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(A wonderful story about the power of words - Brian)
Making a Home, and a Haven for Books
New York TImes - August 11, 2007 - About New York
Chester Higgins Jr./The New York Times
Kurt Thometz at Jumel Terrace Books on West 160th Street, in his family’s brownstone.
By JIM DWYER
Kurt Thometz got to the brownstone on 160th Street first, but a woman who designed lingerie came with more. “The underwear lady, she had $2 million in her purse, or so the broker told me,” he said. “Maybe what that actually meant is that she didn’t need a mortgage.”
At that point, the ordinary arc of life in New York called for Mr. Thometz — a man so passionate about rare and obscure books that he has spent his life happily making a modest living trading in them — to forget the brownstone and hunt down a good-sized closet that he, wife, son and books could afford.
Off he wandered, finding nothing. One day, though, he passed the brownstone, still unsold. The underwear lady had gone away. He saw the woman of the house, Bun-Ching Lam, on the stoop.
“Your husband is a rare book dealer, and so am I,” Mr. Thometz remembered saying.
“He is just home from Düsseldorf. You must meet him,” she said.
Down the stairs came the husband, Gunnar Kaldewey, a maker of fine art books. Mr. Thometz gave him a copy of an acclaimed anthology of Eastern Nigerian market literature he had edited in 2001.
Over embossed endpapers, they bonded. “I’ll entertain your bid for the house,” Mr. Kaldewey told him.
Mr. Thometz went to the bank, but came back short of the asking price.
In that moment, love — ferocious, unmanageable, deliriously detached-from-all-reality love — conquered even the Manhattan real estate market.
“Gunnar gave us a second mortgage so I could do it,” Mr. Thometz said. “That it is still a haven of books means a lot to him.”
And so, in defiance of the end of reading and the printed word, in the teeth of the empire of chain stores that stretches to every corner of the retail world, the pilgrimage of Kurt Thometz has carried him from the grand salons of New York to his own bookshop on the northern tip of Harlem.
Mr. Thometz has tended the serious private libraries of Brooke Astor and Diana Vreeland, Leonard Lauder, Felix Rohatyn and various Newhouses, and others of such staggering wealth that an interior decorator could summon him to provide a collection with only one specification: “53 feet of books bound in forest green.”
Now he presides at Jumel Terrace Books (jumelterracebooks.com) on the ground floor of his family’s home at 426 West 160th Street. A sign on the window says, “Open by Invitation, Appointment, or Serendipity.”
Mr. Thometz; his son, Adam; and his wife, Camilla Hoey, a dress and costume maker, arrived on 160th Street in 2004 with 400 cartons of book, some 10,000 volumes. The specialty is local history and African and African-American literature.
They live down the street from the oldest house in Manhattan, the Morris-Jumel Mansion, where Washington, Jefferson and the Adamses dined; where a woman who grew up in a bordello became the wife of Aaron Burr, a courtesan without peer, and by dint of shrewd real estate dealings, one of wealthiest women in America. “Eliza Jumel is the grand horizontal story of all time,” Mr. Thometz said.
Around the corner is 555 Edgecombe Avenue, home over the years to, among others, Count Basie, Joe Louis, Thurgood Marshall, Coleman Hawkins, Johnny Hodges, Lena Horne, Canada Lee. “It’s one of the most intensely historical places in the United States,” Mr. Thometz said. “It’s the crossroads where the founding fathers met the founding brothers.”
Mr. Thometz, 54, was born in “middle-state Minnesota,” and came to New York in 1972. “I didn’t go to college, I went to Book Row,” he said, working at the Strand, University Place Bookstore and the Madison Avenue Bookshop.
He found additional work as the private librarian to rich people — some of them serious readers, some of them looking to furnish a room with eye candy.
“They didn’t know what they were hiring me for, they just knew that Mrs. Vreeland told them to,” Mr. Thometz said.
Some clients had very particular interests. At the request of a professional dominatrix, he said, he provided a set of the Marquis de Sade, bound in black leather with fetish strappings. “Butched out,” Mr. Thometz said. “She was a Dante scholar as well.”
Adam, a son from his first marriage, had autism, accompanied by its common side effect, divorced parents. Adam lived with Mr. Thometz and Ms. Hoey in Brooklyn Heights when 9/11 sent them all into a tailspin.
“There was no call for what I did for a long time,” he said. Two years later, they were bailed out: Ms. Hoey got a call from Celine Dion, who needed costumes for a Las Vegas extravaganza, three shows a day, seven days a week, 30 dancers, with changes.
In the ground floor parlor on 160th Street, Mr. Thometz gives the tour: 18th century over there. On this shelf, slavery, many oral histories; sports, jazz, street literature, narcotics, black military history. Bound volumes of Muhammad Speaks. Vinyl records of speeches by Malcolm X and Eldridge Cleaver. A signed Langston Hughes volume. Bruce Davidson’s photos of 100th Street. Mr. Thometz had a very good day last month at the Harlem Book Fair, when 40,000 people visited 145th Street.
THE passion for books survives. He has a story about that. By the age of 5, Adam had not yet spoken an intelligible word — not Mommy, not Daddy, not milk or no. Mr. Thometz read to him every night for two and a half years. With Adam in the crook of his arm, the weight of the day on him, Mr. Thometz was reading Thomas the Tank Engine for the 200th time.
“Henry the engine,” he read.
“Green,” Adam interrupted.
Yes: the proper name was Henry the Green engine. Mr. Thometz had dropped the word. “He supplied it,” Mr. Thometz said. “It was the first time he had used a word on purpose.” And it was the first rung on the ladder he climbed from his isolation. Today, Adam, 16, entertains friends, plays music, and is thriving.
And now, long after the summer days have given way to dusk, a glow spills from the ground-floor window of the brownstone on 160th Street. Four letters seem to float in the window, cutting a silhouette into the light from the bookshop beyond.
“WORD,” it says.
Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company