It’s been a tough year at Morningside Bookstore, on 114th Street and Broadway. Seized credit markets have made it harder for owner Peter Soter to stock books, sales are down, he is short-staffed and after his father’s death in January, George’s Underground Bazaar has been left without a proprietor. The bazaar, an eclectic tchotchke boutique nestled beneath the bookstore, has been unmanned during the day because Soter can’t afford to pay for staff. A sign on the door asks that customers go back upstairs and have a staff member let them in, discouraging business from passersby.
Fortunately, Soter has found help in the form of Irene Marcuse, the author of several murder mystery novels with Upper West Side settings. She has started selling her “odd things” at the bazaar, items she has collected since the 1970s.
Living and writing in her apartment one block away on 113th Street and Broadway, Marcuse was a frequent bookstore visitor.
“It’s a neighborhood institution,” she said, “and when [the bazaar] opened I would go downstairs and visit George, and sometimes buy things.”
In November, hearing of George’s failing health, she asked Soter if she could help by selling her own goods along with George’s.
“It was supposed to be a Thanksgiving-to-Christmas thing, a holiday thing, but at the end I realized I still had a lot of stuff left, and I was enjoying myself,” she said.
The deal is good both for Marcuse and for Soter. She gets free shelf space, and in return she keeps the bazaar open, increasing customer traffic. Both George’s and her collections, she says, fit together naturally.
“I like to put together odd things,” she said. “Old linen placemats, tablecloths and silver butter knives, some gold-edged flowered plates from the turn of the last century, along with a pair of crystal champagne glasses, a set of espresso coffee cups and a few lovely flower vases.” It somehow compliments her predecessor’s four copper “toast covers,” lids that keep food warm on the plate. Sometimes, she says, she gets confused when she looks at an item, unsure whether it’s one of George’s or one of hers.
Marcuse started collecting in her 20s with the purchase of Griswold cast-iron frying pans. After 30 years of flea-market trips, her stockpile was not a commercial venture but built due to a natural curiosity: “I’m easily mollified by shiny objects,” she said, quoting Bob Dylan. She began selling her collections at Morningside Gardens, the subsidized middle-income housing complex between West 123rd and La Salle streets that hosts an annual flea-market fundraiser.
Marcuse graduated from Columbia University in 1987 with a bachelor’s degree in English and creative writing, and adopted a month-old “border baby,” a healthy baby who wasn’t allowed to go home to her crack-addicted parents. This was during the height of the crack epidemic, and the adoption convinced Marcuse to go back to Columbia for a master’s in social work (she is the granddaughter of Herbert Marcuse, the German philosopher and sociologist, and the daughter of Peter Marcuse, Columbia’s 80-year-old professor emeritus of urban studies). She stopped practicing social work to focus on writing, and eventually she produced four novels following Anita Servi, a social worker sleuth on the Upper West Side who kept finding herself dangerously involved in the deaths of those around her. Now, with more time on her hands, she has taken up social work again, and spends her free time at the bazaar. She hopes to keep that post, “as long as the bookstore is open.”
That’s up to Morningside Bookstore’s landlord, Columbia University. Despite a $30,000 infusion generated by the sale of Obama T-shirts during the four-month period before the inauguration, sales have been slow and loans remain difficult to secure.
“It’s quiet” Marcuse said, pausing to order a coffee on her way to work on a rainy Monday afternoon, “but it’s nice, too. I like being a part of the community, and I’m excited to have returning customers.”
The bazaar is accessible during the bookshop’s regular hours, but it is fully staffed when Marcuse is there, Monday to Friday from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m., and 1 p.m. to 8 p.m. on weekends.
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