from the 4 Christopher Street address in 1924, but the record is cloudy. The store's name from this time appears in different venues as "The Greenwich Village Bookshop" or "The Village Bookshop."
By August 1925, the shop had run out of money and shut down for good. We do not know the cause—perhaps it was the loss of Shay's breezy personality and boundless energy, perhaps it was changes to the Village itself, where rents were rising and demographics were shifting. Christopher Morley suggested that it was a little of both: "it was too too personal, too enchanting, too Bohemian a bookshop to survive indefinitely, but for five or six years it played a very real part in the creative life of New York."
Frank Shay is mentioned in the biographies of many Greenwich Village luminaries, but his own story has never been told. When he opened the bookshop at 4 Christopher Street, he was a well-known member of the Village arts community, and had been in the book and publishing business for many years.
He was born Frank Xavier Shea in East Orange, New Jersey in 1888. As a young man, he changed the spelling of his last name to "Shay" in order to associate himself with Shays Rebellion, an incident in the American Revolution led by a poor farmer. Surviving members of his extended Catholic family remember him as the black sheep, a social rebel like many Villagers. In Shay's case, his decision to divorce was likely at the center of his family's complaint against him. But he found an alternative family in the worlds of books and the theater.
A 1952 entry in Current Biography states that Shay "left school at fourteen, but was already a veteran bookseller, having started at the age of twelve in second-hand paper westerns, Nick Carters, and the like." By his mid-twenties, he had likely worked as a book auctioneer and a bookstore manager, but the details are sketchy. The first concrete information we have about Shay's career dates to 1915, when he took over the Washington Square Bookshop from the brothers Albert and Charles Boni.
The Boni brothers had opened the Washington Square Bookshop at 135 MacDougal Street in 1913, where it swiftly became a center of the burgeoning Greenwich Village Bohemian community. Next door at number 137 was the Liberal Club, a politically and socially progressive organization with deep ties to the socialist magazine The Masses, which had begun publication in 1911. A door was cut into the wall between the shop and the club, and Liberal Club events spilled regularly into the shop. In 1915, the Washington Square Players were founded at the club. That same year, the Bonis decided to give up the bookselling business and focus entirely on publishing, so they sold the shop to Shay.
Allen Churchill describes Shay in these years as "a breezy giant who dreamed of publishing books and plays." A very tall, thin man with sandy hair and glasses, he was known as outgoing and boisterous, with a quick laugh and a temper to match. Shay ran the Washington Square Bookshop for about two years, at the height of the great Bohemian era. In 1916, the Provincetown Players opened the Playwrights' Theatre at 139 MacDougal, and Shay was closely involved. He played the role of Scotty in the Provincetown Players' first New York production of Eugene O'Neill's Bound East for Cardiff, the play that launched O'Neill's career. From the bookshop two doors down, Shay published three volumes of The Provincetown Plays (1916), landmark collections of the group's earliest productions. At some point during these years, the shop moved to 27 West Eighth Street, but whether this was during the years of Shay's owner ship is unclear; different sources show different dates.
While at the Washington Square Bookshop, Shay undertook further publishing ventures, planning with his friend Theodore Dreiser a new edition of Sister Carrie (1900). But the Sister Carrie edition was not to be published by Shay: he was conscripted in 1917. He fought the draft on the basis of his pacifist beliefs, stating that he was "unwilling to engage in any work for the war-making establishment." As the New York Times reported at the time, he failed, appealed, and failed again. While appealing his conscription, he introduced Theodore Dreiser to Horace Liveright, who, with his partners, the Boni brothers, issued the Sister Carrie edition in 1917 under the Boni and Liveright imprint. Shay handed over the bookshop to Renée Lacoste, who in turn passed it on to Egmont Arens, who famously ran it at the Eighth Street location well into the 1920s.
On January 2, 1918, Shay married artist Fern Forrester, and soon after, left for France. He served as a Private in the Headquarters Company of the 312th Infantry of the 78th Division, United States Army. The 312th fought in the battles of St. Mihiel, Limy Sector and Argonne Forest. Shay continued his publishing work: after the armistice, the troops remained in France for some time, and on February 6, 1919, Shay helped produce the 312th's newspaper there, the Flash. Also in 1919, he appears as the publisher of a book of poems either written by or edited by Lloyd Mac Thomas, a fellow soldier, entitled Barrack Bag Ballads. The 15-page collection noted two places of publication: Semur, France and New York.
The 78th Division was demobilized on June 15, 1919 after returning to New York. Shay jumped back into his work, editing The Plays and Books of the Little Theatre (1919) and co-editing with Pierre Loving Fifty Contemporary One-Act Plays (1920). Also in 1920, Friedman's published Shay's bibliography of the works of Walt Whitman. Created on the basis of his friend Max Breslow's Whitman collection, it was the first book-length bibliography of the poet, whose publishing history is famously complex and has been re-described several times since.
In October 1920, notices for Shay's new bookstore began to appear: "Frank Shay is at it again," said an editorial in the Greenwich Village Quill. The bookshop years were highly productive for Shay, even apart from his work running the shop. He edited several commercially published volumes of plays, beginning with Fifty Contemporary One-Act Plays (1920), an anthology featuring playwrights from sixteen countries, which he co-edited with Pierre Loving. Some of his later titles of a similar nature included Contemporary One-Act Plays of 1921 (1922), A Treasury of Plays for Women (1922), A Treasury of Plays for Men (1923), and One Thousand and One Plays for the Little Theatre (1923).
The Little Theater movement had taken hold across the United States by this time, and many of Shay's collections sold well and were reprinted several times, helping to disseminate modern theater to audiences across the country. In 1921 he edited a commercial edition of The Provincetown Plays in 1921, concurrent with the rise of the Provincetown Players to national prominence. A few years later, he published a guide, The Practical Theatre: a manual for little theatres, community players, amateur dramatic clubs and other independent producing groups (1926).
