When Allen Hubby rode the old, slow elevator up to the Drama Book Shop in 1977 to begin work as a clerk-cashier, he never imagined that four decades later he would be leading the celebration of the store’s centenary—as its co-owner in its easily-accessed new street-level location on Manhattan’s West Side.
The store, which has been serving theatre fans in various Manhattan locations (and now also on the web at dramabookshop.com) over the years, has seen more than its share of the famous and soon-to-be famous sorting through its stacks in search of that rare script or research tome.
Hubby recalls his predecessor, Arthur Seelen, telling the story of how reclusive screen goddess Marlene Dietrich who was appearing on Broadway in the late 1960’s entered the shop seeking a book that turned out not to be in stock. Seelen put out his feelers and located a copy of the paperback at a corner newsstand at a grand price of 35 cents. When they contacted Dietrich with the item, she expressed astonishment that the store would go to so much trouble to track down such an inexpensive item.
In Hubby’s own tenure, one of his most treasured memories was granting permission for a friend, Thomas Kail, to use the small theatre in the basement to develop the musical he was working on with a friend from Wesleyan.
“They spent a year or so working it, rewriting the songs and the story," Hubby says. The friend was, of course, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and the musical turned out to be Tony Award winner In the Heights. “Most of it was rewritten in the basement of the Drama Book Shop.”
Although the store picked October 2 for the centennial celebration, Hubby admits that they really have no idea of the exact date that the store opened. “We chose October 2 to celebrate the 100th anniversary because it was Arthur Seelen’s birthday. The store started as a bookshelf at the New York Drama League on 42nd Street just east of Fifth Avenue around 1916 or 1917. We don’t know exactly. We did, however find an ad from 1919 which referred to something called The Drama Book Shop. We also found a reference in a 1917 celebration of American theatre.”
In 1920 Marjorie Seligman bought the shop, then headquartered on 47th Street, from the Drama League, and moved it to a brownstone on 52nd Street. It stayed there until the late 1950s when it was purchased by Arthur Seelen and moved again, this time to the fourth and fifth floors of 150 West 52nd Street, which is where Hubby entered the picture. After a stint from 1983 to 2001 at 723 Seventh Avenue near 48th Street, the shop moved to its current location below Times Square at 250 West 40th Street near the side entrance of the new headquarters of The New York Times. Seelen died in 2000, and Hubby subsequently took ownership, along with his aunt, Rozanne Seelen, Arthur’s widow.
The store stocks exactly 11,091 different titles as of the evening of October 1, Hubby says, along with a host of specialty items of use to the theatre world, such as agent mailing labels, CDs that help actors pick up (or lose) an accent, plays on DVD, even “Shakespeare insult band-aids.”
Hubby says it’s not easy running a specialty shop like his, especially in the age of Amazon, but he observes, “Amazon has not been good for our business—but it hasn’t been good for Macy’s either.”
Hubby says a lot of theatre folk have passed through the doors of the shop, and he has sat at the phone taking countless orders from theatre fans everywhere. But he says his favorite phone call came in 2011 when American Theatre Wing’s then-chairman Ted Chapin called to say, “‘Would you do me the honor of accepting a special Tony Award?’” The Drama Book Shop was the recipient of a special Tony Honor for Excellence in the Theatre. Encased in acrylic inside a glass case, the medallion holds pride of place in the book shop today.
“That was my favorite part of this job,” Hubby says.