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First Steps on A Literary Pilgrimage

©Kenneth S. Cohen

Frances Steloff, 1978, Photo by Lynn Gilbert

My love of books was largely due to one bookstore and one person in particular: Gotham Book Mart (1920-2006) and its founder, Frances “Fanny” Steloff (1887-1989), or “Miss Steloff” as everyone called her.

I didn’t know that Gotham Book Mart was the literary heart of New York City or that among the people who loved it and shopped frequently were: Charlie Chaplin, WH Auden, Allen Ginsberg (who was a clerk there), Arthur Miller, George and Ira Gershwin, Anaïs Nin, Ezra Pound, and Katherine Hepburn. I found the store “by chance” in the late 1960s. Nor did I realize that Miss Steloff, the “old lady” always sitting or browsing among the stacks was the founder and former owner and a noted feminist. Miss Steloff had smuggled boxes of Lady Chatterley’s Lover into the store, purchased directly from DH Lawrence, when the book was banned by the US government.

To me, Miss Steloff was a sage and guardian angel who always appeared in the same “Asian Spirituality” section whenever I arrived at the store. She seemed to be waiting for me, ready to advise, “Oh, yes, read all of Arthur Avalon’s books if you want to understand Kundalini Yoga.” And so I bought and read all of them, including the now rare long out of print versions published in India. To this day much of my Sanskrit vocabulary comes from The Serpent Power and Śakti and Śākta. “However,” she continued, “to appreciate how Western occult philosophy interpreted or mis-interpreted India and Tibet read Madame Blavatsky’s The Secret Doctrine. But please balance this with the clear insight of Krishnamurti,” at which point she would pull his books off the shelf, place them on my growing pile, and proceed to give me the biography of each of the authors she recommended.

I was in my teens, practicing Indian Yoga with disciples of Swami Sivananda, and only beginning my studies of Chinese language and Taoist arts. With Miss Steloff as my guide, the written word brought me to India and at the feet of spiritual masters. I was growing roots, learning the geography, culture and the importance of context in pursuing a spiritual discipline. I accompanied Mouni Sadhu on a pilgrimage to Arunachala Ashram to visit Sri Ramana Maharshi, a literary journey, and the only one I could afford. I circumambulated Mount Kailash with Lama Govinda and meditated by the pristine waters of Lake Manasarovar at 15,000 ft elevation in the Himalayas. How interesting that these books predicted physical meetings that would occur a decade later—when I had the blessing of attending lectures by Lama Govinda and being mentored by Sunyata, a close associate of Sri Ramana.

Fanny Steloff, the sage of Gotham Book Mart, had earned every white hair. It was only in later years, in retrospect that I realized how lucky I was to have had this kind of intellectual guide. From my teens to my early twenties, I looked forward to our bookstore meetings. Thanks to Miss Steloff’s kindness I developed a great love of learning and an ability to discern truth from falsehood (“BS”) that has served me well. I never got to thank her properly. After many years away from “the city”, I visited New York and the bookstore in the early 1990s. Miss Steloff had already passed. Yet, part of me thanks her each and every day.

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Feb 24, 2023

Thank you

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