NEW YORK — Andreas Brown, a bibliophile since childhood who bought the revered Gotham Book Mart in Midtown Manhattan from its idiosyncratic founder, Frances Steloff, and kept it alive as a frowzy literary shrine for four more decades, died on March 6 in Manhattan. He was 86.
His lawyer, Eric Sherman, said the cause was pneumonia.
Brown was a book and manuscript appraiser in his 30s and a regular visitor to the Gotham from California when, in 1967, Steloff invited him out to lunch.
About to turn 80, she offered to sell him the overstuffed repository of avant-garde publications that she had opened in 1920.
Brown had never dreamed of moving to New York or becoming a retailer. But here was an offer he couldn’t refuse — even if, as it turned out, Steloff never completely let go of the Gotham.
She remained at her post in an alcove in the store, located in a five-story town house on West 47th Street, and in her apartment upstairs. She collected a paycheck until she died in 1989 at 101.
“At the time she sold me the store,” Brown recalled in 1990 at his alma mater, San Diego State University, “she said, ‘It’s very important that you know you are not the owner, you are only the caretaker of the store.’”
Like Steloff, Brown was hardly an indifferent sales clerk. Nor was he a great businessman. But he was passionate about books (he also collected vintage postcards), and the Gotham remained more like a salon than a store.
Stacks of novels, magazines, reference books and unidentified volumes in still-unpacked cartons towered precariously on the creaky wooden floorboards at what had become a sanctuary for celebrated authors, embryonic writers and aficionados of contemporary literature — the last of the literary landmarks that once dotted Fifth Avenue and vicinity.
A sign outside the store counseled, “Wise Men Fish Here.” That catchphrase was crafted in cast iron by the artist John Held Jr. and had been suggested years earlier by Steloff’s husband, David Moss.
Among the sage anglers who frequented the Gotham or fished there from afar were Saul Bellow, Arthur Miller, Marianne Moore and the reclusive J.D. Salinger, who would show up at the store with his face concealed under a baseball cap and would immediately leave if recognized.
Brown helped popularize Edward Gorey, the enigmatic illustrator, by placing his books by the cash register. He archived Tennessee Williams’s papers.
Jaqueline Onassis became a regular customer. Once, when her daughter, Caroline Kennedy, told Brown that unless she completed a term paper on the Russian monarch Catherine the Great by the next morning she wouldn’t be allowed to go away for the weekend, he delivered a dozen books to her apartment.
Andreas Le Brown was born on April 29, 1933, in Coronado, California, and raised in San Diego. His father, Harvey Clair Brown, was an entrepreneur. His mother, Helene (Kimball) Brown, was a homemaker.
He is survived by his sister, Gretchen Ferdinand.