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There Was Once a Secret Bookstore in this Old Tenement Building

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The majority of Upper East Siders who walked down a particular stretch of East 84th Street between 2008 and 2019 would have been oblivious to the mysterious literary haven they were passing. But for those in the know – a select group of writers, artists, creatives, and the friends they brought with them – a particular second floor apartment in an old tenement building offered an inviting escape from reality.

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It was in that rent-stabilized apartment that Michael Seidenberg operated a sort of speakeasy bookstore known as Brazenhead Books. His brainchild and ultimately his legacy, the intimate, often smoke-filled space was lined floor-to-ceiling with books loosely organized by category, offering just enough space for guests to move around.

Brazenhead would come to life at night. Not quite a legal business, Seidenberg’s enclave relied on word of mouth to attract visitors.

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“The price of entry was merely that you had to want to be there,” writes Helena Fitzgerald, an accomplished author and frequenter of Brazenhead. “You had to want to sit around talking shit with Michael about whatever ridiculous topic Michael wanted to talk about…it is where I met or became close with many of my very favorite people.”

A native New Yorker, Seidenberg opened the original Brazenhead Books – a bonafide business – on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn in the 1970s. The New York Times reported that Seidenberg eventually moved the storefront to the Upper East Side but lost the lease. He tried selling his books at street fairs and even by appointment in his apartment, which ultimately led to the late-night, boozy gatherings that made Brazenhead famous.

Among the regular crowd of mostly writers was Jonathan Lethem, author of Motherless Brooklyn and Chronic City. According to Fitzgerald’s wonderful memorial of Brazenhead, Lethem based characters off Seidenberg in both books. Lethem worked for Seidenberg at both his Brooklyn and UES storefronts.

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Seidenberg requested that his guests keep Brazenhead’s address (235 East 84th Street) a secret, but by 2014, he received an eviction notice. With the end in sight, crowds at Brazenhead swelled and ultimately became too much to manage.

“Minor celebrities dropped in. Everywhere you looked, on a Saturday night, you saw people guzzling red wine and Wild Turkey,“ Brian Patrick Eha, another Brazenhead regular, wrote in The New Yorker in 2015. “Pot smoke was general, and it became hard to see the books through the throng.”

 

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The apartment bookstore was forced to close in 2015, but not without a series of ‘last’ nights that went on for a month. Although Seidenberg temporarily reopened in a new space, Brazenhead regulars didn’t feel it was the same.

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“I rarely went to the new location,” wrote Fitzgerald. “In some ways I felt I had outgrown it, that it was better to cede it to newer people who needed it more than I did.”

Seidenberg passed away in 2019 at the age of 64, but his legacy lives on through the many literary-minded New Yorkers he influenced and connected with. In addition to The New York Times and The New Yorker, Brazenhead has been memorialized in The Paris Review and The Guardian.


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