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Why we need creative spaces—and what we lose when their impresarios are gone

This week Michael Seidenberg, a secret connector in New York literary circles, passed away, leaving a void in a culture that needs more places that encourage risk-taking.

Why we need creative spaces—and what we lose when their impresarios are gone
[Photo: Samir Abady]

I started photographing Michael Seidenberg and Brazenhead Books on January 8, 2015. Within minutes, it felt like we knew everything we needed to know about each other. We’re both New Yorkers with roots in Queens, we graduated from the same high school, we loved to read—loved to consume media of all kinds, really—and we loved to ramble on about anything that came to mind. Conversations started, hours passed, nothing ended, people faded in and out, and laughter came from the gut. Whenever I mentioned Brazenhead to a friend, I’d always start with Michael and the people I’ve met but barely mention the space at all. They were one and the same, really, and it’s what makes it hard about Michael passing this week.

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Brazenhead Books, which Seidenberg ran for eight or so years as of 2015 (the dates would change any time I asked him), was what in-the-know New Yorkers thought of as the hidden bookstore. It was tucked away in an apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side and was always an experiment, he said, oftentimes while smoking a pipe and savoring a tall glass full of scotch on the rocks (his choice was The Famous Grouse). An experiment, I believe, to see if it could actually work, this bookstore that ran on salons and personal invites, all on his own terms. He had had storefronts in the past, even employing a 15-year-old Jonathan Lethem, but it was real estate, not Amazon, that put him out of business, so why not do something new?

[Photo: Samir Abady]
Before I ever visited, I had read about the shop closing and got in touch with Michael to photograph it. He didn’t respond for a long time, but when he did, he mentioned that after some legal hoopla he had a few months left in the space. He wanted someone to archive it the way it was. He held three salons a week at the time, and knowing no other way, I embedded myself and visited once or twice a week, every week, for months. What had started as a photography project quickly became being surrounded by friends that I always wanted to be around. 

On Tuesdays, at 10 p.m. or later, a bell would ring and poetry night began. One after the other, poets would recite their work or someone would read a passage from a book they discovered that night. Seidenberg had created this haven for writers and readers alike to talk about books or their lives, and after a sweaty summer when endless boxes migrated from one apartment to another and the crowds got smaller and more selective, the oasis was still there and nothing felt different. 

My partner and I had our first date at Brazenhead on January 15, 2015, and we’ve often discussed if our lives would have converged in the ways they did if it weren’t for Michael and the shop. We were nervous that night—neither of us wanted to admit that we were on a date—but the relaxed nature of Brazenhead, as epitomized by Michael’s shirt being unbuttoned three from the top and sometimes also two from the bottom, created the comfortable atmosphere that we needed. Conversations rolled into one another, minutes turned into hours, and before we knew it, it was one in the morning and the ice bucket was mostly water with a few marble-sized cubes left over. We’d go repeatedly thereafter, trekking home with our arms full of books that cost us whatever Michael decided that night.

When this version of the bookstore had to shut down, everything was relocated a few blocks away to another apartment, one Seidenberg lived in, with the helping hands of the Brazenhead community. New shelves were built, books were reshuffled, and Brazenhead had found its new home. The crowds weren’t as large, and the salon nights were more sporadic, but the culture was the same. Michael would send emails that he was open from 9 p.m. on, and everyone would gather, and it was business as usual, but this time with a place to sit, and there were windows. 

[Photo: Samir Abady]
On July 9, 2019, I received an email confirming Michael’s death the night prior. It was a shock to most of us. I didn’t know that he wasn’t doing well. I also took Brazenhead for granted. Saying that I’ll go there when there was time and allowing trains to get in my way, I hadn’t seen him in almost a year. But that last time I saw him I was there for hours and hours, speaking to him and a childhood friend of his whom I once read about in an old journal of his that I mistakenly found in the stacks. It was a night that was perfectly Brazenhead.

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Brazenhead Books was a space that reflected its owner: It exuded love and acceptance and a surprising amount of patience. It was a place where strangers turned into friends, or remained strangers, and that was okay. Michael’s love was contagious and palpable as he held court with his razor-sharp wit. It was a place to go before, after, or during a night out.

What was special about the space started by our reluctant bookseller was that it was an environment that allowed for a flow of ideas without judgment. It was almost completely hands off, and everyone went off on their own to create their own work or to talk about each other’s. It was a watering hole, an office, an editing-room floor. The importance of a hub, where creatives are encouraged to collide with each other, was the most successful part of Michael’s experiment. The birth of the Brazenhead Review, a collection of anonymously submitted poetry, is a product of that and is spearheaded by Brazenhead regulars and most likely wouldn’t have happened otherwise.

For me, it was also a place where I felt encouraged. From Michael’s open invitation to the shop, to the repeated invites to his home, I felt pushed to do what he wanted someone to do: Archive the space the way it was. 

[Photo: Samir Abady]
[Photo: Samir Abady]
[Photo: Samir Abady]
[Photo: Samir Abady]
[Photo: Samir Abady]
[Photo: Samir Abady]
[Photo: Samir Abady]
[Photo: Samir Abady]
[Photo: Samir Abady]
[Photo: Samir Abady]
[Photo: Samir Abady]
[Photo: Samir Abady]
[Photo: Samir Abady]

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