Remembering Jay Dantry
On Independent Bookstore Day, 4/30/2022
My father and stepmother moved to Pittsburgh around 1976. Soon after that I visited the city for the first time since babyhood (we lived in the North Hills when I was two). My father was and remains a passionate reader and book-buyer and by the time of that first visit he was already singing the praises of Jay’s Book Stall. It was small, even cramped, he said, but it was extraordinarily well stocked and always got the newest titles before anybody else in town. And the owner — Jay himself — was a first-rate bookseller and an authentic Pittsburgh character.
I was intimidated by Jay Dantry when I met him — of course — and not just because I was a kid of twelve or thirteen. Everybody was intimidated by Jay when they first met him; he would have been extremely disappointed if they weren’t. And though over time I got to know him well, first as a customer, then as an employee, and finally as a long-time friend, I never entirely lost that initial sense of intimidation. For a small round man who appeared to spend his life standing in a corner of a tiny bookshop trading gossip and epigrams and listening to show tunes, Jay was a man of remarkable authority, presence and intellectual heft. With his bright blue stare and his red hair blazing (until later years when he let it go gray) Jay Dantry had a kind of incandescence that was more attractive, more welcoming in its way, than the taciturnity or scuttling shyness often found among bookstore owners in those days.
He had a way of pelting you with questions when you walked into the store, some easier to answer than others. How was your weekend? Did you see any movies? and How is Dad? rapidly giving way to What exactly did you find to like about that book? Are those cigarettes I always see you smoking some special kind that don’t give you cancer? Tell me, what was the thinking behind that haircut?
He was fiercely and inexhaustibly loyal to his many friends, men and women of all ages and ethnicities, from every part of Pittsburgh and beyond. And, like most of the fiercest friends in this world, he was every bit as devoted to his enemies. Targets might be a better word — posers, blowhards, self-appointed experts, hypocrites, spotlight-hoggers, people who thought Clive Cussler was hot stuff, the editor of the New York Magazine competiton when she failed to select any of the dozens of witty entries he had submitted that week, pseudonymously and through a vast network of proxies all over the country. If you worked for Jay, or you were his friend, or sometimes if you just happened to walk into the store when he was on a tear, you knew who was on his (expletive) list, who he had in the crosshairs now.
After my first book got published and people started to ask him about my time working at the Book Stall, Jay used to say that he hired me because I threatened to drown myself in the Monongahela River — or something like that — if I was obliged to spend one more day as an employee of the old Atlantic Books chain that used to have a bunch of stores in town. It’s true that I was desperate to get out of Atlantic, and I’m sure that he did in the end take pity on me, but the thing Jay seemed to have forgotten was that until the day in 1983 that he finally hired me, I had come into the Book Stall at least once a month, for two years, begging him for a job. When my father — among Jay’s best customers for the decade that he lived in Pittsburgh — dropped by the store he would always put in a good word for me.
I’m not sure what finally changed Jay’s mind or flipped the switch for me — I’m pretty sure it was not a threat of suicide — but I’ll always be grateful to him for the year I spent working at the Book Stall. With Joe Emanuele managing, his mother, “Mrs. E.” ruling the basement workroom and “Uncle Joe” passing through every month to look over the accounts, the staff wasn’t like a family, it was a family. Birthdays and holidays, births and deaths and marriages were observed with cakes and cards, flowers and parties and a little taste of something bubbly in a plastic flute, right in the middle of a work day.
And most importantly, to me, looking back: if you were part of the Jay’s Book Stall family then you were part of a family that included — that revolved around — the comings and goings, the illnesses and accomplishments, the gallery openings and publications and professional milestones, the soirées, sartorial habits, literary tastes and New York jaunts of Jay and his lifelong partner, artist Harry Schwalb (1924–2019); a family built on the solid rock of their enduring love for each other. In those first AIDS years, during a time of secrecy and concealment and shame, there was something powerful, even radical, in the sight of those two small, round middle-aged men strolling off down Fifth Avenue after the store closed for the day, with portly dignity, toward their place in the King Edward Apartments. Cracking each other up, side by side in their respective floppy hats, loving each other for all the world to see.
Out of all the reasons I have to feel gratitude toward Jay Dantry — for his kindness, for his encouragement of my early literary efforts and his enthusiasm and support for my later work, for his having taught me so much about books and musicals and Pittsburgh — the thing for which I’ll always be most grateful, I think, is the memory of the bravery, worn so lightly and with such style, that the man showed every day, just by walking off down the street at closing time on a warm summer evening, at the side of the love of his life.