Now Britton has gone uptown, geographically and professionally. In just six months, his Books & Co. (started with Jeannette Watson, of the IBM Watsons) has become a Madison Avenue showplace and the talk of authors and booklovers all the way to the West Coast. Although Britton doesn't like the word, "literature" is what Books & Co. is all about. Best-sellers tend to be crammed into a back room; paperbacks are upstairs. Instead, the front of the store and its street windows are filled with authors that Britton thinks his customers ought to read, ranging from Sam Johnson and Baudelaire to Gunter Grass and Roland Barth.
Books & Co. is dominated by an 8½-by-60-foot shelf, known as the Wall and filled with Britton's personal favorites. Browsers can find the works of nearly every known English and American poet, dramatist Chekhov ("I can't believe a good-er man ever lived"), novelists Jane Austen, Colette (one whole section), Henry James and, of course, Mark Twain. "Any book that makes the Wall is there forever," declares Britton, "or as long as I can get it."
When Henry Miller heard that 33 of his titles are included, he sent a note of thanks. Other authors stop by in person, including John Cheever, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Susan Sontag, Carlos Fuentes, Ralph Ellison, Saul Steinberg. "Herman Melville's grandson, Paul Metcalfe, gave our first poetry reading a few weeks ago," Jeannette Watson says proudly. "And then Dustin Hoffman wandered into the shop and gave an informal reading upstairs of D. H. Lawrence's poem Snake. Two little old ladies with shopping bags went crazy."
The 33-year-old daughter of IBM's former chairman, Thomas Watson, she remembers that her father used to call her "Madame Nose-in-Books." Having graduated from Sarah Lawrence, been married and divorced, Jeannette found herself in the early '70s taking care of her son, Ralph, now 10, and whiling away her time with charity work. "I was really thinking what to do with my life," she says. "I literally woke up one morning wondering if I could start a bookstore."
Publishing sources suggested she look up Burt Britton, renowned among his friends as the world's greatest reader. "I don't think he thought I was serious," Jeannette recalls of their first meeting. Britton rejoins, "I told her, 'You've got to convince me that this will not be some two-year lark just stocking the best-seller list.' "
Britton, 45, seems a most improbable bookseller. He grew up in Brooklyn's tough Canarsie district, playing ball and reading the sports pages. In the early '50s he joined the Marines, had a brief marriage, then decided to try acting. ("In Brooklyn, how the hell else do you meet girls?") At 23, he came across Faulkner's The Hamlet. "I read 30 pages and said, 'My God.' " The experience changed his life.
"I drove a cab and bartended nights so I could live in bookstores," Britton says, and finally he got a job at the Strand. "I gave my life to that place. In 10 years I went out to lunch seven times."
Agreeing that the last thing New York needed was another book supermarket, Burt and Jeannette launched their enterprise by ordering duplicates of all the great books he had hoarded in his apartment. The Wall is fast filling up, but Britton still spends hours harrying inefficient publishers to deliver the volumes he has ordered. "What should I do?" he fumes. "Go to their warehouses with a tommy gun?"
Having done "incredible" holiday business, Burt seems almost dubious about the hurly-burly of commercial success. "I'd like to lock the doors," he muses, "and live here by myself." Jeannette, who married Wall Street lawyer Alexander Sanger at Christmastime, seems more reconciled. "This is the wave of the future in bookstores," she says. "Back to the 19th century."
"Don't you know that modern American literature started with Huckleberry Finn, dummy?" says the bookseller to Woody Allen in the 1976 film The Front. The line, of course, was out of the script, but the feisty bookseller was for real, a Brooklyn-born ex-Marine sergeant named Burt Britton. He was then a basement salesman at the Strand, a famous rare-and used-book store on Manhattan's lower Broadway.