Local passport: Sugar Hill

29 DECEMBER 2010

I FINALLY HAD A GOOD REASON to justify my Facebook habit. I recently posted a comment about Coleman Hawkins, and Eric Washington, a historian friend, responded with the unusual fact that he lives in Hawkins’ old apartment building in Harlem’s Sugar Hill neighborhood.

His comment, in turn, inspired comment from Kurt Thometz, owner of Jumel Terrace Books, a neighboring antiquarian bookstore specializing in African-American literature and narratives. After some FB correspondence, I set up a time to meet Thometz at his shop, which occupies the handsome, wood-paneled front room of an English basement.

Kurt Thometz, photo by Tiffany L. Clark

Thometz fits into his surroundings quite naturally. Loquacious and slightly distracted, he has the air of a curator-professor without the stuffiness. Flâneur kept coming to mind; that Baudelairian “gentleman stroller of city streets.” Thometz is surely that, whether it’s in his tweeds or in his black 1976 Checker Marathon cab. And from the streets he’s amassed a strange collection of art and religious statuary, the latter arranged in a hearthside tableau.

Add to his eccentric interests: a slight obsession with Madam Eliza B. Jumel, the former resident of the mansion cater-corner across the street and who the New York Times described as a “cultured woman of the world, fond of its pleasures, versed in its intrigues …”

A bookseller and private librarian for 36 years, Thometz has collected not only rare volumes but also rarified friends. His 1891 Queen Anne brownstone, which he and his wife Camilla restored, has been described as “a contemporary re-interpretation of Harlem Renaissance-esque salon culture” for its parties and cultural events.

Business is quiet now—a combination of economic times, the tucked-away location and a turn towards technology. Thometz won’t say the internet killed book sales, but he recognizes the book shelf as a thing of discovery may be a thing of the past.  To help supplement business, he rents out a garden pied-a-terre in back of the bookstore. The teeny hideaway has elegant touches such as the sheets handmade by his wife, a couturier (a word not used enough) who has designed for the likes of Aretha Franklin and Celine Dion. The iron bed looks out onto the private garden, which I imagine looks even more enchanting after our record blizzard. It seems like the perfect place hunker down with a few books while the snow melts. You can read my account here.

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