Rozanne Seelen sits comfortably at her desk, overlooking all the daily goings-on at the Drama Book Shop. She surveys the shoppers browsing through books at both ends of the store and keeps a watchful eye on her staff.
“When I first came to New York….I didn’t know anything,” she says of her first encounter with the shop. “I really depended on this store and not only for the acting [resources], but for a lot of other things. It’s more than just a bookstore, it’s a theatre place. … When people come in here, they don’t feel like strangers.”
Seelen has co-owned the theatre community staple since 1969, first alongside husband Arthur Seelen—until his death in February 2000—and then with nephew Allen L. Hubby, with whom she works currently.
The shop originally began in a theatre lobby, where DBS founder and Drama League member Marjorie Seligman sold plays on a card table to theatre folk “who….didn’t have access to the plays and books that they really needed,” explains Seelen. During that time, the Drama League also had an office with plays on the bookshelves. According to Hubby, “Eventually, it grew into the Drama Book Shop, which was officially separated from the Drama League in 1923.”
It’s more than just a bookstore, it’s a theatre place. When people come in here, they don’t feel like strangers.
In 1956, Seligman retired and sold the shop to then-actor Arthur Seelen, who took over full-time in 1958. Rozanne “fell into the shop” as a dancer. “I became injured [and couldn’t dance for the time being] and needed a job,” she recounts. Needless to say, she found one—and more. “I was going to work here for six months, and that was 47 years ago,” she laughs. “I met Arthur [at the shop], we fell in love, we got married, and I’ve been here ever since.”
Hubby, meanwhile, worked at the shop throughout his summers away from college, and returned as co-owner in 2001. “The shop lost its lease [in its previous location], and they needed to move, and Rozanne didn’t think she was up to doing the move on her own,” he explains.
But that move was not their first. In fact, the shop occupied several locations before settling into their current home on West 40th Street. After leaving 42nd Street and the offices of the Drama League, “we were on 52nd Street….that was [for] 20 years,” says Seelen. “Then [we spent] another 20 years upstairs on Seventh Avenue” between 48th and 49th Streets.”
When they finally made the move to their current space in 2001, Hubby turned the remnants of an old garment shop into the Drama Book Shop we all know and love today. “Yes, Allen designed it,” says Seelen. “He [did] the blueprints and all the things that are required for designing [a space]. Since he’s not a professional architect, the plans had to be OK’d by [one, but] the architect was so impressed with his designs that he offered Allen a job!” (“I’m very grateful that Allen didn’t take it!” she adds.)
Theatre-lovers from around the world have poured in every day since. “We’re an incredible nucleus to the community,” says DBS’ book buyer Eleanore Speert.
“We’re definitely one of the major resources [for] anything about theatre for the theatre community,” acknowledges Hubby. “We do sell plays and books, but also newspapers, magazines, CDs, and it’s [also] a place where people come to meet. Even if they’re not buying something, [they’ll say,] ‘Oh, let’s just meet at the Drama Book Shop.’”
“I think it’s essential,” says playwright Steven Carl McCasland on what the shop means to the theatrical community. He works as the shop’s Social Media and Events Manager. “Without it, a lot of things are going to change," he speculates. "People aren’t going to [necessarily] know where to go for their material anymore.” Never fear, Hubby assures that the Shop isn't in danger of going anywhere at present.
Hubby admits while they still see theatregoers on a regular basis, “the theatre crowd used to be more of an influence than it is now. …. We get a lot of out-of-town theatregoers, especially on weekends.” Though they sell a wide selection of plays, musicals and librettos, with their extensive offerings of monologue books, scene study materials and playwriting guides—items that cater to students—Hubby finds, “[Today,] we’re most busy when school lets out.”
The shop also holds weekly book talks and discussions with well-known playwrights or “people who’ve written books about acting,” says Hubby. Such luminaries who have appeared at the shop to promote and discuss their work include David Ives, David Mamet, Keith Reddin, Sarah Ruhl and Theresa Rebeck.
“One of the nicest [events] we did was for Stephen Adly Guirgis,” Hubby says. “What he decided to do was to do a scene from all of his plays that had been done at LAByrinth [Theatre Company, where he previously served as co-artistic director]. He did one scene with the original cast from each of his plays, [who] had all worked together [previously] for about 20 years or so, but… [had now] drifted apart. Coming here to do those scenes at the Book Shop brought them all back together again. It was a very special event.”
In addition to these special events, DBS houses a theatre in their basement. This theatre, appropriately named the Arthur Seleen Theatre, is open to the public and has been used for classes, lectures, performances and as a rehearsal space. In fact, it was the original rehearsal space—and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s writing quarters—for In the Heights before the show opened Off-Broadway. In his recent Ham4Ham video appeal to help the Shop post-February 15 pipe burst, Miranda referred to the shop as “our greatest resource.”
— Lin-Manuel Miranda (@Lin_Manuel) February 18, 2016
The shop is also host to its resident theatre company, Story Pirates, which performs shows regularly in the theatre.
Reminiscing, Seelen points out the shop even hosted a wedding. “Two people [one actor, one designer, both employees at the shop] met [here] and were actually married on the premises.” It’s also served as a makeshift synagogue. “At one point….the Actor’s Temple [had] some repair work going on…. We had services here for a few weeks. [We] carried the Torah back and forth [through the store].”
The Drama Book Shop is home. But the real “spark” that sets them apart from the rest? “One-on-one customer service, without a doubt,” says McCasland. “Where else can you get a monologue suggestion that your teacher didn’t give you?”
It’s certainly an element they pride themselves on, thanks to their extremely knowledgeable staff. “We’re very lucky,” says Hubby. “They know the plays,” says Seelen. (“I once guessed a monologue based on one sentence,” boasts McCasland.)
We’re not just selling books, we’re selling tools of the trade.
“People call us from all over the world and actually ask for monologues and we give them to them over the phone,” McCasland says. Sales from their website also amount for most of the daily business, an asset for those outside the local area. As Seelen knows, “We’re not just selling books, we’re selling tools of the trade.”
The importance of the brick and mortar store is not lost on the staff. Hubby admits that in today’s technological world the shop is indeed “a total dinosaur,” but he’s proud to say that business is still going strong.
“There are some businesses [in the city that I like very much and] I think, ‘If they ever close, I’m leaving New York,’” says Seelen. “I hope people feel the same way about us.” Acknowledging the tough economical times—and in the wake of their most recent natural disaster—she adds, “I just think we’re lucky to be here. I’m glad that people still want to come in and share what we have [to offer].”
That’s not to say Hubby doesn’t feel the pressure from Amazon and eBooks and rising rents. He jokes the only reason they’re still open is because the lease hasn’t come up for renewal yet—but he remains optimistic: “People love us, so they keep coming back.”
It’s no wonder the shop will mark its 100th anniversary in 2017.
“The neighborhood’s changed a lot,” says Seelen. “You can’t live in New York and [not] feel a little [sentimental] and touched by all that,” says Hubby. “[But] we used to consider ourselves as a resource for the community, and now we consider ourselves as part of the community.”
The Drama Book Shop is located at 250 W. 40th Street, between Seventh and Eighth Avenues. Store hours are 10 AM to 7 PM Monday-Wednesday and Friday-Saturday; 10 AM to 8 PM Thursday. For more information (or to #BuyaBook), visit DramaBookShop.com.
Matt Smith, a proud graduate of Skidmore College, is a writer and theatre enthusiast based in New York. For more information, including additional writing samples, he encourages you to visit MattSmithTheatre.com.