Steloff, Frances (1887–1989)
Steloff, Frances (1887–1989)
American literary patron and bookseller who founded the Gotham Book Mart in New York City. Name variations: Fanny Steloff. Born Ida Frances Steloff on December 31, 1887, in Saratoga Springs, New York; died on April 15, 1989, in New York City; married David Moss (divorced around 1930); no children.
Frances Steloff was born in 1887 into a poor family in the wealthy New York resort town of Saratoga Springs. Her mother died when she was three, and her father, a booklover and religious scholar, left his five children in the care of their stepmother while working as a traveling salesman to support them. At age 12, Steloff was informally adopted by a Boston couple vacationing in Saratoga. She moved to their home in Wakefield, near Boston, but was treated cruelly by the woman, an alcoholic who prevented Frances from attending school. Steloff performed household tasks for the couple before running away to New York when she was in her mid-teens, arriving with only the clothes on her back and the contents of her piggy bank. She worked at Loeser's department store in Brooklyn and then in a number of bookstores, including Brentano's. Deprived of books as a child, she found her abiding passion in them. "Perhaps if I'd had a college education I might not have been so hungry for books," she once said.
The day after her 33rd birthday, Steloff opened her own store, the Gotham Book Mart. The shop began in the basement of a brownstone on 45th Street in New York City, funded by Steloff's meager savings—a $100 Liberty Bond and less than $100 in cash—and stocked with her own collection of out-of-print theater books. Her future husband David Moss, then head of stock at Brentano's, and her old friend Mr. Mischke from the Loeser's days helped her set up shop on New Year's Day, 1920. She later claimed that her first customer was the actor Glenn Hunter. In order to accommodate her earliest patrons, many of whom worked in the theaters on Broadway, Steloff kept her store open until midnight. As she poured her considerable energy and enthusiasm into her work, the Gotham Book Mart became a haven for literati between the wars.
An early supporter of authors like John Steinbeck and William Faulkner, Steloff helped launch the work of James Joyce, Gertrude Stein , e.e. cummings, Anais Nin and Ezra Pound. She was one of the founders of the James Joyce Society, which made the Gotham Book Mart its meeting place. Steloff championed new and controversial works, illegally importing and selling such banned books as D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover and Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer.
In 1938, Steloff and her staff produced their first catalog, with the emphasis on authors and all their works, not just newly released books. Called The Book-Collector's Odyssey, or Travels in the Realms of Gold, the catalog was a popular success. Two years later, to celebrate its 20th anniversary, Gotham Book Mart published We Moderns, a catalog of its experimental literature written by contributors like Carl Van Vechten and Conrad Aiken. We Moderns received enormous critical attention and established the store as a literary landmark.
"I felt that writers were very important and I wanted to do all I could for them," Steloff once said. Her practice of storing unsold books in the basement instead of returning them to publishers resulted in Gotham's unparalleled treasure chest of first editions by many of the great writers of the 20th century. Her passion for the written word, unstinting commitment to new authors, and respect for her customers made the Gotham Book Mart a mecca for booklovers. Gotham patrons have included among their number George and Ira Gershwin, Charlie Chaplin, Katharine Hepburn , Woody Allen and Saul Bellow.
Frances Steloff received many honors during her lifetime, including the National Institute of Arts and Letters Distinguished Service to the Arts Award, an honorary doctorate from Skidmore College, and the Brandeis University Award for Notable Achievement in the Creative Arts. She sold her shop at the age of 80, continuing to live upstairs and remaining active in its operations until a few weeks before her death from pneumonia in 1989, age 101. Steloff's legacy, the Gotham Book Mart, still thrives. Now in larger premises, it has one of the most complete collections of 20th-century literature and poetry in the United States.
Gilbert, Lynn, and Gaylen Moore. Particular Passions. NY: Clarkson Potter, 1981.
The New York Times (obituary). April 16, 1989.
Paula Morris , D.Phil., Brooklyn, New York