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In the Galleries: An illustrated envelope from Frank Shay's Bookshop

An envelope sent from the bookshop to Christopher Morley in 1921.
An envelope sent from the bookshop to Christopher Morley in 1921.

Frank Shay’s shop at 4 Christopher Street in Greenwich Village was a bookstore, a community gathering place, a circulating library, and a tiny publishing house all at once. Shay published a newspaper, a magazine, and more than a dozen books from the shop during his time there: small, handcrafted editions with a simple, charming aesthetic that may also reflect the tastes of Shay’s wife, the artist and designer Fern Forrester Shay. In 1924 Frank Shay sold the bookshop and moved to Provincetown, Massachusetts, where he had already been spending summers with his traveling bookshop. The 4 Christopher Street location closed down just a year later. We know that the shop was being managed at the time by a woman named Juliette Koenig, but little further evidence of its final year is found in the Ransom Center’s collections.

Shown here is an envelope for a letter from Frank Shay to Christopher Morley, dated August 1, 1921. The designer of the shop’s stationery was the multitalented Hendrik Willem Van Loon, who won the first Newbery Medal for Children’s Literature for his illustrated Story of Mankind (1922). The envelope may or may not render the shop’s exterior accurately; without surviving photographs, we do not know.

This envelope can be seen in the exhibition The Greenwich Village Bookshop Door: A Portal to Bohemia, 1920–1925, on display through January 22. Van Loon’s cartoons of the shop and its customers have been rendered in various locations throughout the exhibition.

In the Galleries: "The Harp Weaver" by Edna St. Vincent Millay

Edna St. Vincent Millay's 'The Ballad of the Harp Weaver,' published by Frank Shay at the bookshop and illustrated by his wife, Fern Forrester Shay (1922).
Edna St. Vincent Millay's 'The Ballad of the Harp Weaver,' published by Frank Shay at the bookshop and illustrated by his wife, Fern Forrester Shay (1922).

In 1923, Edna St. Vincent Millay was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver (1921). That prize-winning book was an expanded commercial edition of the poems in this volume. The longer book was published by Harper and Brothers and contained these poems, another poem published first by Frank Shay, The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver (1921), and a handful of additional new verses.

Millay’s The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver was one of four volumes that came to represent the chapbook series Salvo that Shay published from the shop. A “salvo” is a burst of gunfire, and these little volumes were likewise meant as small but powerful bursts of energy. Millay’s volume was the most influential of the series.

Shay, the owner of the Greenwich Village bookshop, was a natural salesman. Actor and playwright Holland Hudson wrote that Shay used his windows wisely to draw customers into his shop. Millay’s bibliographer Karl Yost noted that for the total edition of 500 copies, Shay printed most of the copies in orange, but he also printed a small number of each in “red, dark green, apple green, yellow, and blue.” Yost explains Shay did this so that he could create striking window displays. Shay’s wife, the artist Fern Forrester Shay, created the cover art and interior illustrations for this volume. The Ransom Center only owns covers in green, blue, and red. The imprint inside the volume reads, “printed for Frank Shay and sold by him at 4 Christopher St., in the shadow of old Jefferson Market, 1922.”

The Ballad of the Harp Weaver includes some of Millay’s most famous poems and may be read in full in the online exhibition.

Several copies of Millay’s The Ballad of the Harp Weaver can be seen in the exhibition The Greenwich Village bookshop Door: A Portal to Bohemia, 1920–1925, on display through January 22.

"The Greenwich Village Bookshop Door: A Portal to Bohemia, 1920–1925" web exhibition now live

The Ransom Center has the web exhibition The Greenwich Village Bookshop Door: A Portal to Bohemia, 1920–1925. The exhibition uses a door from a book shop owned by Frank Shay in Greenwich Village in the early 1920s as an entryway into the lives, careers, and relationships of New York bohemians of that era. The door is signed on both sides by more than 240 artists, writers, publishers, and other notable 1920s Village habitués, and the web exhibition uses the signatures to reconstruct the intersecting communities that made Greenwich Village famous as an epicenter of Modernism.

Read an essay about the web exhibition that will appear in this Sunday’s print edition of The New York Times Book Review.

A gallery exhibition of the same name, which includes the actual door, opens Tuesday, September 6, at the Ransom Center.