Books & Co

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Books & Co., a bookstore in New York City, was the brainchild of Jeannette Watson, (b. 1945), born out of a life-long love of literature. Watson, the granddaughter of IBM founder, Thomas Watson, Sr. was named for her grand-mother, Jeannette Kittredge. Watson, shy and insecure as a child, was dubbed "Madame-Nose-in-Books" by her father because she preferred to spend her time reading rather than socializing. She was born and raised in a Greenwich, Connecticut family which included one older brother and four younger sisters. She was educated in public elementary schools until age 12, then sent to a private boarding school and Sarah Lawrence College where she majored in early childhood education. As early as her senior year she and her friends discussed dreams about owning a bookstore.

Watson married in her senior year and had a son very shortly after. After graduation her new family moved to Grosse Point, MI, but neither her marriage nor time in the Midwest was to last very long. Divorcing at age 26, she returned to New York as a working single mother. In the summer of 1978, just after Watson opened Books & Co., she was re-introduced to a childhood acquaintance at a family wedding. Alex Sanger, the grandson of birth-control proponent Margaret Sanger, was an attorney at that time (later he became President of Planned Parenthood). They married in December 21, 1978. Privately she uses her married name: Jeannette Sanger.

In the mid-1970's Watson underwent surgery to correct a congenital condition of the hip, which required a year's recovery, giving her the time to consider her dream plans for a bookstore. Her father, Thomas Watson, Jr., offered to lend her half the start-up money, $150,000. She began looking for a person with whom to go into business. The name of Burt Britton, highly regarded among booksellers in the city, was frequently suggested as the best choice. Watson felt that his knowledge of contemporary fiction matched her knowledge of the classics. After several meetings with her, he agreed to join in the venture.

A location for the shop was found in a prime spot, on Madison Avenue in the 70's, directly next door to the Whitney Museum of Art. A 15-year lease for 939 Madison Avenue was signed in October, 1977 at a rental cost of $60,000 per year. The space included two floors of about 1,000 square feet each, and a basement of about 750 square feet. The old brownstone was in very poor condition and major renovations had to be completed before it would be occupant-ready. The store opened for business by June, but the official opening party was planned for October 18, 1978 to take advantage of the city's Fall season.

Watson's idea was for the store to be a salon, to have the cozy, comfortable, lived-in atmosphere of a writer's hangout. She intended to sell literary fiction, poetry, and signed books; no self-help or do-it-yourself books or the popular fiction and best sellers that are often found in chain stores. The staff developed several notable physical features in the shop that added to its unique character: the front window display, the photo gallery, the art gallery, the inviting green leather couch on the upstairs level, and most importantly, "The Wall", which at first was a few shelves reserved to highlight the favorite titles of Burt Britton, but grew to be a whole wall of books which featured what are considered the literary classics of any language.

To all appearances Books & Co. was a great success in the first year. Informal readings soon gave way to formal events. It was becoming the salon Watson had planned, and it gained even more attention when it was noticed by literary reviewers. But lax financial management and internal conflicts were creating serious problems underneath the surface.

Problems between the two partners came to light when Britton did not make the expected appearance at the first anniversary party. Watson admits that she didn't pay enough attention to the business side of the shop and allowed critical financial mistakes to be made that first year, which created tensions between partners. Bookkeeping practices were sketchy, and no plans had been made to hire a bookkeeper to keep track of finances or stock. An advisor was brought in to help guide the business practices, and he made many sound suggestions that helped, but they weren't enough to circumvent serious financial problems.

Watson realized she had to make serious changes to keep her dream afloat. She decided to buy out Burt Britton and run the shop herself. By January 1980 he and Watson came to an agreement dissolving the relationship. Her father offered to buy her overstock, store it on his property and as she was able, she would buy it back from him. As part of their agreement, an auditor would come in to check the account books on a regular basis. Tight control over the inventory was essential and limits were set on the amount of stock to be purchased at any one time.

