Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Abraham Maze's Bookstore -- No. 237 Bleecker Street

Around 1830 a three-story frame structure was erected at No. 237 Bleecker Street as the Village of Greenwich experienced a population and construction boom.  For a decade its dusty streets and lanes saw the rapid rise of houses and shops as New Yorkers escaped the crowded, unsanitary conditions of the city.

Contemporary historians tend to agree that the little wooden building was originally a coach house.  If that is indeed the case, it did not serve its original purpose for long.  As early as 1837 Longworth’s American Almanac listed the address as the shop of Abraham Maze, “bookseller.’

The apparently energetic and industrious Maze would maintain his shop here for decades.  A merchant of Bibles and respectable reading matter, stationery items and sundries; he supplemented his stock with tonics and balms to broaden his customer base.

On July 20, 1841 in an advertisement in the New-York Tribune, Maze promoted Dr. Thos. Plumleight’s Indian Botanic Plaister.  The ad promised “At this moment there are thousands of our fellow citizens suffering from Sore Legs, Kings’ Evil, Sore Nipples, pains in the back, breast, sides, Rheumatism, Scald head, and Salt Rheum—to all such I would say use this valuable and never failing remedy and be cured.”

A year later, in December, Maze offered two other remedies, The Black (or Allebasi’s) Salve, and Allebasi’s Pills.  These, his advertisement said, were “For the cure of Fever Sores, Felons, Ulcers, Tumors, Cuts, Burns, Sprains, Bruises, Scalds, Eruptions, Swellings, Dyspepsia, Headache, Toothache, Rheumatism, Bite of Mad Dogs, Bite of Rattle Snakes, Stiffness in the Muscles or Joints, Weakness or Pain in the Back, Bowels or Chest, Lung and Liver Complaints in the incipient or more confirmed stages, Bilious and other fevers, Affections of the Heart, Colds, Coughs, Asthma, Fever and Ague, general debility of the system, disordered blood, etc. etc.”

If it seemed to the reader that the patent medicines did away with the need for a physician, the advertisement agreed.  “”Since the virtues of these medicines have been fully established, and while the proprietor has been preparing them for general circulation—many families have become so attached to them that they would not on any account be without them.  They are as good as a family physician at hand.”

But Abraham Maze’s principal business was the selling of books and related materials.  A New-York Tribune writer was obviously impressed when, on New Year’s Eve 1842 he listed the little Greenwich Village store along with the great Broadway booksellers like Appleton & Co.  “Abraham Maze, 237 Bleecker-street, has also a choice collection of beautiful works, very suitable for presents to Ladies,” the newspaper said.

Maze supplied a wide array of books and in October 1843 reminded readers of the New-York Daily Tribune of his school books.  “The subscriber would inform Teachers, Parents and the Public generally, that he has a complete assortment of School-Books, in every department constantly on hand…He would also invite attention to his extensive stock of Miscellaneous, comprising many rare and valuable works, interesting to the Antiquarian and the Scholar.”
Maze inserted a small advertisement in The American Advertiser in 1850 (copyright expired)

By 1850 Maze was also offering custom book binding.  His broad variety of stock was reflected in an April 13, 1852 advertisement which listed: Bibles of all sizes and descriptions of binding.  A general assortment of Religious Works, Histories, Travels, Standard Poets, Scientific Works, and in short every description of Books that may be desired by respectable people.  Also all kinds of Stationery, Grate Aprons, and a variety of Fancy articles.”

The same year that Abraham Maze advertised Bibles, stationery and grate aprons, he married.  The newly-weds coexisted, apparently not very happily, for about a year and then, according to court documents later, “she left him and went to the house of her half brother in Orange county.”  The rejected Maze continued on with his Bleecker Street bookstore business and lost contact with his wife.  He never bothered to initiate divorce proceedings.

Always looking to expand his stock and lure new customers, on New Year’s Day 1853 he advertised “Annuals, Gift Books and Juvenile Games, with a large variety of other articles suitable for the Holidays.”

After four decades of selling books in the little shop on Bleecker Street, Abraham Maze died in 1875.  He left an estate of approximately $2,000—about $41,000 today.  Suddenly his long-forgotten wife reappeared in the picture.

According to testimony recorded by the New York State Supreme Court, soon after Mrs. Maze arrived at the home of her half-brother “she was found to be insane.”  After remaining in his charge “for some time,” she was delivered to the town of Montgomery as a county charge.  Now James H. Goodale, Superintendent of the Poor of Orange County, filed suit against Maze’s estate for the cost of his wife’s support.

The Supreme Court ruled against the county, saying “It does not appear that the husband had notice of the legal proceedings by which his wife was declared a lunatic.”  The court also noted that the law clearly stated that “the husband must only provide for his wife at his own home and not elsewhere, if he is willing and so desires.  If she abandons him, or is removed by others, she carries with her no credit, and no liability for support follows.”

Although its founder and proprietor was gone, the bookstore remained.  Another Abraham Maze appears in New York City court documents in 1883; possibly the son of the unhappy marriage.  Whether a second, younger Abraham Maze carried on his father’s business or it was continued by the estate is unclear; but The American Stationery still shows Abraham Maze’s bookstore here as late as 1896.

In the meantime, by 1891 the wooden structure was owned by Abrahamson & Jacoby.  At one point in the second half of the century the building had been updated with a handsome, Italianate cornice with foliate scrolled brackets and up-to-date window surrounds.

By the turn of the century the neighborhood was on the fringe of New York City’s “Little Italy,” as Italian immigrants poured into the area.  The building where Abraham Maze’s bookstore operated for over half a century became home to the Sunshine Fruit and Vegetable Market in the first years of the Great Depression.

Charles Urban photographed an apron-wearing ancestor of Josephine Majiotta outside the market in 1932.  The building paper has already started to peel.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

Another facelift to the building—this one perhaps not so well thought out—was the addition of brick-textured building paper over the clapboard outer walls.

In 1969 Mrs. Josephine Majiotta, whose family had owned the Sunshine Fruit and Vegetable Market for early 40 years closed the business.  The quiet block once populated, mostly, by Italian families was now part of a new, trendy Greenwich Village.  Clothing and antiques stores replaced the older Italian cheese, butcher and bakery shops which were forced out by increased rents.

“Everybody is planning to sell their places on this street because of the rents,” Josephine Majiotta told Barbara Campbell of The New York Times on October 5, 1969.  “I’m getting out next month.  The landlord is raising the rent.  When I move, I don’t care what comes in here.  This used to be a beautiful street, but they can put an antique shop here and I don’t care.”
The surprising brick-design building paper still hides the clapboards.

In fact, an antiques shop never appeared at No. 237 Bleecker.  For years it was home to a pet food store—first Beasty Feast, then Pet Central.

Amazingly, the little frame building where Abraham Maze opened his book shop in the 1830s is little changed.  One of the few surviving wooden buildings in Greenwich Village, it is a reminder of a far different time when New York City was still a separate community to the south.

photos taken by the author

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