How Lin-Manuel Miranda and his friends remade an old bookstore

A sculptural depiction of a bookworm – 140 feet of scripts and songbooks, twisted along a steel skeleton – corkscrew through the Drama Book Shop in Manhattan. It begins with ancient Greek texts and, 2,400 volumes later, spills into a pile that includes “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical”.

This 3,500-pound tribute to theatrical history is the centerpiece of the new location of the century-old bookstore, which opens Thursday on West 39th Street.

The store – like so many bookstores across the country – came close to death, caused not only by e-commerce but also by fire and flood, before encountering a rent increase it could not afford, in 2018. The beloved institution, where students, artists, academics and fans could browse their memoirs and prepare for auditions, was in danger of closure.

Then came an unexpected rescue. Four men enriched by “Hamilton”, including the creator of the musical, Lin-Manuel Miranda; its director, Thomas Kail; its main producer, Jeffrey Seller; and the owner of the theater, James L. Nederlander, bought the store from its longtime owners. Kail has a particularly close relationship with the store – 20 years ago, barely out of college, he formed a small theater company in his basement. After teaming up with Miranda, the two worked on “In the Heights” there.

“I was not born in a trunk; I was born in the basement of the Drama Book Shop, ”Kail said. “All of my first conversations and creative relationships were forged in this store, and the idea that it didn’t exist was painful. I couldn’t imagine New York City without it, and I didn’t want to imagine New York City without it.

The bookstore opens the same day as a film adaptation of “In the Heights” is slated to hit theaters and on HBO Max, and Kail noted the thematic links.

“Heights is about a place other than Manhattan where rents go up and businesses are forced to move out,” he said. “There is an obvious and clear line.”

The “Hamilton” team closed the store’s former location on West 40th Street in January 2019 and stored its contents, anticipating the reopening at a location yet to be determined later in the year. But New York real estate being what it is, finding that location and renovating it took longer than expected. Then the pandemic arrived, closing theaters, disrupting the retail and tourism industries, and calming Midtown.

Now the Drama Book Shop is back, just as Broadway gears up for a late summer comeback. “As all theaters start to come up with dates, we feel like we’re part of this opening gesture,” Kail said.

Visitors can purchase books on the theater (including Andrew Lloyd Webber’s premonitory memoir, “Unmasked”) as well as “The Award-Winning Play and The Play No One Has Heard of”, Kail said. The store will also sell rare books, such as a first edition of “Three Tall Women”, signed by Edward Albee, and a first edition script of “West Side Story”.

Like many bookstores, the owners hope to increase their income with a coffee bar and food. But there is a personal fulfillment: Among the coffees sold there will be a blend from Puerto Rico, which is part of Miranda’s efforts to support farmers on the island where her parents are from.

“My hope is that we can continue to be a hub for the theater community,” said Miranda. “I don’t expect us to make a big fortune, but I hope that with coffee we will break even.”

The interior – 3,500 square feet on the first floor, plus a 3,000 square foot basement – is designed by David Korins, the set designer of “Hamilton”. There’s an octagonal bench inspired by a cabinet from the 1940 movie “The Shop Around the Corner” and, for fans of “Hamilton”, a pair of armchairs that are replicas of the one in which George Washington sits during the musical cabinet battles.

The walls feature over 125 theater-themed posters, 17 of which (“Kiss of the Spider Woman”, “Crazy For You”) were presented to Kail by literary agent Gilbert Parker, just before he died in 2019. There will also be a photo of the dog Chester, a German spitz that often basked near the gate at the previous location; Chester is alive and well, a spokesperson said, but not cleared by health regulations now that the food is sold.

Vendors anticipate a variety of events, such as book signings and author talks. And the basement – which is not yet finished, but which houses a piano on which was written “Paciencia y Fe”, a song from “In the Heights” – will be used for workshops and other programs.

Six people who worked at the old store location are joining the staff, a spokesperson said.

Due to continued concern over the coronavirus, the store will have a capacity limit when it opens; owners recommend people to make free reservations online, but there will also be a line for those without a reservation.

When asked what he hoped to see once the store opens, Korins said, “Everyone is hoping the next Lin-Manuel Miranda and Tommy Kail will be sitting there, talking about their next project.”

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