Broadway Super Nova’s Lifeline to Water-Logged Drama Book Shop

Rozanne Seelen, the owner of the Drama Book Shop, with her nephew Allen Hubby. | YANNIC RACK
Rozanne Seelen, the owner of the Drama Book Shop, with her nephew Allen Hubby. | YANNIC RACK

BY COLIN MIXSON | There are few achievements more admirable than nearing the century mark. The Drama Book Shop, a niche bookstore that has served theater artists and enthusiasts since 1917, has persevered through one and a half world wars, a Great Depression, one disastrous experiment in prohibition, 17 US presidents, a near catastrophic fire, and — most ruinous of all — the introduction of cinema with sound, followed decades later by the rise of an online book vendor with ambitions to deliver its product by drone.

Now, in the final stretch before its grand centennial anniversary, the venerable Drama Book Shop has run into a stretch of bad luck that nearly drowned its ambition of surviving to its 100th year. Thanks to the enduring love amongst New Yorkers for theater and the performing arts and the unsolicited promotion of one wildly successful playwright, this independent book dealer will survive the digital age and beyond, according to the store’s owner.

“I still don’t know how to react the way people have come in and helped us,” said owner Rozanne Seelen. “The response has been phenomenal.”

The Drama Book Shop, located at 250 West 40th Street, was recently flooded by several thousand gallons of city water after a pipe broke on the cold night of February 14, turning the pulpy contents of its acting, history, and design sections into so many theater-themed popsicles by the time employees came to open the door the next morning.

The nearly lethal turn of events has left the store bereft of some of its most popular titles. The loss of its acting material, which accompanies many budding thespians through their tour of Juilliard and the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, was an especially hard blow, according to store’s manager and heir apparent.

“Rebuilding the acting section is particularly hard,” said Allen Hubby, Seelen’s nephew. “It’s one of our most popular sections. Students need textbooks, and students come here for books and we’re forced to say, ‘Sorry, they drowned.’”

So it came as both a blessing, and served as yet another testament to the store’s importance to the theater community, when Lin-Manuel Miranda came to Drama Book Shop’s aid. The creator of “In The Heights,” whose Grammy award-winning musical “Hamilton” is currently Broadway’s most coveted ticket, “saved us,” said Seelen. “I really think he did. He will never have to pay for a book again as long as I live. Any book he wants is free forever.”

Customers were in a forgiving mood when they encountered damage to the book shop caused by a burst water pipe. | YANNIC RACK
Customers were in a forgiving mood when they encountered damage to the book shop caused by a burst water pipe. | YANNIC RACK

Having heard of the water damage, Miranda took to Twitter. With a few well-placed hashtags — and in under 140 characters — his words of praise gave the store a much needed boost in sales, helping it produce at least some of the capital needed to finance replacement copies of its waterlogged tomes.

“We must have gotten 600 orders saying, ‘Lin sent me,’” Hubby explained. “We didn’t even ask him, he just did it out of the goodness of his sweet heart.”

Miranda’s association with the Drama Book Shop is based on more than just a great retail experience. Its three floors on West 40th Street once served as his base of operations.

“The @dramabookshop is not only the best place to get theater-related ANYTHING, I wrote most of In The Heights there. Pls support. #BuyABook,” Miranda tweeted on February 18. Other tweets from that day indicate a bright future in marketing should he choose a new career path. In addition to praising the Shakespeare section’s comfy chairs, he replied to a Twitter follower’s inquiry about whether the upcoming Miranda-penned “Hamilton: The Revolution” would be available for purchase at the Drama Book Shop. “It will be. And I’ll go sign it there,” Mirada vowed. “But they need your help now so I can go sign it there in April.”

Other tweets found Miranda naming his most recent purchases (“When I was last there I got a Noel Coward bio, a King Lear DVD starring Brian Blessed, and the Heathers piano/vocal”), and invoking a character from “It’s a Wonderful Life,” who rescues George Bailey from impending bankruptcy and scandal (“If you’re not in NY, you can also purchase items via the site below. BE SAM WAINWRIGHT. HEE HAW”).

This latest episode in the long life of Manhattan’s only remaining performing arts bookstore is merely a brief act in an epic play and, when the curtain first rose on the Drama Book Shop in 1917, it revealed a much different set and cast than what you’ll find today.

