On 160th street in Washington Heights, steps from the oldest colonial house in New York City, the Morris-Jumel Mansion, lies a uniquely New York property. Kurt Thometz, a book collector, lives in the 128-year-old brownstone with his family. At the ground level is Jumel Terrace Books, a gem of a book store, and – for out of towners – a bed and breakfast that connects to a backyard.
Kurt Thometz, the owner and shop keeper, moved into the house in 2004. Mr. Thometz, from Minnesota, has curated libraries for famous writers and magazine moguls. He spent a career immersed in African-American literature, reading and collecting books about American history, music, art, civil rights, and life in north Manhattan. He has a knack for finding rare, out of print, beautiful editions and is perpetually refining his private library.
Visiting the store on a snowy day, my friends Sean, Linda and I were awed by his extensive knowledge of Washington Heights, Hamilton Heights and Sugar Hill. We asked about the history of the shop, a long, serendipitous story involving a trip to Cuba, his wife landing a gig with Celine Dion, and a chance meeting on the front stoop with the former building owner. We could tell he’s told the story a hundred times before, each listener getting different pieces of the narrative. The books on display are organized by period and topic, rich colors and interesting bindings beg to be held and looked through. Some are slipped in crevices between paintings, religious sculptures and a shrine.
As we talked about the changing demographics of the neighborhood, two young guys tapped on the glass. “Is this a store?” one of them asked. In just a minute the two boys were standing in the shop, excited to have stumbled across what feels like a well-kept secret. Thometz wasted no time taking the opportunity to talk to the newly arrived guests about literature. With their arrival, I realized Mr. Thometz’s larger goal. His presence in the community is quiet, but the storefront serves to entice people to learn something about the history of the neighborhood and preserve the soul of what attracted him to New York in the 1970s.