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“Michael always followed his own path and he wasn’t afraid to do what he wanted”

Hugo van der Ding
Livraria Lello acquired part of the estate of Brazenhead Books after the death of its owner, Michael Seidenberg, known as "New York's last pirate". The bookseller's memoirs are now on display at the newly opened Gemma. We went to talk to Gracie Bialecki, Michael's personal assistant, to find out more about that space where strangers and personalities met to talk books late into the night. 

Livraria Lello: We would like to start with the name Brazenhead. We have read two different stories about the origin and the meaning of this name. Can you tell us why Michael chose “Brazenhead”?

One of Michael’s favorite authors was John Cowper Powys, one of his novels is called The Brazen Head, and Michael would say that the bookstore was named after the title of that novel. There’s also a sillier story we would tell. Originally, before he became a bookseller, he worked at Argosy, which is a very famous bookstore in Manhattan, that’s still in existence. This was back in the days of telephone books organized by alphabetic order, so if you were looking for a bookstore, you would immediately see Argosy. He said since A is already taken, he would choose B. That is why he chose Brazenhead. I think it was a combination of the two stories.

LL: We know you worked at Brazenhead Books. What was your role at Brazenhead and how long did you work there?

I was Michael’s assistant for about 5 years. Michael was somebody that would never ask you to do anything, or would never ask for help, so being his assistant was a very interesting job. Some of the things I did for him is make business cards on my typewriter. Because it was a secret bookstore, the business cards would have very little information on them. Usually, they would just say Brazenhead Books, by appointment, but people came from all over the world, and it was a nice way for them to have something to remind them of the bookstore. I would do things like that, help him with anything on the website and just be there to support him and his ideas.

LL: What was like to work with Michael. How was your relationship with him?

Michael was just one of the most loving, generous people I’ve ever met. I remember one of the first times I made the business cards, I wrote the wrong email address and he just laughed about it. Then we just took a pen and corrected it. We really could make any mistake around him. He was so grateful for anything that you were doing. At that time, I was writing my first novel and I was reciting poetry at the bookstore, and he was just so supportive. He was probably the best boss I have ever had! I honestly don’t know what I could have done to do my job wrong. He was that way with many other writers. He was always talking to people about what they were working on. He was always listening to them. It didn’t matter if you were just coming to the bookstore and reciting a poem that we have just written or if you have five books of poetry published, he would still talk to you about your work and be encouraging to everybody.

LL: Why did you think New York Times called Michael “the last pirate of New York”?

GB: I think they called him the last pirate bookseller in New York City, and they meant it as somebody who was not selling books through the traditional model. Which is to say he didn’t have a bookstore with a storefront. It wasn’t in a traditional building. Even before Brazenhead, he had had a few commercial spaces with an entrance on the street and regular hours, but he has never been able to afford the rent. At one point he has been selling books outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art, on the street. There are plenty of interesting bookstores still in New York City: some are popping up in Brooklyn, in containers, ones that are coffee shops and bars, wonderful places. Michael’s was the only one I knew in an apartment and that really stood them apart from the other bookstores. By pirate, they just meant he always followed his own path and he wasn’t afraid to do what he wanted and what felt right to him.

LL: Can you describe what looked like a “normal” day at the bookshop?

A normal day would, usually, start around 5 or 6 o’clock at night. Michael was a night owl. He wouldn’t get up unless he had an appointment, or somebody was coming in the afternoon but, usually, he would tell nobody to come in the morning. We would usually meet there with Dan Chong, who also helped at the bookstore, and we would cook dinner. This was Michael’s apartment, the kitchen was right there, so we would start doing what we called staff dinner as a joke. That was our way of making sure Michael had dinner and, also, spending time together. The first visitors would arrive around 7 or 8 o’clock at night. There was always a moment, after dinner and before the first people arrive, when you thought that no one would come to the bookstore. Then, the doorbell would ring, and then it would keep ringing, and more and more people would come. People stood until midnight or one in the morning or until they wanted to. Sometimes, Michael would go to bed and there would still be people there. Dan Chong would stay and make sure everyone eventually left, sometimes at 4 or 5 in the morning.

LL: How did people discover Brazenhead and how did they schedule their visits? Did you get lots of new requests or did you work mainly with regular customers?

It was a combination of many different things. It was definitely word of mouth. We started having a website, maybe in 2013 or 2014. Until that were just people bringing other people, or people finding Michael on Facebook and asking him about the bookstore. After the website, where we had a contact form, we received requests of people from Europe, from South America, from everywhere across the world. There was always a group of regulars, from New York City, who would come once or twice a week. Alongside them, there would be basically tourists. Some of them would really fall in love with the place and try to come back whenever they were in New York City. It was really a wonderful place because you could see people you would start to know as friends and people that would be there for the first time and were blown away to have traveled across the world and have someone welcoming them in their apartment.

