Seriously ill for the last two years with heart and lung problems, Ted Wilentz died on May 1 at the age of 86, leaving a legacy of more than 60 years in all aspects of bookselling. His philosophy was an oft-quoted maxim that a good bookseller should be "behind the writers and ahead of the readers."
Perhaps best known as the co-owner (with his brother Eli) of Manhattan's Eighth Street Bookshop, a literary landmark from 1947 until it closed in 1979, Wilentz's experience in books started a decade earlier and continued until his death. Among other things, he was ABA president for the 1965—66 term, created a publishing house (Corinth Books) and worked as a consultant for independent bookstores.
In 1937, Wilentz and four friends opened a book and stationery store in Bronx, N.Y. The store blossomed into three over the next few years. At the outbreak of World War II, Wilentz signed up and served in the Army for five years. By the end of the war, however, only one store remained, which Wilentz and his brother Eli ran together.
The brothers then bought a Womrath bookstore/lending library franchise. When the franchise agreement expired, they renamed the three-floor bookstore the Eighth Street Bookshop and fine-tuned the store—dumping the unprofitable lending library and expanding the stock of backlist titles.
Along with the promotion of backlist, the bookstore was an early champion of paperbacks. In Book Business (Norton), Jason Epstein remembers "the thrilling Eighth Street Bookshop, a bibliographer's paradise and an informal school for many fledgling publishers in those days."
He continued, "It was here that the idea for Anchor Books first occurred to me." The imprint sought to bring readers quality paperback editions (printed on acid-free paper) of classics. The Wilentz brothers stood behind the new idea by creating a paperback section and placing an initial order of 100 copies of each of Anchor's first 12 titles.
The Eighth Street Bookshop was also known for its social scene. "Before I met and married Ted in 1965, I remember the Eighth Street Bookshop being the equivalent of a singles bar in the '50s," Joan Wilentz told PW. "It was such an exciting venue. We just drooled over the titles available. There was just a wave of exciting talents in that post—World War II generation that partied at each other's houses."
The brothers founded Corinth Books in 1959 to publish books that reflected their personal tastes and beliefs. Over the years, Corinth published a number of important works, many by young and upcoming writers, including several collections of Beat writings, Diane di Prima's Dinner and Nightmares, Charles Olson's The Maximus Poems, Jack Kerouac's The Scripture of the Golden Eternity and Allen Ginsberg's Empty Mirror.
"Ted was very interested in new writing and became interested in the Beat generation," said Joan Wilentz. "He supported lots of projects like [avante-garde literary magazine] Floating Bear, edited by Diane di Prima and LeRoi Jones. In fact, LeRoi's wife, Hettie Jones, worked as Ted's secretary for a while. Painter Robert Smithson worked in the store shipping books. When he was not publishing, Ted found other ways to support artists and writers—in never-to-be-repaid loans to Kerouac or Neal Cassady, an exchange of a drawing or painting for a few dollars, or just standing them to a meal or beers at the Cedar Tavern."
In 1967, Wilentz sold his half of the bookstore to his brother (the Eighth Street Bookshop was destroyed by an arson fire in 1976, but thanks to public support, reopened six months later and finally closed in 1979). He held several jobs during the next few years, including manager at Brentano's Fifth Avenue location, manager of the Sierra Club's publications and vice-president of the Gotham Book Mart. He even opened another bookstore, the Discovery Bookstore, which specialized in smaller presses and out-of-print titles.
He closed the bookstore to move to New Haven, Conn., as director of the Yale Co-op's book department. After seven years in this position, at the age of 65, he decided to retire. But instead of resting, he became a business consultant, helping independent bookstores.
In 1980, Wilentz became a minority shareholder in the new book remainder company Daedalus Books. "Ted came in at a time when we didn't have much money and was a great supporter in terms of financial consultation and moral support," Daedalus president Robin Moody told PW. "He was a very savvy consultant. He would read a financial statement like a novel and knew exactly what that company needed. He was also such a nice man, beloved by everyone. It was a great pleasure to enjoy his sunny optimism. If you were walking down aisles at BEA with him, you couldn't have a goal, because everyone wanted to stop and talk to him."
In the 1980s, he served as an overseas volunteer in the International Executive Service Club, an organization that took company presidents to foreign lands to offer advice to struggling businesses. In this capacity, he flew to Kano, Nigeria, spending two months advising bookstores. A successful trip to Cairo, Egypt, followed. For the rest of his life, he continued to work as a book consultant, advising, among others, Jeannette Watson, owner of the Manhattan's Books & Co., which became a literary landmark of its own from 1977 through 1997.
"Ted was a believer in talent and it was a wonderful coincidence that he started a bookstore when there was a tremendous amount of excitement in the publishing industry," Joan Wilentz told PW. "There was a new breath of life in fiction and poetry and he was part of it."
Survivors include his wife, Joan Steen Wilentz of Chevy Chase, Md.; two sons from his second marriage, John E., of Cobb Island, Md., and David T., of New York; and a sister.