A mere Google search of the name “Enrico Adelman” doesn’t do the New York bookseller justice.
Although much of what’s been written about him centers around his notorious claim to fame—his connection to the great, late author Philip Roth—there is much more about the 72-year-old that deserves attention: from his growing up in Italy as a war baby to his time living in New York City’s Chelsea Hotel, from his bookstore Bloomsday—which he says “made a killing” through the 1990s—to his current business model, entirely reliant on Amazon. Not to mention his views on President Trump, his expectations of former President Obama’s upcoming post-presidency book (“It’s not going to do as well as his wife’s did,” he says, revealing that Michelle Obama’s Becoming is the book he’s sold the most copies of throughout his career) and, of course, his first meeting with Roth.
In short, Adelman’s life is deserving of a central plotline in one of Roth’s own books. And maybe that’s why the two men hit it off back in 1989, when Adelman was operating his book stand by gourmet food emporium Zabar’s on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
“Two character types appeal to my sense of intrigue and curiosity: writers and opera singers,” Adelman says. “This guy and this woman came to the stand, and I noticed the guy immediately. I couldn’t help myself. After two, three minutes I walked over and said, ‘You look an awful lot like Philip Roth.’ And he just goes, ‘I am’ and puts out his hand to shake. I felt like I was touched by a god.”
Adelman went on to invite the author to his brick-and-mortar bookshop, at the time the third iteration of Bloomsday. Roth did show up a few weeks later and, encouraged by his disposition, Adelman bravely asked him to sign a few of his books.
Thus began their relationship, one clearly spurred by the writer’s willingness to sign thousands of copies of his books for Adelman to sell, but one that developed into a deeper connection between two characters that have come to represent the essence of New York in their own unique ways. A writer and a bookseller, both American Jews, seeking to spread their devotion to literature within and beyond the confines of New York. “I have a letter of recommendation to my co-op board that he wrote,” Adelman says. “And he states: ‘Enrico Adelman sold more of my books than anybody else in the United States.’”
Born in Florence but raised in New York, Adelman’s career as a bookseller developed in between stints at investment banking and import/export efforts across Massachusetts, Portugal, Italy, and more. Urged by a bookstore-owner friend to also try his hand at the business, Adelman opened the first Bloomsday on 112th Street and Broadway.
The name of the store was inspired by his reading of James Joyce’s Ulysses while pursuing his Ph.D. at Columbia. The second Bloomsday came in 1976 on 81st and Broadway. “This one was a legitimate bookstore with sections,” Adelman says of the destination, right by Zabar’s (“My friend said, ‘If you ever want to open up a bookshop, get as close to Zabar’s as possible. It was a magnet even then”), an endeavor so successful it led Adelman to close his first shop and eventually sell the remaining business for a hefty sum to Shakespeare and Co.
The third Bloomsday came about in the late ’80s and ’90s, when the same friend who roused him to open in the first place suggested he try his luck at a book stand instead. “I said, ‘I’m going to open in front of Zabar’s, where I used to have a beautiful bookstore? What a comedown!’” He set up a few blocks away instead, on 86th Street. “But I knew [this] would happen sooner or later: Some guy came by and said, ‘Didn’t you own Bloomsday?’ I looked him directly in the eye and said, Yes, I did! The next day, I opened up in front of Zabar’s and did fantastic for [over] 15 years.” The success led him to open yet another brick-and-mortar venue around the corner—a decision he regrets.
Mentioning the “laziness of New Yorkers”—“they buy everything on the Internet, from food to sex and everything in-between”—he eventually shuttered the shop, but not before first meeting Roth.
Today Adelman sells mostly on Amazon: from the signed Roth books he still owns to review copies and more. (“Of his later ones, I have a decent amount [left],” he says.) He also rents out two separate storage facilities on the Upper West Side, spaces whose looks add to his overall image.
Speaking Italian fluently and dressed in raggedy-looking jeans and a simple shirt with a pack of Camels peeking out the breast pocket, Adelman tells the story of his life. He’s sitting in a space filled with books, signed posters, an out-of-place-looking Mac computer and a dusty piano, exuding a passion for his very own tales that leads most to ask, “Why not write your own book?”
Although coming alive while describing his life overseas and his New York adventures, when discussing Roth Adelman’s eyes turn sad, eventually coalescing into a cry undoubtedly catalyzed by Roth’s passing back in May 2018.
Of course, such proximity to a literary legend, especially one renowned for his eschewal of publicity and the media in general, calls for a number of queries, starting with, What was Roth’s favorite Roth book? “Sabbath’s Theater,” Adelman says.
Roth’s thoughts on Trump, Adelman says: “When he was first elected, Philip was devastated. [After all], the Upper West Side is the heart of liberal America, and if you’re not [a liberal], you’re anathema.”
How about the author’s relationship with his parents? Here, Adelman recounts a story told to him by Roth himself. Before the release of Portnoy’s Complaint, the author took his parents out to dinner. “He said [to them], ‘Listen, people will think that I’m describing you guys, but it’s all fiction. It’s going to make a big splash, you’re probably going to get calls from reporters, but you don’t have to answer them.’” Years later, Roth approached his father while recalling the dinner and asked about his mother’s reaction, who at the time cried. The reason? She thought he had “delusions of grandeur.” At that, Adelman explodes into a fit of laughter that turns into a muted, simple cry when recalling the last time he saw the author. “I called him [because he had to sign some books for me], he didn’t call me back, which was odd,” Adelman says. “So then I texted him and he texted back, ‘I’m in hospital.’”
Adelman ventured out to Columbia Presbytarian to visit him. “The minute I walked into his room, I said that’s it. And he knew it too.”
After close to two hours with Adelman and Roth’s ghost, one question becomes more and more urgent: Was Adelman’s love and devotion for the author a result of the money he made selling Roth’s signed books (“My 401(k),” jokes the bookseller), which he never sold at a premium?
“Oh, no,” responds Adelman. “I considered him my best friend ever.”