And the winner of this year’s Tony Honors for Excellence in the Theatre is... the Drama Book Shop, an independent New York City bookstore dating to 1917, 30 years older than the Tony Awards. Presented since 1990, the Tony Honors for Excellence in the Theatre go to institutions, individuals, or organizations that have demonstrated extraordinary achievement in theater, but are not eligible in any of the established Tony Award categories. The Drama Book Shop is receiving the award in honor of having been “an unwavering supporter of the theatre.”
“When they first told me about the Tony Honors, I thought it was an April Fool’s joke,” Rozanne Seelen, the store’s semiretired owner, says. Allen Hubby, Seelen’s business partner, adds, “It’s really a great honor. I think it makes the staff feel like the work they’re doing means something. Our customers expect an incredible level of service, and that’s what they get.” The store’s customer base, explains Hubby, includes students, who come from all over the world to study theater in New York City; theater professionals, such as costume and scene designers, directors, actors, and playwrights; and theatergoers, who like to read plays and books about plays.
Since December 2001, the Drama Book Shop has been located in a former fabric shop at 250 W. 40th St., on the edge of New York City’s theater district; previously it occupied a far more cramped space on 48th Street and Seventh Avenue. The store was started when Drama League member and entrepreneur Marjorie Seligman saw a void. “She realized the community didn’t have access to theater books—plays, mostly—so she started selling them on a card table in the lobby of a theater,” Seelen says. After a brief association with the Drama League, in 1923 the store was incorporated as the Drama Book Shop; in 1956 Seligman retired, and Arthur Seelen, an actor, took over the shop with a business partner, later marrying Rozanne Seelen. Hubby became Seelen’s partner when her husband died in 2000.
Open Monday through Saturday, the 5,000-square-foot space includes the selling floor and mezzanine, mail order department, and the 60-seat Arthur Seelen Theater space downstairs. Six full-time and over a dozen part-time staff—who are actors or have theater-related jobs—work with the customers. “Our staff stays with us for years,” says general manager Nancy Reardon, an actress and acting coach herself.
According to Hubby, “We try to carry everything on the performing arts that we can. Because we are the Drama Book Shop, we are best known for our plays.” While plays are published in trade editions, he explains, the store specializes in acting editions published by specialty play publishers, which are the companies that license the performing rights in those plays. These are priced between $5 and $15; members in the store’s Acting Edition Club get one free play for each 10 plays they purchase.
Customer service is the top priority, especially since the nature of the profession keeps the customers coming back. “Acting is something you study all your life,” Hubby notes, who orders most plays himself. The shop works with about 3,000 publishers, has 45,000 titles in its database, and stocks about 8,000 plays at any one time. The rest of the inventory, Hubby says, consists of “every book you want to read on acting, directing, stage management, playwriting, filmmaking.” Books are not discounted and other popular items include mailing labels and specialty envelopes for sending out head shots, and more than 40 different CDs that teach how to speak with, or without, a dialect.
Reardon explains that the store’s events, window displays, and workshops play a big role in the store’s success. When a new book or new version of a current play is coming out, instead of a typical author reading and signing, she’ll work with authors to create an event that is theatrical. For Hair: The Story of the Show That Defined a Generation, she says author Eric Grode “brought in a piano player, and out of the blue, 10 people who had been in the original production showed up!” Workshops, Reardon notes, cover the business of theater; sometimes, but not necessarily, there is a tie-in with a book. The two windows flanking the store entrance are themed with current Broadway shows, which usually remain on display for one month.
The digital world hasn’t yet fully arrived at the Drama Book Shop. “We have no e-books yet,” Seelen says. “If we get an order for e-books, we turn it over to ABA. But I know eventually we’ll have to do that.” The store has a Web site, part of ABA’s Indie Bound, and also blogs, tweets, and has a Facebook page.
The store has long fostered a strong sense of community and is proud of its history. “I’ve been here long enough to see writers have their first play published, and later develop into major American playwrights,” says Seelen. “John Guare, Sam Shepard, David Ives, and David Mamet—these are just a handful.”
Now, there’s a Tony Honors Award to add to that pride.