“Is it not cruel to let our city die by degrees, stripped of all her proud moments, until there is nothing left of all her history and beauty to inspire our children? If they are not inspired by the past of our city, where will they find the strength to fight for her future?”
—from letter sent by Mrs. Jackie Kennedy Onassis to Mayor Abraham Beame in December 1975
Today a bit of our city died. Today Rizzoli Bookstore, a fixture at 31 West 57th Street, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, closes its doors. It is a sad day in the hearts of New York City book lovers.
The quote above was printed large and hung in Rizzoli’s window (see photo 3) along with a photo of the interior of New York’s old Pennsylvania Station, lost in 1963 to the wrecking ball when real estate interests masqueraded as modernity and progress. The message was clear.
With the loss of the old Penn Station so fresh in everyone’s mind, Mrs. Onassis and others went into action to save another iconic New York treasure. It was something to do with trains again. Mrs. Onassis was instrumental in saving New York City’s Grand Central Station. She was writing to Mayor Abe Beame about Grand Central in particular, and New York’s architectural legacy in general.
The townhouse that has housed Rizzoli since 1985 was not granted landmark status by NYC’s Landmarks Preservation Commission. According to the LPC, the 95-year old building, “lacks the architectural significance necessary to meet the criteria for designation as an individual landmark.” The six-story building had been the offices and showroom for Sohmer & Co., a piano manufacturing company founded in New York in 1872.
The building that houses the bookstore will be demolished, replaced with a bobble for the one percent. The stretch of West 57th Street between Fifth Avenue and Seventh Avenue has seen dizzying glass-tower condos mushroom where once human-scaled buildings, such as Rizzoli’s home, once stood. “The sense of what 57th Street once was is getting lost,” said Peg Breen, president of the advocacy group New York Landmarks Conservancy. “I think these are the types of buildings that give you a sense of perspective. Given what’s going on the rest of the street, you want some memories.”
I will always remember the peace and quiet Rizzol’s offered; it was a refuge from the 57th Street buzz. Customers browsed the bookshelves as a Mozart piano sonata or a Beethoven string quartet softly filled the air. The staff was always friendly and helpful; they too were book lovers. A hallmark of the store was its coffeetable-sized art books. They covered every aspect of the world of the fine and decorative arts. Big, oversized books about photography, gardening, automobiles, furniture and much more were offered as well. I was delighted! As a child I checked out such books from my local library on a weekly basis. There is rumor that Rizzoli’s will re-open in the Flatiron District.
The bookstore was founded by Angelo Rizzoli (1889–1970) in 1964 at 712 Fifth Avenue. Although founded as Rizzoli International Book store, to New Yorkers it was simply Rizzoli’s. Foreign language magazines were sold; and although some shelves were labeled “Spanish” and “Italian,” the books on those shelves were not necessarily in those languages but were produced in those countries. Signore Rizzoli had established his publishing company in 1927. He was also a film producer; he worked with Federico Fellini to bring La Dolce Vita (1960) and 8½ (1963) to the screen.