PROVINCETOWN — The well-loved bookstore where Norman Mailer and Robert Motherwell could frequently be found browsing will soon close unless some bibliophile steps forward to carry on the business. The business is being offered for $50,000, which includes all inventory, equipment, the name, and the distinctive sign.
Whatever its fate, the Provincetown Bookshop will no longer operate at 246 Commercial St., where it has been for more than eight decades, because the building was recently sold to Paige Koudijs, whose sons have opened a retail marijuana shop called Hennep in the other space in the structure.
“I was shocked to hear it was closing,” said John Waters, the filmmaker, writer, and artist, who worked summers at the bookshop in the late 1960s and early 1970s. “It’s a huge part of my past that will no longer be a visual.”
The bookshop has had only two owners during its 89-year history. Paul Smith originally opened it at 447 Commercial St. in 1932, according to David W. Dunlap’s Building Provincetown. Among its offerings were books produced by authors with a connection to the Lower Cape. “Not only could you buy books here, you could rent them on a daily basis,” Dunlap reported. He called the operation, in essence, “a commercial circulating library.”
In 1939, Smith purchased 246 Commercial St., where Capt. Philip Cook’s Greek Revival style house stood. He added a one-story building, which was modern in design and would house two shops, between the house and the sidewalk. It has since become known as the “Porthole Building,” because of the large round window on the front of one of the shops. In 1940, Smith moved the bookshop there, where it continues to operate today.
“It was always hard to believe that the Provincetown Bookshop consisted of only two rooms,” wrote Dunlap in an email. “Like magic, the place seemed to go on forever. Its bohemian informality beckoned readers. You could get lost there for hours at a time.”
In 1963, Joel Newman and his life partner Elloyd Hanson purchased the bookshop business for $2,000, and a few years later they bought the property for $35,000, according to the town assessor’s records. Koudijs recently paid $1.8 million for the property.
According to Newman’s nephew Philip Swayze, Hanson managed the business and Newman handled the finances and ran a sheet music business in the back room, publishing music for lute, cello, and recorder. The couple lived on the first and second floors of the Greek Revival house and rented the third floor, Swayze said.
Newman was a longtime professor of music at Columbia University and commuted from Provincetown via Cape Air until his retirement.
Newman and Hanson were both accomplished recorder players. They had an ensemble with family friend Nancy Hart, and frequently performed locally as “The Band of Three.”
Waters said his education came from the wide variety of books suggested to him by Hanson. “I always say, ‘I didn’t go to college, but I went to the Provincetown Bookshop.’ ”
The shop, located in the heart of downtown, was a great spot to meet people. “It was the best place ever to get a date,” said Waters, who added that he looked up once to see Faye Dunaway making out with musician Peter Wolf.
Hanson and Newman were always supportive, allowing Waters to take over the store’s large front window to promote his films.
Hanson died in 2007, and Newman died in 2014 at age 96. “I visited him right up until the end,” Waters said.
Jane Kogan worked in the bookshop for 40 years. She recalled that Mailer and Motherwell were regulars. “They both lived in town, so it wasn’t surprising for them to be coming in,” she said. Kogan said she started the practice of having famous authors who lived in the area sign their books. She also started a gay section in the bookshop, she said.
Kogan took over the operation when Hanson died. “I did absolutely everything but pay the bills,” she said. “It was a great job. I told my friends I would have done it for free, but I didn’t tell my bosses that.”
After Newman’s death, his family kept the shop open “as a tribute to the uncles and to keep the people employed,” Swayze said. “It was a labor of love.” He managed the finances, while Nan Cinnater, Deb Karacozian, and Clayton Nottleman, who also work at the Provincetown library, ran the store.
Newman’s 10 heirs recently decided it was time to sell the property. Koudijs now owns the building but has agreed to allow the bookshop to remain for the 2021 season at a reduced rent.
The asking price of $50,000 for the brand and inventory is a good deal for the right person, Swayze said. “We were grossing well over $100,000 annually.”
So far, about a half dozen people have inquired about the business, said Swayze. Those interested may contact him at [email protected]