LL: And what about a cultural agenda? Did Michael host literary or cultural gatherings at Brazenhead?

 We usually did poetry about once a week. Tuesday nights were poetry nights. There was no signup, no start time, and no end time. We had a bell, that we called the poetry bell, and when it started to get a little bit crowded, we would ring the bell, and whoever wanted would share their poems. That was the most regular literary event. Often, if an author was doing a book launch, would have the after-party at Brazenhead. Michael would always do whatever he could to support authors in any way, so if anyone asked about using the space, he would always say yes.

LL: When Livraria Lello bought some of the literary estate of Brazenhead Books, we found signed copies of books from Woody Allen and Margaret Atwood and others. Was it common to receive visits from personalities at Brazenhead Books? Can you tell us some stories about those visits?

I think Michael had a large collection of first edition books that were signed. There would also be authors that visited and gave Michael signed editions of their books. Michael was close friends with the author Jonathan Lethem, so he had a large collection of Jonathan’s books that were signed. He actually met Jonathan when he was 15, they were friends for many decades. He was also friends with Luc Sante, an author, and literary critic. It was a place where you never really knew who you were talking to. You could be talking to an author who had published many, many books, or you could be talking to someone who was just visiting for the first time, and you wouldn’t know that until later in the night or the next day. It attracted quite an array of people. Michael was also friends with Martha Wainwright, which is Rufus Wainwright’s sister. He had lived in New York City for so long. He really knew many people. The door was always open, and people knew it as an interesting and welcoming space.
For me what was so interesting about the place, especially when I was just starting to get to know Michael, was meeting so many authors and hearing them talk about their work and seeing it wasn’t impossible to be a writer. It made me realize that anybody could do it after devoting time. That was the beauty of Brazenhead: putting you in a space, not just with writers but also with filmmakers, painters, or other types of artists, where you could meet someone that was just a little further down the road on their artistic journey. That made me realize it’s possible to pursue my dreams.

LL: Do you think that was one of the goals of Michael – to support writers that were starting their careers - or it just happened?

I think it was a little bit of both. He wanted to create a space where anything was possible. If you told him that you had this crazy idea for writing a book of poems that it’s going to be 100 poems long, and every poem is going to be one line, written on dollar bills stapled together, and that you wanted to do a reading there, we would say that’s a wonderful idea. He would laugh about it but would never say don’t do that. It was a space where anything was possible. Because that was at the heart of it, it brought together so many artists and so many writers. We all felt that energy.

LL: And what about his literary taste? What kind of reader was he and what were his favorite authors?

Michael was a great reader. He was always reading something, and he loved talking about books. At the heart of everything he was doing, it was just a love for books and a love for literature. John Cowper Powys was one of his favorite authors. He read a lot of big books. He was reading Robert Garrow’s biography, Robert Garrow is a famous American biographer, and he was reading his sixth book series on Lyndon B. Johnson. He was always joking and sharing what he was reading, but he also took the books very seriously. He read a lot of books and he was always open to recommendations. We had even started what we called “Book of the Mouth”, where he would recommend a book and we would post it on the website. If there was a writer that he knew that had recently published a novel, he would always read that. He was always supportive of that. In conclusion, it would be a mix of contemporary literature and some older books or something a friend recommended.

LL: We would like to know if you have ever visited Livraria Lello and what was your reaction when you heard that part of Brazenhead Books' literary estate was acquired by a bookstore on the other side of the ocean.

I have not visited Livraria Lello. I would love to. I’m really excited to visit and to see the space. In a way, I’m so happy that someone has worked and preserved Michael’s memory, that is so beautiful. It feels very far from New York, but, at the same time, Brazenhead was known throughout the world. I’m sure that there are people that have visited Brazenhead who will also visit Livraria Lello because they are both places that people who love books will visit. I really am so thrilled that there is this space, this monument, to Michael that still exists. He really touched so many people and it would be a shame to have that fade. In this way, we can keep telling his stories and share some of his books and continue to pass on that love of literature.

LL: What is the importance of exhibitions like the one Livraria Lello created in honor of Brazenhead Books to preserve the memories of historic bookshops?

It is so important to have spaces where we can interact with books. Where we are not necessarily just there to buy them. The idea of browsing a bookstore and just wandering the aisles and seeing what you find. I love the fact that you’ve created a space where people can just go and sit with the books and see them. Where you are not looking very specifically for this book and this author. It’s the opposite of searching on the internet and finding exactly what you want because you don’t know what you want. When you go there, you can start to learn about the books and let the book find you. It is also very inspiring to be in places like that and, even though, it’s very difficult to have a small bookstore or a used bookstore in this day in age, I think they are important. I don’t necessarily think that is going to make the next generation of booksellers appear, but we have to keep reminding people and keep creating spaces like that, or else, very slowly, things will continue to shift to the digital world. I really appreciated and think that it is so wonderful to have a physical space, especially one where you can touch the books, and I’m very grateful that its there.