A Quick One at the Jumble Shop

New York City is a boîte boneyard, a nite-spot necropolis, a potter’s field of cabarets, oyster palaces and hotel lounges.

Some names of past hotspots live on in popular lore — your Stork Club, your El Morocco. But there were so many others, maybe smaller in size and fame, that were at one time just as legendary with a certain clientele. Today they are nearly unknown. The heyday of these storied joints can never be recreated. Well, if we can’t step inside, let’s loiter outside and toast, in salute to good times past. We may be a little late, but we have time for a quick one.

Today's Stop: The Jumble Shop

Maeve Brennan (the Long-Winded Lady to her fans) begins a Talk of the Town piece in the December 3, 1960 New Yorker,
“One night about ten years ago, very late at night, I was sitting in the big, square bar of the Jumble Shop when Jean Gabin walked in and sat down.”
We are to be surprised at the great French actor’s appearance in a humble Greenwich Village hangout, as the point of her story is that movie stars turn up in the oddest places. But the Jumble Shop attracted its own luminaries—not always the sort to set a Hollywood marquee ablaze, although just as important in their own scene, the art world.

The Jumble Shop served its first dinner in 1922 at 21 West Eighth Street. It had opened as an antique shop the previous year. The owners, Frances Russell and Winifred Tucker, hospitable folk, served tea in the front room to friends and customers, but when it became apparent that more people were dropping in for a snack than to buy they decided the restaurant business might be a better bet. They kept the same sign out front, and the antique collection became décor. Soon more space became necessary and in 1926 The Jumble Shop moved across the street to number 28.

28 West Eighth Street today.
Greenwich Village in the ‘Twenties being the epicenter of the arts in New York the place drew a clientele heavy with writers, sculptor and painters. Guy Pène du Bois,  Reginald Marsh and Ashcan ace William Glackens were early regulars. The Jumble Shop became a space for informal art exhibitions and also a meeting place for painters and critics; Willem de Kooning, Stuart Davis, and Arshile Gorky could be found frequently holding court. The avant-garde in performing arts was represented by Deems Taylor and Martha Graham.

The tan building was Fraser's studio on MacDougal Alley.
 Sculptor Daniel Chester French, most famous for the Seated Lincoln in Washington, DC’s Lincoln Memorial, was an early regular, as was another sculptor of monumental portraiture, James Earle Fraser, who ate lunch at the first Shop daily. His studio was a converted 1854 stable in MacDougal Alley, just behind Eighth Street.  When he moved out, the Jumble Shop claimed the vacancy, and expanded 28 West Eighth Street back through the former studio.  In 1933, after Repeal, they had the opportunity to take over the storefront at 176 MacDougal on the corner of the Alley.  Their landlord offered the bar from a saloon on the corner of Eighth and MacDougal and this space became the Tap Room.

176 MacDougal, the Jumble Shop Tap Room.
In the ’Thirties and ‘Forties, for the painters that would soon become the “New York School,” Greenwich Village bars came to fill a social role akin to the cafés of Paris. These were important venues to unwind and talk about their work with their peers. Painter Lee Krasner recalls, in a 1964 oral history recorded by the Smithsonian’s Archives of America Art, “The Jumble Shop was a place in the Village where you could sit down in the evening and nurse a glass of beer and talk about your art problems.” By 1949 the group would be codified into a combination lecture series and debating society called The Club, but up until then, The Jumble Shop or Romany Marie’s would be the place to find displaced European painters like de Kooning, Gorky and John Graham mixing with home-grown artists like Barnett Newman and Stuart Davis, and critic Harold Rosenberg, honing the ideas that would become the foundation of Abstract Expressionism.

The literary arts were also well represented. Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, Ford Madox Ford, J.D. Salinger and Patricia Highsmith were among the noted scribes to be found here. S.J. Perelman loved to drop the Jumble Shop into his stories, often to satirical effect when he wanted to evoke a genteel bohemianism peculiar to the Village. Thomas Wolfe was a loyal patron, and a handwritten note thanking the owners for their hospitality hung in a frame above his favorite table for many years. Until it went missing. According to Bennett Cerf’s column of May 2, 1955, the thief confessed his crime in a note to the restaurant:
“Will return that Wolfe item as soon as I finish my own novel. I was stuck and about to give up the other night when I read Wolfe’s letter and it gave me new inspiration. It’s on my wall now, but I’ll be through with my book soon.”
Did the Jumble Shop’s artistic credibility fall victim to its own long-standing success? One cranky naysayer, Robert C. Ruark, in a 1946 column syndicated to Scripps-Howard newspapers, complains that the post-war bohemian scene in Greenwich Village had become so tame that “The Jumble Shop now has a sign which says females in slacks won’t be served, and that the men better have a coat on…” Not the artistic orgy Ruark had been on the prowl for.
But in some form or another the Jumble Shop lasted another few decades; its bankruptcy notice appeared in the New York Times in 1967.

Last week,  we assembled at 176 MacDougal Street and MacDougal Alley for an informal salute.

A convenient telephone booth served us as a makeshift bar. We chose a Chianti for our toast, a tribute to the commingling of Italian immigrants and artists that shaped the early days of the bohemian in Greenwich Village.

A toast: "To solving your art problems!"

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