A new manager/buyer (Stan Lewis) was hired, but remained only a year. This gave Watson time to strengthen her business sense and fine tune job responsibilities. The most significant change was to split the manager/buyer into two separate positions. Watson offered clerk Peter Philbrook the manager's position; she gave the responsibility of buying to another employee. Philbrook, Andrew Bergen, and Susan Scott were some of Watson's first employees at the shop. These three soon formed the core of employees that, along with Watson, became the character of Books & Co. They develop a close relationship with her over the decade or more the four worked together, which added to the congenial atmosphere for which Books & Co. became well known.

As the business grew, Watson introduced several functions to promote it. She very much wanted to showcase new writers and gave many their first readings. The reading series, which quickly became a popular function of Books & Co., began informally. It gave its first formal reading on January 9, 1980 with the advent of The 939 Foundation, which Watson created to sponsor regular weekly readings and other special events. A salaried coordinator for the series was hired (Barbara Penn) and paid out of Foundation money, which was partially raised by charging admission to the events. However the pressures of additional readings and charging admission for them did not sit well with Watson. After five years Watson suspended the Foundation and ran the reading series herself, free of charge, as a regular function of the store.

Over time the reading series of Books & Co. hosted a wide variety of writers, artists, and occasionally special causes. Readings often had themes such as celebrations of particular writers or favorite subjects. Panel discussions on art, the writer's craft, screenwriting, or the best of American fiction, staged readings of plays, and poetry marathons filled the shop with an enthusiastic public.

In the mid-1980's Watson was advised to buy the 939 Madison Avenue building to have a bit of business security. However, Books & Co.'s neighbor, The Whitney Museum of Art, had already made an accepted offer for the property. The relationship between the new landlord and tenant was cordial. Some minor facilities problems were taken care of in a timely manner by the museum. In 1992, the original 15-year lease on the Books & Co. space expired. The Whitney renewed the lease, but at a huge increase in rent, five years at $120,000 per year. By this time independent bookstores, already negatively affected by the 1987 economic downturn, were suffering financial losses due to the rapid growth of the superstore. The severe rise in rent put additional stress not only on the shop, but on Watson too, who was already funneling personal monies into the business to keep it in the black.

The Whitney Museum of Art director David Ross, an acquaintance of Watson's who was aware of her situation, proposed that the museum and the store become partners in early 1996, with the museum absorbing the staff and inventory of the bookstore. Watson was offered a five-year employment contract as manager. She was very interested in the proposal and pursued the idea, but negotiations stalled in late spring when the museum stopped answering her calls or responding to letters.

In October of 1996 The Whitney broke its silence and informed Watson that the partnership offer was withdrawn. Watson, who had explored and depleted other options already, decided it was time to close the shop and move on to other things. On January 18, 1997 The New York Times ran the announcement of Books & Co.'s closing as of May 31. The article quoted Watson as saying, "We just cannot afford to pay the rent." At the same time, she was informed by the museum that the 1997-lease renewal would increase the rent by an additional 2.5%, which Watson also could not afford.

The Whitney Museum of Art took the brunt of much criticism from the literary world and the general public alike, as it appeared that the museum was maliciously bent on putting the shop out of business. The article generated a loud public outcry. Many newspapers featured frequent opinion pieces and articles updating the public about the situation. Watson, the shop and its activities became the focus of television news reports and radio interviews. Several private citizens came forward offering to raise funds to keep the store open.

It was, in the end, Jeannette Watson's decision to close the economically struggling store after twenty years. The final reading was held on May 15, 1997 with Edna O'Brien reading from Down by the River and a big party celebrating the anniversary. The store closed its doors on May 31, 1997, but the name Books & Co. lives on as a publishing imprint under Turtle Point Press, a venture Watson started in 1996 with a focus on keeping classic titles in print.

From the guide to the Books & Co. records, 1978-1997, (The New York Public Library. Manuscripts and Archives Division.)

Archival Resources
Role Title Holding Repository
creatorOf Books & Co. records, 1978-1997 New York Public Library. Manuscripts and Archives Division
Role Title Holding Repository
Relation Name
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Place Name Admin Code Country
Subject
Booksellers and bookselling
Occupation
Function

Corporate Body

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