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How Lin-Manuel Miranda and friends remodeled an old bookstore

A sculptural representation of a bookworm – 140 feet of scripts and songbooks twisted along a steel skeleton – crawls through the Drama Book Shop in Manhattan. It starts with ancient Greek texts and ends in 2,400 volumes later in a stack containing “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical”.

This 3,500-pound homage to theater history is at the heart of the centuries-old bookstore’s new location, which opens on West 39th Street on Thursday.

The store – like so many bookstores across the country – was at risk of death, not just from e-commerce but also from fire and flooding, before seeing a rent increase in 2018 that it couldn’t withstand. The beloved institution, where students, artists, scholars and fans could rummage through memoirs and let off steam for auditions, was threatened with closure.

Then came an unexpected rescue. Four men enriched by “Hamilton”, including the creator of the musical, Lin-Manuel Miranda; its director, Thomas Kail; its main producer, Jeffrey Seller; and theater owner James L. Nederlander bought the shop from its longtime owners. Kail has a particularly close relationship with the store – twenty years ago, just after college, he started a small theater company in the basement. After teaming up with Miranda, the two worked there on “In the Heights”.

“I wasn’t born in a trunk; I was born in the basement of the Drama Book Shop, ”said Kail. “All of my early creative conversations and relationships were forged in this business, and the thought that it didn’t exist was painful. I couldn’t imagine New York City without her, and I didn’t want to imagine New York City without her. “

The bookstore opens the same day a film version of In the Heights is due to hit theaters and on HBO Max, and Kail made the thematic connections.

“Heights is about another place in Manhattan where rents are rising and businesses are being crowded out,” he said. “There is an obvious and clear line.”

The “Hamilton” team closed the previous location of the store on West 40th Street in January 2019 and stored its contents in order to reopen later in the year at a location to be determined. But New York real estate was what it is, and the location search and renovation took longer than expected. Then came the pandemic that closed theaters, disrupted the retail and tourism sectors, and calmed Midtown.

Now the Drama Book Shop is back, just as Broadway is preparing to return in late summer. “With all theaters starting to post dates, it feels like we’re part of that opening gesture,” Kail said.

Visitors can pick up books on the theater (including Andrew Lloyd Webber’s predictive memoir, “Unmasked”), as well as “The play that just won an award and the play no one heard of,” Kail said. The store will also sell rare books such as a first edition of “Three Tall Women” signed by Edward Albee and a first edition script of “West Side Story”.

Like many bookstores, the owners hope to supplement their income with a coffee bar and food. But there is a personal bloom: among the coffees sold will be a blend from Puerto Rico – part of Miranda’s efforts to support farmers on the island his parents came from.

“My hope is that we can continue to be a hub for the theater community,” said Miranda. “I don’t expect us to make a huge fortune, but I hope we break even with the coffee.”

The interior – 3,500 square meters on the ground floor and a 3,000 square meter basement – was designed by David Korins, the set designer for “Hamilton”. There is an octagonal banquet inspired by a piece of furniture from the 1940 film “The Shop Around the Corner” and for “Hamilton” fans, a pair of armchairs that are replicas of those George Washington wore during the cabinet battles of the Musicals sits.

There are more than 125 theater-themed posters hanging on the walls, 17 of which (“Kiss of the Spider Woman”, “Crazy For You”) were given to Kail by literary agent Gilbert Parker, shortly before he died in 2019. a German Spitz who often slouched at the door at the previous location; Chester is alive and well, a spokesman said, but now that food is being sold, health regulations don’t allow it.

The providers expect a variety of events such as book signing and author talks. And the as yet unfinished basement, which houses a piano on which “Paciencia y Fe”, a song from “In the Heights”, was written, is used for workshops and other programs.

Six employees who worked at the store’s former location are rejoining the staff, a spokesman said.

Due to ongoing concerns about the coronavirus, the store will have a capacity limit when it opens. The owners recommend reserving online for free, but there will also be a line for those who don’t make reservations.

When asked what he hopes to see when the store opens, Korins said, “Everyone would hope that the next Lin-Manuel Miranda and Tommy Kail will sit there and do their next project.”

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