The bookstore, and especially the used bookstore, is vanishing from New York City. Today there are a few, but there used to be a multitude of them, crammed between kitchen appliance shops and Laundromats and thrift stores. They all had temperamental cats prowling their aisles and they all smelled wonderfully of what a team of chemists in London has called “a combination of grassy notes with a tang of acids and a hint of vanilla over an underlying mustiness.” I will miss terribly this stimulating fragrance, and the books that produce it, when it’s washed from the city for good. Luckily, there are towns that still accommodate used bookshops. Lambertville, New Jersey, is one of them. On North Union Street, there are two used bookstores, Panoply and Phoenix Books, one right across from the other. You can spend hours here, and it’s guaranteed that you’ll return with some grassy, musty artifact of the past. On my last visit to Panoply, I came home with a copy of Sisters of the Night: The Startling Story of Prostitution in New York Today by “veteran newspaperman” Jess Stearn.
Published in 1956, the book began as an assignment for the Daily News when Stearn’s editor told him to find out what makes prostitutes “tick.” He was told, “Get out and talk to the girls, see the judges, the social workers, the cops, the headshrinkers—you won’t win a Pulitzer Prize but it should be worth reading.” Dragging his feet, the reluctant Stearn complied, going out in search of what one of the book’s reviewers called the “orchidaceous girls” of the city.