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New York, Part One

May 29, 2010

Christina writes: Since I moved to Williamstown at the end of October 1995, Wayne and I have visited New York City on average once each year; and thinking back on our visits, from our earliest to our latest this past March, it occurs to me that almost every aspect has changed: how we travel, where we stay, where we eat, how we spend our time.

At first we went to New York by coach (intercity bus), a slow, boring, but frugal journey of over five hours with many stops, reaching the Port Authority Terminal after midday and usually not on time. Once there, we had the choice of waiting for a taxi or walking fifteen minutes to the Williams Club on East 39th where we used to stay. The return journey was even less pleasant, as by then our bags were heavy with purchases. In 2001, however, the early morning coach was cancelled, so that one could not reach the city until late afternoon, wasting most of the day. Since Wayne is not willing to drive in New York traffic, and we live two hours from the nearest (commuter) railway to New York, we decided instead to pay to be driven to Manhattan, a relatively speedy and comfortable journey of only three and three-quarter hours door to door, which also solved the problem of heavy bags. But the cost of livery service became more and more expensive, and our last driver, new to the route, lost his way in the New York streets. Now we drive down in our own car and stay outside the city near a Metro North station, from which we take the train to Grand Central Terminal.

We were able to stay at the Williams Club because Wayne was a member by virtue of his employment at Williams College. Although its rooms were small (for the USA), it offered good value compared with hotels in the area, and the rate included a buffet breakfast. However, the Club had very few rooms, and one needed to book well in advance, which for us wasn’t always possible. In any case we will never be able to stay in the Club’s townhouse, as Williams is selling the property. (The Club membership programme is being transferred to the Princeton Club on West 43rd, but it’s not clear if administrative staff will continue to have their dues paid as an employee benefit.)

On our first few visits to New York, we often had a quick lunch at a deli opposite the Williams Club. Later we have preferred the Madison Avenue branch of Prêt-a-Manger, or if we are in the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the Morgan Library and Museum around lunchtime, we will eat there. The Met used to have an elegant upscale restaurant in a sunken area which is now the restored Greek and Roman galleries; currently we go to the Petrie Court Café and Wine Bar which overlooks Central Park. We have not yet eaten in the Morgan’s formal dining room, preferring the café in the main entrance hall, but our fondest memories are of the more intimate and serene café that was in the Morgan’s Garden Court designed by Bartholomew Voorsanger, since demolished to make way for the Renzo Piano expansion.

We still eat at two restaurants in Madison Avenue discovered in earlier years, the Madison Bistro (French) and Saluté (Italian). A third favourite, Chez Laurence, closed a year or so ago. We sometimes ate at Chez Laurence more than once on a visit, partly because we enjoyed the food and the ambiance – featuring large posters for French films of the forties – but also because the staff did not mind if we walked in around 9.00 p.m. In those days, we had enough stamina to visit three or four bookshops and an equal number of record shops in a single afternoon and early evening – but then, in those days there were that many shops worth visiting.

In general, our time in New York has been spent mainly at exhibitions and in shopping. There has not been much variation in the actual time we spend in museums or galleries, but it has increased proportionately while other attractions have disappeared or have less to offer. During our first visits we spent a great deal of time in shops for both new and used books, and for CDs and videos. More recently this aspect has been reduced to visiting Books of Wonder and Academy Records in West 18th Street. Books of Wonder is one of the few surviving bookshops devoted to books for children and young adults, with a large selection of new books and a smaller number of secondhand books and collectibles. Once upon a time, there was also a subsidiary branch, as well as two branches of Eeyore’s, another shop devoted to children’s books. Most of the secondhand bookshops we knew have closed, including two in 18th Street and some along Broadway. The Strand survives, but we haven’t been there in years, having found it exhausting: browsing was difficult, with some shelves very high, and with low units placed so close together that one was constantly being asked to move to let someone pass. Nor have we been in the New York branch of Forbidden Planet in at least ten years, after it no longer offered as wide a range of books as it had before. Probably we should give the Strand and Forbidden Planet another chance, when we have the time.

It’s sad to think about the many secondhand bookshops that have disappeared, but as those with an Internet as well as a bricks-and-mortar presence began to offer their most interesting items online, their shelves became less attractive; and at the same time, as we have filled so many of our wants online, the odds of finding in a shop those we still lack have dropped considerably. There’s less thrill in the chase if one rarely sights game.

CD/DVD collection in the stacks

When I lived in London, I frequently used to attend performances of opera (and to a lesser extent, ballet), mainly at Covent Garden (a ten minutes’ walk from where I worked), but also the English National Opera at the Coliseum, and on occasion at Glyndebourne and while on holiday in Edinburgh, Bayreuth, Munich, etc. In London, when I often went to three or more performances a week, I did not have the time also to listen to recordings; but when I moved to Williamstown and could no longer easily attend live performances, I began to collect CDs and videocassettes (later DVDs) of operas, ballets, lieder recitals, and so forth, and now have a large collection. I made lists of wants from books such as The Penguin Guide to Opera on CD, The Metropolitan Guide to Opera on Video, and The Metropolitan Guide to Recorded Opera, and for the first few years had to seek what I wanted in shops rather than on the Internet. Whenever we were in New York, I would visit three branches of HMV (near the Metropolitan Museum, near Lincoln Center, and at Times Square), two Virgin stores (at Times Square and Union Square), two Tower Records shops (Broadway and 4th, with a large adjoining bargain annex, and near Lincoln Center), and at least two Barnes and Nobles. Of these, only Barnes and Noble survives, with a much diminished music department. Wayne also collects music, though his tastes are different, so in shops we usually make for different sections. We both found Tower Records rewarding, especially at the Lincoln Center branch where it would take us several hours to go through the well-filled racks. Fortunately, by the time these shops went out of business we had both acquired most of what we wanted from the current catalogue and could keep up with new issues via the Internet. Academy Records in West 18th, which sells used and cutout CDs and LPs (and now DVDs), has always been a major destination for us: we often find CDs long out of the catalogue or rare imports, and more recently, for me, recordings of live performances.

As far as I am concerned, clothes shopping in New York is confined to Brooks Brothers, though for me no longer in the flagship building on Madison Avenue, since the women’s department has moved around the corner. Wayne also likes to look at least at the windows of Paul Stuart – their prices are typically beyond our means – and at Jos. A. Bank, both further along Madison.

Image: Part of our CD/DVD/videocassette collection in our basement stacks. The bookcase contains music reference books. The Post-It labels on the boxes are temporary.

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