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Andreas Brown, longtime owner of Gotham Book Mart, dies at 86
Andreas Brown, right, Gotham Book Mart's owner, with Frances Steloff, the former owner, in New York on April 23, 1975. Brown, a bibliophile since childhood who bought the revered Gotham Book Mart in Midtown Manhattan from Steloff, its idiosyncratic founder, and kept it alive as a frowzy literary shrine for four more decades, died on March 6, 2020, in Manhattan. He was 86. Larry C. Morris/The New York Times.

by Sam Roberts

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Andreas Brown, a bibliophile since childhood who bought the revered Gotham Book Mart in Midtown Manhattan from its idiosyncratic founder, Frances Steloff, and kept it alive as a frowzy literary shrine for four more decades, died on March 6 in Manhattan. He was 86.

His lawyer, Eric Sherman, said the cause was pneumonia.

Brown was a book and manuscript appraiser in his 30s and a regular visitor to the Gotham from California when, in 1967, Steloff invited him out to lunch.

About to turn 80, she offered to sell him the overstuffed repository of avant-garde publications that she had opened in 1920.

Brown had never dreamed of moving to New York or becoming a retailer. But here was an offer he couldn’t refuse — even if, as it turned out, Steloff never completely let go of the Gotham.

She remained at her post in an alcove in the store, located in a five-story town house on West 47th Street, and in her apartment upstairs. She collected a paycheck until she died in 1989 at 101.

“At the time she sold me the store,” Brown recalled in 1990 at his alma mater, San Diego State University, “she said, ‘It’s very important that you know you are not the owner, you are only the caretaker of the store.’”

Like Steloff, Brown was hardly an indifferent sales clerk. Nor was he a great businessman. But he was passionate about books (he also collected vintage postcards), and the Gotham remained more like a salon than a store.

Stacks of novels, magazines, reference books and unidentified volumes in still-unpacked cartons towered precariously on the creaky wooden floorboards at what had become a sanctuary for celebrated authors, embryonic writers and aficionados of contemporary literature — the last of the literary landmarks that once dotted Fifth Avenue and vicinity.

A sign outside the store counseled, “Wise Men Fish Here.” That catchphrase was crafted in cast iron by the artist John Held Jr. and had been suggested years earlier by Steloff’s husband, David Moss.

Among the sage anglers who frequented the Gotham or fished there from afar were Saul Bellow, Arthur Miller, Marianne Moore and the reclusive J.D. Salinger, who would show up at the store with his face concealed under a baseball cap and would immediately leave if recognized.

Brown helped popularize Edward Gorey, the enigmatic illustrator, by placing his books by the cash register. He archived Tennessee Williams’s papers.

Jaqueline Onassis became a regular customer. Once, when her daughter, Caroline Kennedy, told Brown that unless she completed a term paper on the Russian monarch Catherine the Great by the next morning she wouldn’t be allowed to go away for the weekend, he delivered a dozen books to her apartment.

Andreas Le Brown was born on April 29, 1933, in Coronado, California, and raised in San Diego. His father, Harvey Clair Brown, was an entrepreneur. His mother, Helene (Kimball) Brown, was a homemaker.

He is survived by his sister, Gretchen Ferdinand.

Even as a child, Brown said, he was “fatally addicted to book collection.” His ambition, though, was to be a lawyer. His boyhood heroes were Clarence Darrow and Eugene V. Debs.

After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in economics from San Diego State in 1955, he received a scholarship to Stanford Law School. But he left in his third year, disappointed that many of the other students lacked his idealism.

He enlisted in the Army and joined the Judge Advocate General Corps. After leaving military service, he taught in the speech department at San Diego State and conducted research in bibliography at the University of Texas and at Yale.

His career was nearly cut short in the 1960s when he and a friend were driving in Bulgaria one night and struck a farmer’s horse cart. They had also overstayed their visas.

“We were practically off to hard labor when the American government intervened, and we paid some money and got out,” he told The New York Times in 1989.

Settling in California, he became a literary appraiser, which brought him to New York and to the Gotham store, where he met Steloff.

She had arrived in New York City in 1907 from Saratoga Springs in upstate New York with a third-grade education, barely out of her teens, and took a job selling corsets at a department store in Brooklyn. During the Christmas rush, she was transferred to the book department and became hooked.

She opened her own store on West 45th Street in 1920 (the Gotham moved to 41 West 47th in 1946). She initially drew theatrical and literary personalities and, defying censors, smuggled in the works of D.H. Lawrence and Henry Miller.

After Steloff died, competition from online sites, astronomical rents and a failure to digitize inventory created financial challenges for Brown, along with litigation.

He became embroiled in a lawsuit with Joanne Carson, the former wife of Johnny Carson. She said she had lent him $640,000. He maintained it was an investment. Brown agreed to turn over $1.4 million (with interest after more than a decade) to Joanne Carson under a settlement in 1997.

In 2003, Brown sold the West 47th Street building, where he lived, for $7.2 million. The next year he opened the Gotham Book Mart & Gallery at 16 E. 46th St., the site of the H.P. Kraus antiquarian bookstore, which had closed in 2003.

In 2006, with the store’s $51,000 monthly rent overdue, the landlords started eviction proceedings and seized the inventory. It was sold at auction for $400,000. In 2008, 200,000 items were donated anonymously to the University of Pennsylvania.

Brown had never quite succeeded in reconciling the Gotham’s congenial chaos with the exigencies of breaking even.

“The customers love the nostalgia; they don’t want it to change,” he told The Times in 2001. said. “But if you’re trying to run the store, the nostalgia wears thin very quickly.”

He was, his friend Allan M. Jalon, a journalist, said, a self-described Daoist, but his hankering for harmony was routinely tested.

Brown himself once recalled: “Before I came here and owned it, I was an organized person. I believe in having things filed away and in retrievable order.”

But, he added, “The more I straightened things out, the more customers complained.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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