Michael Seidenberg, the owner of Manhattan’s least-secret secret bookstore, Brazenhead Books, passed away on July 8, 2019. Molly Crabapple remembers the bookstore’s heyday.
I knew Michael Seidenberg through Brazenhead, the illicit bookstore he built in a tiny rent-controlled apartment.
How to describe utopia masquerading as a bookstore? It comes to me as a sense memory—the gold light and the sweetness of Michael’s pipe smoke, the feeling of leisure and vastness as we sprawled, talking, amid the books that smelled like burning leaves. The music he played sounded like it came from an old record player, even if it did not.
I came to Brazenhead in 2011, during the height of Occupy Wall Street. At the time, I felt, naively, like the entire world had shattered open, and a new better one was leaking in through the cracks. A journalist friend who wrote for The New Inquiry took me to the secret bookstore. I remember feeling I wasn’t clever enough to be there (at that point, I had worked most recently as a naked model and as a nightclub illustrator, and felt my lack of theoretical education stood out like a boil on my forehead). But Michael never made me feel that way. He had a New York voice—from the old days of New York, before the city had been gentrified into sterility—the sort of voice that told anyone they were coming home. He had seen it all, done it all, or so it seemed, and he met everyone who passed through his apartment with generosity and kindness. I drew him when I got back home, and later I gave him the picture. I wanted to leave my own small trace in his world.
After the occupation of Zuccotti Park fell apart, I kept coming back to Michael. In Brazenhead, I found a portal to a magic world, as Helena Fitzgerald describes so eloquently in her article in Electric Literature. On this Manhattan island run by real estate, nothing is more precious than space, let alone space devoted to activities other than extracting cash. Show up at Brazenhead and your friends would be there, beneath their halos of weed smoke. You could gossip, and whisper secrets, talk smack, and Michael would preside over it all. He’d recommend a book, and if you hadn’t brought cash, you could pay later. You would, because it was Michael. God he loved books. I remember the paperbacks, precariously piled, the whisky bottles crowding one table, the time a communist splinter sect tried to infiltrate a reading group, and the nights I stumbled to the subway beneath the pale rainy sky, dying to write down the memories before they flew away. Once, a favorite ring fell between the books, and I never tried to find it. Brazenhead was the sort of place where you left offerings.
Of course, nothing is more temporary than a paradise. Soon the landlord found out, the bookstore closed, only to reopen later in his home. I kept telling myself I would go back, but I was too busy with work, or some other bad excuse, and I never did. Stupidly, I thought I had forever.
I returned to Brazenhead for Michael’s memorial. Friends piled into his home on the Upper East Side, scene of the last iteration of the secret bookstore everyone knew about. It was bigger, and windows kept away the eternal feeling of nighttime that had pervaded the old store, but it still felt heavy with his presence. Thousands of books weighed down the shelves his friends had built. They surrounded us in some great embrace, as if Michael himself was still here, as if the world wasn’t smaller now in his absence. His friends told stories of his anarchic wit, his generosity, his great, all-embracing, socialist kindness, all the ways he had saved them. We passed around a photo of him as a young man. As I left, I brushed my fingertips along the books. They felt alive, like the spine of some massive cat, slumbering inside this city. Thank you Michael, I whispered, and stepped into the cold light of the hall.
Molly Crabapple is an artist and author of the memoir Drawing Blood. Her most recent book is Brothers of the Gun, cowritten with the Syrian war journalist Marwan Hisham.