As it was, the Drama Book Shop began less as a bookstore, and more as a bookshelf, located in the Manhattan offices of the Drama League of New York.

Back before video (and, later, the Internet) would come to reign as the supreme source of pulp violence, pornography, and off-color humor, theater was the ultimate wellspring of all things unwholesome, and the Drama League helped ardent fans of proper drama sift through the many lewd productions that proliferated during the early 20th century, according to Hubby.

“Around the turn of the century, theater had gotten a bad name, because a lot of it was quite tawdry,” he said. “So, this group of people who loved theater formed branches all over the country. The idea was they would recommend plays that were worthy of theater, which basically meant theater that didn’t have sex or violence.”

The store’s ceiling, though still structurally sound, sustained significant damage. | YANNIC RACK
The store’s ceiling, though still structurally sound, sustained significant damage. | YANNIC RACK

Meanwhile, the bookshelf (or card table, depending on who’s telling the story) was managed by one Marge Seligman — and, over time, her meager collection of dramas and musicals ballooned, eventually becoming more popular than the haughty Drama League that birthed it, according to Hubby.

So, Seligman took her catalogue of plays and established the Drama Book Shop on East 45th Street in 1923, in what was then Manhattan’s Publishing District. From there, the store moved a few times, each time heading further west, until eventually finding its way to West 52nd St., between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, in 1958, when a group of disparate thespians and theater enthusiasts bought the store.

Among them was Arthur Seelen, a former actor, whose enthusiasm for theater craft and the people who love it remains a fond recollection of the shop’s more venerable patrons, even after his death in 2000, according to his widow, Rozanne.

“He loved the young people who came into the store, and he loved the books,” she said. “Even all these years later, people come and say how much they miss him. It’s a great credit to him.”

Seleen, his partners, and, later, his wife, cultivated a staff similarly devoted to the performing arts, whose knowledge of the craft and their faithfulness to the store were as critical to the shop’s success as its doting clientele, according to Hubby.

“We have an incredibly knowledgeable staff,” he said. “People who come to work here stay for years and years, and they don’t want to leave, even though we pay them next to nothing. We have the best staff in the world.”

In fact, the Drama Book Shop has produced at least one stellar addition to the theater world. Playwright Douglas Carter Beane, whose work on “As Bees in Honey Drown,” “The Little Dog Laughed,” “Xanadu,” and “The Nance” have made him a marquee name, worked at the store as a bag checker in the ’80s.

But, while the store and its staff are sought after for their prodigious knowledge of theater, that doesn’t always equate to sales — even if they’re able to help the customer pick out the perfect play, according to Hubby.

“It is frustrating when someone says, ‘Thank you so much for your help, I’m going to go to Amazon and order that book,’” he explained.

Still, the Drama Book Shop is a destination for more than just its written product, much of which is out of print and nearly impossible to come by. In addition to its basement theater, where the store’s resident children’s theater company, the Striking Viking Story Pirates, rehearses and performs, the Drama Book Shop has played host to several high-profile, if impromptu revivals.

At one point, cast members from the original production of “A Chorus Line” invaded the store and collectively belted out tunes from the show. That off-the-books revival was followed up by an unofficial production of “Hair,” when cast members of the show’s original and follow-up productions met up at the shop and gaily broke out in song, according to Hubby.

The Drama Book Shop has outlived at least five other theater-themed bookshops in the city, and is now one of three remaining niche performing arts bookstores in the Western world, with one in Los Angeles and another in London still chugging along, according to Hubby.

New York’s outpost, unfortunately, is not yet out of rough waters. The approaching end date of its current lease will almost certainly force the Drama Book Shop into yet another period of flux in the face of what’s expected to be an enormous rent hike, Hubby said.

“Our lease is up dangerously soon,” he said. “We have a very good relationship with our landlord, but we’ll have to move when our lease is up. It will probably triple.”

Whatever happens, chances are good that, somewhere in the city, there will be a cozy chair where somebody will be devouring a stack of plays curated by the Drama Book Shop.

“It is not without its challenges. Every day is an adventure,” said Hubby. “Our customers are very resourceful. If they need a monologue, they’ll find us.”