An Apartment Full of Books and the Man Who Started It
Michael Seidenberg is an anomaly. A rarity. An eccentricity. He loves books, and while book lovers are commonplace, Seidenberg’s love is unique.
Sitting in a corner of a tiny apartment on the Upper East Side, pipe in hand, Seidenberg doesn’t hold back when talking about books. He philosophizes about the world and talks of how the Justice League of America is the basis of his personal philosophy. He theorizes that schools kill reading and laments about the seemingly disappearing love of books. Take a quick look around him and it becomes clear that the apartment is his chef-d’oeuvre. The apartment – the latest reincarnation of Brazen Head Books – is to Seidenberg what the Sistine Chapel was to Michelangelo.
Visitors to Brazen Head will find a lot of Seidenberg embedded within the bookshelves lining the walls. From an action figure of Oscar Wilde, to an old postcard of Fidel Castro – cigar in mouth – holding an I Love New York T-shirt, to framed images of authors Henry Miller and John Cowper Powys (two of his favorite), one can glean many things about the Seidenberg’s character. As Snowden Wright, a frequent visitor to Brazen Head, puts it, “You go there and it’s not just a bookstore. It’s a bookstore and him.”
Seidenberg calls himself “an urban Jew.” Born and raised in Brooklyn, he spent most of his life in the city. He didn’t always love books, however. He describes himself as a “typical” child growing up, ordering books from Scholastic catalogs and not giving much thought to it. It wasn’t until he grew up and started working, that he grew an appreciation for the written word. “I had to take the subway to work,” he says, when asked how his passion for books began. He would often read during the long commute.
Fast forward a little, and Seidenberg had left his job. He recalls a second-hand bookshop on the West Side, near the place where he’d pick up his unemployment checks. Laughing, he tells how he would spend the remainder of the previous week’s paycheck on books. He was there every week and got to know the owners well. “These guys kept pushing me. Why don’t you open up a shop? Why don’t you open up a shop?” he remembers. But Seidenberg was reluctant. He didn’t know how to run a business. “You just assume there’s this wealth of knowledge you don’t have,” he says. “And I wasn’t really business-oriented, so that was really intimidating to me.”
Ultimately, it was his psychology professor that gave Seidenberg the opportunity to open a shop. When his professor was denied tenure, he decided to start a puppet theater, and convinced Seidenberg to join him. Seidenberg was hesitant, but joined his professor after setting up a couple shows. Together, they found a giant space in Brooklyn. Seidenberg set up a bookshop in the front, and the puppet theater was in the back.
It was during this period that he met Jonathan Lethem, bestselling author of Fortress of Solitude, who was 14 at the time. Lethem recalls being rather taken by Seidenberg, saying that Seidenberg was “impossibly complete and self-possessed and charismatic.” The two struck up a friendship with a “certain amount of mentorship.”
With the help of Lethem, Seidenberg split his time between both ventures. But after two years, he felt he wasn’t doing either well. “You gotta concentrate on it,” he said about his bookshop. “You gotta dedicate yourself to it.” And so, when a small space opened up on the Upper East Side, Seidenberg took it and dedicated himself to his books.
Rent eventually became too high and Seidenberg was forced to close the shop. Thus began a difficult period for Seidenberg. He sold books on the street and in book fairs, but grew tired of it. “I thought, maybe I’ve just been doing this too long, and it’s not natural to still stay excited,” he said. “I really started to believe that.” The latest reincarnation of Brazen Head put an end to that train of thought. “As soon as I set up this,” Seidenberg said, gesturing at the space around him, “I realized that I was a hundred percent still wanting to do this.”
Brazen Head is only a year old and remains a well-kept secret. Seidenberg’s approach to his business is an unusual one. Kimberly King Parsons, a frequent Brazen Head patron, describes him as “the only business owner I’ve ever met who couldn’t care less about selling you something.”
Seidenberg doesn’t like to advertise, and is very careful of how he promotes Brazen Head. He acknowledges that promoting the place could lead to more money, but that’s not why he opened up the store.
For Seidenberg, Brazen Head is a place for people to gather, relax, and talk about books. And so far, it’s been a success. “It’s been really rewarding that everybody gets it,” he said. “That they all feel relaxed, they understand me, they get my philosophy.” He tells a story of a Friday night when two drunken Columbia students came to Brazen Head and just “hung out.” He got a kick out of it. “I mean, that’s the greatest thing,” he said. “I can feel people’s passion. And that’s been fantastic.”
What’s in store for Seidenberg now? He’s thinking of starting up a Brazen Head blog with a URL (he pronounces it erl) ) a friend gave him. In the meantime, he continues to have people over at Brazen Head. “For a person that’s had no life plan,” he says, “I just feel I’m in the exact right place I should be, doing the exact thing I should be doing, the way I’m doing it, in the time that it needs to be done.”