Sir Elton John, Michael Jackson, Madonna, Karl Lagerfeld, Paloma Picasso, Christo, Gregory Peck, David Bowie, Abba Eban, Pablo Neruda, Gina Lollobrigida, Diana Ross, Greg Louganis, Fernando Botero, Francoise Gilot, Franco Zeffirelli, and Greta Garbo hung out here.
2014 marks Rizzoli Bookstore's 50th anniversary. Celebrations for the anniversary had been well underway. The future of one of the last great booksellers in Manhattan that had weathered the storm of Amazon and ebooks looked increasingly bright. Then news of the store's demolition to make way for another luxury high-rise was unexpectedly announced. This news has devastated the New York community as well as book lovers around the world.
Antonio Ximenez, an artist who painted during the day and worked at Rizzoli in the evening, began his career there in 1969 on the night shift from 6:00PM to 1:00AM. Within a few months he became the store's night manager and that was his cherished job until 1986 when Antonio left New York and moved to Honolulu. But even when he lived in Honolulu, he flew back to New York City during the fall and holiday season until 2011 to help out during the store's busiest time of year. Then in 2012 he came back for the entire year.
During the 1980's, the store was moved to its present location in the magnificent building at 31 West 57th Street. Antonio recalls how New York's large, sophisticated population of cultivated and diverse people loved this store. "Rizzoli fulfilled their needs," he explains, "with its large selection of books. The ambiance was relaxed and vibrant, enhanced by a refined musical background that offered classical as well as ethnic sounds."
Tourists especially sought out the six-story, 109-year-old townhouse. They loved its old world charm, grand chandeliers and sumptuous selection of books, not to mention its reputation of being bookstore to the rich and famous.
"Jackie Kennedy was a charming lady who always came in at closing time."
- Antonio Ximenez
Antonio's stories about the A-list celebrities he personally knew who frequented Rizzoli are a book in itself. The list includes Jacqueline Kennedy and her children. "Jackie Kennedy was a charming lady who always came in at closing time as did her sister."
Salvador Dali was another frequent visitor to the store and, being a fellow Spaniard like Antonio, the two enjoyed a friendship inspired by long conversations.
"Sirikit, Queen of Thailand, was also my customer," explains Antonio. The Queen of Thailand especially loved books about architecture, gardening, and art. She would bring her ladies-in-waiting and sometimes her son, the Prince. The group would browse for many hours, enjoying the store's fascinating treasures before making decisions on which ones to purchase. Antonio became such a respected friend to this "fantastic lady" that she even invited him to Thailand.
The list of Antonio's famous customers at Rizzoli bookstore goes on and on. Sir Elton John, Michael Jackson, Madonna, Karl Lagerfeld, Paloma Picasso, Christo, Gregory Peck, David Bowie, Abba Eban, Pablo Neruda, Gina Lollobrigida, Diana Ross, Greg Louganis, Fernando Botero, Francoise Gilot, Franco Zeffirelli, and Greta Garbo hung out here. Antonio recalls how Greta Garbo (who liked to be left alone) would spend hours exploring Rizzoli's gorgeous books. "Nobody but us knew she was there."
"Book signings were an essential part of Rizzoli life. They were attended by New York's literary and artistic elite," says Antonio. "The events were extremely popular and always very successful."
"Book signings were an essential part of Rizzoli life. They were attended by New York's literary and artistic elite." - Antonio Ximenez
Antonio says the Erte exhibition at the Rizzoli Gallery in the Fifth Avenue store (the Beatles and Sir Harry Winston were visitors) was also an unforgettable event. It was called "Fashion and Fantasy." The showcase lasted several hours and ended with a party at El Morocco. Among the guests, he vividly remembers standing between Andy Warhol and Erte in the celebrity packed space.
Antonio Ximenez is opposed to the destruction of the beautiful 57th Street building. So are a rapidly growing number of authors, publishers, preservationists and international visitors.
Peter Pennover and Anne Walker, authors of the upcoming New York Transformed, explained to me: "The opening of Carnegie Hall in 1891 precipitated 57th Street's emergence as a cultural and musical center. The Rizzoli bookstore building was built to house the Sohmer Piano Company in 1920. Like Chickering Hall next door at 29 West 57th Street (1924) by Cross & Cross, Rizzoli is an important vestige of early 20th century 57th Street when the area thrived as the epicenter of the city's musical trades."
Brooklyn artist David Cooper remembers thinking he was about to become a part of history when he entered the store for The Real Alice in Wonderland book signing in 2010. He brought with him the vast original Alice painting he had created for the book. "Our city is rapidly changing and in that process we are losing so much of its beauty, style and elegant charm. I wonder who will suffer more - those of us witnessing the loss of great architecture now or those generations behind us who will never be able to experience it," he commented.
"Rizzoli is an important vestige of early 20th century 57th Street when the area thrived as the epicenter of the city's musical trades." - Peter Pennover and Anne Walker
What can we all do to help?
We can join Tea Obreht, Peter Pennoyer, Anne Walker, Irma Boom, Chip Kidd, Benedikt Taschen, Salman Rushdie and the 9000 other people from 60 different countries who have already signed the petition. We can share our passion and our memories of Rizzoli on our blogs, websites, newsletters, and social media platforms. We can encourage people who care about preserving beautiful architecture to tell the Landmarks Preservation Commission how much this building means to us.
Specifically, we can write to Robert B. Tierney and the Landmarks Commission, and beg them to schedule a public hearing to vote on the building. We can speak to our local elected officials, City Council Member Daniel R. Garodnick and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer.
In addition to the building that houses Rizzoli, the two adjoining buildings are also facing the threat of demolition. Of particular concern is the fate of 29 West 57th Street. The Chickering building was designed by Cross & Cross and is a masterpiece of Art Deco architecture. For years, it was the headquarters and showroom for the American Piano Company. The giant medal reliefs on the facade refer to the Cross of the Légion d'honneur that Napoleon III awarded to Chickering & Sons at the Paris Exhibition of 1867.
To lose our priceless treasures would be to lose some of New York City's most cherished memories.
For more information: www.saverizzoli.org
My thanks to Davide di Cagno-Hagen and Thomas Collins for their additional assistance with this article.
"I wonder who will suffer more - those of us witnessing the loss of great architecture now or those generations behind us who will never be able to experience it." - David Cooper
Photos are courtesy of Rizzoli bookstore and The Real Alice in Wonderland book.
Photo 1 (facade), photo 2 (interior), and photo 4 (stairs/interior) were photographed by Boyd Hagen.
C. M. Rubin is the author of two widely read online series for which she received a 2011 Upton Sinclair award, "The Global Search for Education" and "How Will We Read?" She is also the author of three bestselling books, including The Real Alice in Wonderland, and is the publisher of CMRubinWorld.