In the world of preposterous Manhattan rents, many small businesses have no control over who lives, who dies or who tells their story. For the Drama Book Shop, a Midtown institution dating back to 1916 (though the signage mistakenly says 1917), a crew of dramatic patriots is trying to control the narrative and protect the store for the next generation.
“Hamilton” creator and star Lin-Manuel Miranda, director Thomas Kail, lead producer and mensch Jeffrey Seller and Jewish theater owner James L. Nederlander have purchased the book store on 40th Street, The New York Times reports, for the price of its remaining inventory and rent support. The move comes months after the store announced in October of last year that rent hikes would force them to relocate.
Miranda, who previously came to the store’s rescue when a broken pipe ruined much of their inventory in 2016, wasted no time responding to the news. After returning from a trip to Puerto Rico he signed everything in the shop with his name on it in an effort to goose sales. The ultimate solution arrived at for the independent shop proved to be a more hands-on one for Miranda and his crew.
While the store is still scheduled to close at its old location January 20 before reopening in an as-yet-to-be announced location in the fall, the “Hamilton” team’s takeover was designed to keep the store open in perpetuity. The city is also involved, pledging to find the store a new and affordable space in the same neighborhood. The sale marks the first time in 61 years the business won’t be owned by a member of the Seelen family, whose patriarch Arthur (born Seelenfreund) purchased the store from Marjorie Seligman in 1958.
But in many ways, the change of ownership, which will retain the former owner, Arthur Seelen’s widow, Rozanne, as a consultant, keeps the business in the family.
“As a teen, I went to the Drama Book Shop” Miranda, who wrote and workshopped his first Broadway musical “In The Heights” in the store, tweeted. “In 2002, I met with Tommy Kail in the Drama Book Shop. It gave us a place to go. Proud to be part of this next chapter.”
Kail began his professional life as a director at the in-store theater after college. His company, Back House Productions had a five-year residency in their downstairs performance space. “My first experiences directing in New York City were at the Arthur Seelen Theater in the basement of the Drama Book Shop,” Kail said in a statement. “I am delighted to be part of this group that will ensure the Drama Book Shop lives on.“
The store, which received an honorary Tony in 2011, is known for its readings, its bookable performance venue, the Arthur Seelen Theatre, and its variety of texts for actors, directors and theatrical designers. Seller’s team, which is behind a “Hamilton“ merchandise store in the Midtown, is set to oversee the daily operations and improve the store’s website and programming, The Times reports.
The bookshop’s history began during the First World War when the first president of the New York Drama League, Edward Fallows, established it as the Drama League Bookshop for Plays. Marjorie Seligman later purchased it and incorporated it as a business in 1923. The first and oldest performing arts bookshop in the country, it has relocated several times in its history, starting at 42nd Street before moving to 47th, 52nd, Seventh Avenue and 48th and finally its current location in 2001, after Arthur Seelen’s death.
Explaining her predicament to The Times, Rozanne Seelen seemed grateful for the team’s eleventh hour save. “It’s the chronic problem — the rents were just too high, and I’m 84 years old — I just didn’t have the drive to find a new space and make another move,” Seelen said. “Lin-Manuel and Tommy are my white knights.”
PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture intern. He can be reached at Grisar@Forward.com.