A brazen head is said to be a head cast in bronze or brass capable of answering any question. For the last few years, one has been residing (secretly) in a second floor apartment of Manhattan’s East 80s in the form of a used bookstore run by Michael Seidenberg, an affable pipe-smoking ex-Brooklynite whose answer to any question – literary or not – quickly puts even the most tentative book buyer or social recluse at ease.
That’s not to say this particular talking head has answers of particular usefulness, or even correctness. After all, it takes a certain kind of mind to run a secret bookstore in a tiny Manhattan apartment while nearby goliaths like Borders and Barnes & Nobles crumble. Seidenberg’s business strategy may be a little fuzy if not downright crazy – to his credit, it was actually a neighbor who had the idea of refashioning Seidenberg’s old apartment as a bookstore – but the end result is surprisingly wonderful.
At Brazenhead, used books of all genres line the walls from floor to ceiling, often stacked precariously several feet high, loosely organized into sections like ‘Russian fiction,’ ‘New York Letters,’ ‘mass paperbacks’ and ‘romance,’ among others. A back room full of rare books and first editions exists for the collector, but most books in the front rooms are very reasonable priced like you’d hope to find for quickly browning paperbacks.
But selling books seems to be only half the story. With ash trays, whisky bottles and chairs scattered around the place, Seidenberg actively encourages visitors to stay and chat. He hosts regular evening gatherings where people drop in and are quickly made to feel at home.
Last Thursday night a friend and I showed up to Seidenberg’s apartment not knowing what to expect. I’d visited earlier that week where I’d picked up a couple books and had been told to come back for one of his regular salon-type events. Having already done my book-buying and with work the next day, there was a good chance I wasn’t going to stay long.
Instead, we stuck around at the Brazenhead until midnight – earlier than most regulars, I’m told. It was a pretty quiet affair, more of a get-to-know-you type gathering with two other girls also curious about these events. There was whiskey and NPR on in the background and no shortage of leafing through nearby books or chatting.
Hardly a secret anymore, Seidenberg’s bookstore has been ‘hiding’ out in the open for many years now. Seemingly two degrees of separation from most major New York writers, the Brazenhead and its eccentric owner has now been featured in New York publications ranging from the New Yorker to the Paris Review to Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn (he claims both he and his dog are characters).
Secret or not, what this place isn’t is pretentious. Buy a book, or don’t. Stay to chat, or leave. Spread the word, or never mention Brazenhead again. Seidenberg doesn’t seem to mind, although he clearly likes the company. As he described to me, his goal is to recreate an experience of bookstores he associates with the old New York of the ‘70s and back.
But rather than nostalgia – which the Paris Review video does a pretty good job of drumming up – Brazenhead seems more about mixing newcomers to the city with older residents in an atmosphere decidedly forward-looking. Although counter-intuitive for the setting, the bookstore has a surprisingly natural fit – at ease in its location and with the people who pass through.