The first time I visited Brazenhead was in 2010. I had just moved to New York and I was friends with a few regulars. It was the “secret bookstore” or the “speakeasy bookshop,” terms that immediately hook in a certain kind of curious person, especially an out-of-towner or new-to-towner. But it wasn’t twee or whimsical; it was just fucking great.
I loved texting people directions to it, “right next door to Brandy's Piano Bar.” That was the old location. Later, after some commotion, it regrouped in his old apartment, and Michael Seidenberg, the host and sole proprietor, moved upstate, but returned on weekends for its open hours from evening to very very late. That’s where I shot my video series Just Browsing and I had a few birthdays and going away parties there (yes, that’s more than one “going away” party. None of my moves from New York ever quite stuck.) Once I had a party and no one showed up, but I didn’t care much because I could hang out with Michael.
The nights were all different but there were a few constants: first you see the books everywhere, then the bottles of whiskey and ice and pile of glasses. Maybe Michael’s playing Blood on the Tracks on an old speaker hidden under some books. You’ll talk to the other people there because you have books in common. A few snapshots that come to mind first are the times at the old location when his neighbor would show up medium-late in the night—2am maybe, with a giant bowl of pasta and plates for everyone. That neighbor left his door open and people would sneak in his apartment to use the bathroom because Brazenhead didn’t have one. Sometimes Michael’s zany dogs were around. A few nights ended at the diner nearby. Once some friends and I built a books-and-chairs barricade in the back room to keep a creepy guy away from our conversation. Another time, I can’t remember why, but we were balancing books on our heads. I could go there by myself, which always a relief, especially when I first arrived and didn’t always know what to do on a Saturday night. It was incredible to know there was always somewhere I could go and feel welcome. Like the time I left a stuffy New Year’s Eve party full of rich people. Took the train uptown and walked to Brazenhead. I don’t even think I texted beforehand to see if he was around. I just guessed and guessed correctly.
Almost all my favorite people I either brought there or met there. And one of them was Michael.
We had a plan once to set up a shelf at his bookstore: “The Underread Writers Shelf.” There was going to be a corresponding website too, but most of our plans for it consisted of talking about the “underread writers” that we liked. Most of his favorites were underread and long gone. Although, I remember he said he really loved John Wray’s Lowboy—a rare recent-ish recommendation. I keep meaning to pick that one up.
He did not care if you were a bestseller or a receptionist, a nobel prize winner or a janitor, or where you went to school. You liked books or didn’t. I was collecting unemployment after a stint working at a call center when I first showed up, but that said nothing of my bookshelf. I pointed out Max Frisch’s I’m Not Stiller that first night and said I love that book, what else have you got like it? I believe Confessions of Felix Krull is what he suggested. To be honest, I never got around to reading it, but I did go home with a copy that couldn’t have cost more than a couple bucks.
I only ever felt welcome at Brazenhead; and in the wider world of books as commerce and books as media events, that is something to cherish. Not that I haven’t tried to make my way in those hierarchies. Looking over our past emails I see I was constantly telling him about the book proposals I worked on, which only collected rejections; an endeavor akin to Ship of Theseus repair if it were sinking. It makes sense that I would take these woes to Michael: someone who believed in books, and didn’t divide the world into somebodies and nobodies. I worked hard and he could see that; but he never gave me false hope or anything like that, nor did he discourage me from continuing to press onward or work harder. There were no useless pep talks or shallow words of encouragement from him; just a lot of wisdom and realism. I would have liked to have given him a copy of my book, but at least I got the chance this year to tell him that I finished it.
His indifference to hierarchies is why he was one of the great booksellers: he couldn’t care less where a book came from. All that mattered to him was whether a book was good or not. Not that he didn’t notice or care about celebrities. I don’t know if Carl Bernstein is a shopaholic or not but that’s the sort of funny gossip and unsubstantiated Madlibs of cultural figures that Michael was always good for. I thought that Brazenhead was the closest I’d come to having an Elaine’s, but now I’d bet it was better than Elaine’s; after all, it was a secret bookstore.
Most of the best parties I’ve ever been to happened there, often whenever Jonathan was back in town. Jonathan’s absence was another piece of the Brazenhead’s legend—like the cool cousin away at college while visiting the coolest uncle’s house. But as often as I visited, I find myself wishing now that I hadn’t missed out on so much—I can’t believe I never got around to one of Jace’s book clubs. Never got to know the poetry community who met on Tuesdays.
I am reminded of these lines in Susan Orlean’s The Library Book:
In Senegal, the polite expression for saying someone died is to say his or her library has burned. When I first heard the phrase, I didn’t understand it, but over time I came to realize it was perfect. Our minds and souls contain volumes inscribed by our experiences and emotions; each individual’s consciousness is a collection of memories we’ve cataloged and stored inside us, a private library of a life lived.
It seems to me that Michael embodied all of the best qualities of New York City and all the best qualities of books: generosity and history and community and connections between people over time. Now that’s gone but people, many people, are carrying and cherishing the times they had there. These are only a few of my remembrances and I am just one of the many people who was lucky to know him and get book recommendations from him.
Read an underread writer this summer in his honor. Any lonely and interesting-looking unfamiliar book at a used bookstore will do.