It is true that Greenwich Village is an anomaly. To the pseudo-artist is is a Sargassan Sea, a cess-pool of lost effort and alluring but unkept promises. To the sincere student of art or literature it is America's greatest proving ground...In all this great United States it is the only place a person can sport a stocking with a hole in the heel, and an idea. Elsewhere both are taboo. —Frank Shay, in The Greenwich Villager, 1921
A Bohemian will never admit to being one, though living in the eternal hope that some day his work will make him an immortal, and he will do any sort of work toward that end. —Abby Dunegotham, "Greenwich Village: Gotham's Quartier-Latin," in the Los Angeles Times, 1922
Evening has come to the village streets. Claude McKay, the negro poet, is walking homeward with Max Eastman, radical writer, and Mike Gold, editor of the Liberator. Frank Shay, in shirt sleeves and puffing a cigarette, is standing in front of his bookshop....Clivette, the Man in Black, is preparing to guide the nightly crop of sight-seers about the winding streets....A knotted group waits for Harry Kemp's alley playhouse to open and reveal the futility of life. Smudgy-faced Italian children are hanging about the entrance of MacDougal alley waiting for "Lady Bountiful"—Mrs. Harry Payne Whitney—to arrive in her motor car. In a half-filled coffee shop sit Michio Itow, Fania Marinoff, Djuna Barnes and Edna St. Vincent Millay. Fantastic, the whole business—but interesting.
This description of the Greenwich Village streetscape appeared in the Miami Herald on November 23, 1922, describing to Floridians a scene that sounds mysterious yet safe, distant yet familiar, "Fantastic—but interesting." The Village community is portrayed as socially diverse—immigrants, radicals, millionaires, eccentrics, and a list of women with intriguingly exotic names. The landscape is likewise compelling—winding streets, alleys, playhouses, coffee shops, and, of course, a bookshop. Who would not wish to take Clivette's tour?
Over the previous decade, Greenwich Village had gained a wide reputation as "America's Left Bank," the home to great figures of the intellectual avant-garde and important activists for social and political change. A haven for creative people who were stifled by their home environments, it was a refuge for people who came from all over the world to create a space for innovative artistic, personal, and political expression. As many historians have noted, the Village was long-established as a home for Bohemians; it was also well-known for its elegant expensive homes around Washington Square, and its constant stream of immigrants. The map shown on the right notes these communities (with tongue in cheek): around Washington Square are marked the homes of "Aristocrats," "Old Families," and "Idle Rich." To the north is "Erin" and to the South is "Italia," denoting the two dominant immigrant communities; an African-American pocket is marked as "Africa" at the corner of Sixth and Cornelia.
In 1919, the year before the bookshop opened, things were changing dramatically in New York as a whole, and the Village felt the impact. The big "Red Scare" crested. Prohibition went into effect. Soldiers who had served in World War I returned from abroad in waves. The Suffrage movement reached a climax, and in November 1920, women voted in New York for the first time. The New York Society for the Suppression of Vice failed in one major censorship effort (James Branch Cabell's Jurgen) and was about to succeed in another (Ulysses in the Little Review). The Village itself was experiencing a particularly important change of its own: dramatic growth in real estate values were straining Bohemian and immigrant communities alike, as the neighborhood became desirable to wealthy newcomers.
In the face of these changes, many left the Village just at the time that Frank Shay opened his bookshop. Some of the neighborhood's most famous writers and artists moved to Paris. But as the bookshop door demonstrates, a good number remained, or came back frequently to visit. And despite so many challenges to the Village ethos, more continued to arrive and to find places like Frank Shay's shop that helped to bring that ethos forward into the next decade.
Part of what changed was the Bohemians themselves. Many who had lived through the heady early 1910s, like Shay, were becoming major cultural figures: established writers or important editors, publishers, theater producers, and so on. No longer youthful rebels, each took a different path: some became more radical as the years went by, others lost their early idealism, and still others grappled with their political and aesthetic allegiances in their most imporant writings, for the remainder of their careers.
The biographies that accompany each signature on this website offer audiences starting points for reconsidering the 1920s, a period covered in relatively little depth in most histories of Greenwich Village (one notable exception is one of the earliest: Carolyn Ware's marvelous 1935 sociological study, Greenwich Village: 1920-1930). Likewise, the thematic "Connections" that link the door's signatures together will, we hope, provoke audiences to consider further ways in which the Village's creative, commercial, and social networks of this period might be understood and categorized.
A map of the Village in the Quill, 1925
The first issue of the bookshop's newspaper, The Greenwich Villager, 1921
Christopher Morley's journal, 1921
An issue of the Quill from the month the bookshop opened, October 1920
An advertisement for the new bookshop appears on page 29.
An issue of the Quill, 1925
A description of the Village in New York in Seven Days, 1925