During and after the bookshop years, Shay edited collections of ballads and folksongs, an interest first revealed in print in the wartime Barrack Bag Ballads. His two interests were sea chanties and drinking songs. Shay had connections to the sea through family and friends alike—his brother-in-law was a captain who would take Shay shipboard on occasion, and several of his friends at the shop were serious seamen. His collection Iron Men and Wooden Ships: Sailor Chanties was first published as a small chapbook in the Salvo series at the bookshop in the early 1920s. A much expanded version was published by Doubleday as Iron Men and Wooden Ships: Deep Sea Chanties in 1924. With illustrations by Edward Wilson and a preface by William McFee, it was popular enough to be reprinted several times over the decades and published in an English edition (Heinemann, 1925).
Shay's interest in drinking was equally strong—and equally tied to friendship. For Shay and his friends, Prohibition served less as a deterrent than a source of inspiration. In 1927, Macauley published his collection My Pious Friends and Drunken Companions: Songs and Ballads of Conviviality (1927), followed by two sequels: More Pious Friends (1928) and Drawn from the Wood: Consolations in Word and Music for Pious Friends and Drunken Companions (1929). These editions, which include the songs' tunes and are illustrated profusely by the woodcut artist John Held, Jr., were quite popular when published, and are regularly cited by music historians and folklorists today. However, Shay was ambivalent about the book's popularity, according to his second wife, Edith Foley Shay, who is quoted in the book Provincetown Profiles many years later: "It really bothered Frank that this book was so much more successful than any of his others as he was fundamentally a serious person."
Through the bookstore years, Shay's wife Fern, about whom we know little, illustrated at least one of the shop's editions, and presumably worked as an illustrator for magazines and other publications. In the early 1920s, the couple lost a baby, an event recorded in Christopher Morley's journal. In 1924 they had a daughter, Jean, who was called by the nickname "Snookie." It is possible that her birth spurred the couple's decision that year to sell the bookshop and move to Provincetown for good.
Shay's involvement with the theater continued in Provincetown. In the summer of 1923, he had formed with several members of the early Provincetown Players a new group, the Wharf Players, who performed plays in a little theater on a wharf in town. They received support from Mary Aldis at the beginning, but in an infamous break-up, the elegant Aldis grew frustrated when the group threw a particularly raucous party next door to her house, and withdrew her support—and the furniture she had donated. Shay, Harry Kemp and others subsequently formed their own group, The Barnstormers, who produced their plays in Shay's barn. In 1924, they produced four of Eugene O'Neill's one-act sea plays as a cycle entitled S. S. Glencairn: the plays were Moon of the Caribbees, The Long Voyage Home, In the Zone, and Bound East for Cardiff. Shay, Fern, and their friends performed in the group's handful of productions.
Frank and Fern's marriage lasted only a few more years; the couple divorced sometime in the late 1920s, and Jean remained at least part of the time with her father. Shay continued to be an active participant in the arts community in Provincetown. For a time in the late 1920s, says John Dos Passos's biographer Virginia Spencer Carr, Shay was involved with Phyllis Dugasse, a short-story writer and the niece of Inez Hayes Irwin. In December, 1930, he married Edith Foley, who had been a childhood friend of Katy Smith Dos Passos, the wife of Shay's good friend John. Edith had a transformative effect on him, Carr notes: "Hutchins Hapgood observed that Shay was a 'big and periodic drunk and fighter, brawny, healthy, and amusing' until his marriage to Edith. Then he 'ceased to be a drunk but retained his other fine qualities.'" He remained married to Edith until his death. They stayed on Cape Cod for most of that time, living first in Provincetown and later in Wellfleet. In the later years of their marriage, they co-edited a popular anthology about Cape Cod, Sand in their Shoes: A Cape Cod Reader (1951).
On Cape Cod, Shay continued to write and edit, producing further collections of plays and ballads, along with a remarkable range of additional publications. In the last twenty-five years of his life, he wrote at least two mystery novels, a cookbook for men, a biography of Pizarro, and, returning to his writerly seafarer roots, the pulp adventure novel Pirate Wench (1953). Perhaps his most significant contribution from these years is his 1938 study Judge Lynch: His First Hundred Years. This well-reviewed, detailed history of lynching in America focused almost entirely on the lynching of African-Americans and is still cited by scholars today, in part due to its detailed historical lynching statistics. In 1937, the year before the book was published, eight lynchings took place in the United States, and Shay's volume carefully reconstructs for readers the history of lynching in order to critique the variously strong and weak laws introduced in the twentieth century to fight the practice.
Shay's life work may be distinguished most of all by its diversity: although many of his books were highly regarded when published, his decision to pursue so many different avenues of inquiry have left him little known, except as a footnote reference in books on a wide array of subjects. At the age of 65, Frank Shay died suddenly in his home in Wellfleet on January 14, 1954. His substantial New York Times obituary the next day had the headline, "Frank Shay Dies: Wrote about Sea; Expert on Chanties was 65—Helped O'Neill and Millay as 'Village' Publisher."
The bookshop's stationery, 1921
The only known photograph of the shop's interior, 1922
The first issue of The Measure, published at the shop in 1921
Edna St. Vincent Millay's A Few Figs from Thistles (New York: Frank Shay, 1920)
An article about the bookshop in Publishers Weekly, 1921
Christopher Morley's "Bowling Green" column about eating crumpets with Frank Shay, 1921
Christopher Morley baptizing "Parnassus on Wheels" while Frank Shay looks on, 1921
Frank Shay with his traveling bookshop, ca. 1922
The bookshop's circulating library slip, 1925
The approximate site of the bookshop, 2010