February 1, 2016 | by Sadie Stein
Not long ago, the Complete Traveller Antiquarian Bookstore—one of New York’s increasingly rare single-topic booksellers—shut its doors. And now its longtime proprietor, Arnold Greenberg, has died at eighty-three. “There is no villain in this story,” the New York Times was quick to assert when reporting on the Complete Traveller’s closing. This was not the story of a small business driven out by rising rent, although the rent had gone up, and it’s surely an exhausting challenge to run any such independent enterprise in today’s Manhattan. But the store was not forced to shutter; rather, Mr. Greenberg and his wife, Harriet, had simply decided to retire, having run the shop for more than thirty years. This was not an end to make you angry, then—just sad for the natural end of things.
The Complete Traveller was a wonderful place. It sat at the corner of Thirty-Fifth and Madison. Even if you didn’t have an antiquarian collector’s budget—and I speak from experience here—the owners, both retired travel writers, were happy to share their knowledge of guides and maps and changing places and perceptions. They were happy to talk about my own niche interests—books like Where to Dine in ’39 or Knife and Fork in New York—but could have talked about a thousand other things, I imagine, with equal authority.
It was my mom who started the family practice of giving antique travel books as wedding gifts. If a couple was honeymooning in Fiji or Niagara Falls, my mom would pay a visit to the Complete Traveller and emerge with a gorgeous illustrated atlas or a travel guide to the same place. Granted, this was certainly the projection school of gift giving—my mom couldn’t imagine anyone preferring, say, half a dozen wine glasses to an antique book, because she had no such preference—but it was a lovely idea, and I like to think people still treasure those books as memories long after a glass might have been broken.
There’s so much to be angry about and saddened by when one thinks of closing businesses—the erosion of character, the diminishing book market. Here is the rare case where that need not overwhelm the good memories. And fittingly, the Complete Traveller knew better than anyone the value of the past.
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.