By Matthew Friedman
The Upper West Side lost a longtime neighborhood fixture last month with the passing of Johnny Avery. A sign on the door of his former shop, on the west side of Columbus Avenue between 85th Street and 86th Street, alerted the neighborhood to his death. He was 75 years old.
Known to most just as “Johnny” and to some as “New York Johnny,” the man ran the small shop, Johnny’s Books, for decades and decades. Selling all types of books and items such as sunglasses and scarves, Mr. Avery would sit on the street outside his store, always accompanied by a new song streaming from a radio next to him. In a 2006 profile of Johnny’s Books, author Caroline Dworin observed that throughout all of the neighborhood’s gentrification, “the shop has remained much the same, a tumbledown homestead, an anachronism of clutter.”
“He was not only a part of the neighborhood, but he was the neighborhood,” recalled Ray Smith, who has lived near the shop for more than thirty years. At the shop’s peak, Mr. Smith noted, Mr. Avery was always there. Not rain nor snow nor a blazing summer heat wave could deter him.
Upper West Siders recalled that Mr. Avery had a special hello for almost everyone in the neighborhood and that he treated those on the street with a friendly politeness. “With his crazy, abstract sense of humor, he distilled a moment down into a greeting,” said Michael McGuire, who began hanging out in the shop when he moved to the Upper West Side at the age of nine in the early 1970s. “My mom felt safe if I sat with Johnny,” he said.
This sense of safety extended past Mr. McGuire. “He told Gregory and other neighborhood kids that if anyone gave them a hard time they should come see him,” wrote Susan Dominus in a 2008 article for The New York Times. “They did, but they came just for fun, too, whiling away the hours reading Fantastic Four comics, listening to Mr. Avery — he was always just Johnny — talk about the mystical powers of the color purple, or simply hanging out, spilling out among the racks of magazines and books that Mr. Avery put out on the street every morning.”
Passersby near the old alley remembered Mr. Avery’s obsession with the color purple. At one point, they said, he replaced the perfectly functional orange awning just to be able to paint the new one his favorite color. This and other eccentricities, when coupled with his neighborliness, made Johnny an area mainstay. “Everyone knew Johnny,” declared Ellie, an Upper West Sider for 79 years.
By the mid-2000s, though, people said, Mr. Avery realized that the shop’s time was dwindling. “He was okay to let the shop sort of have its sunset,” Mr. McGuire remembered. Johnny no longer opened up every day, and, according to The New York Times, his landlord evicted the store in 2007.
City Council member Helen Rosenthal, who represents the Upper West Side, sent out a statement regarding Johnny’s death:
“I was deeply sorry to hear about Mr. Avery’s passing and want to express my gratitude to him for all his kindness over the years to his fellow Upper West Siders and for the wonderful creative and artistic contributions he made to our community. Johnny was a wonderful example of the richness of our neighborhood. His passing highlights the loss we are experiencing of some of the neighbors and businesses that have built the unique character of the Upper West Side. Maintaining that diversity is one of our most important tasks.”
The neighborhood has continued to change since the shop closed. The door to the shop is now a fire exit for an apartment building and last year H & H Midtown Bagels East replaced the laundromat that for years had flanked the shop on its south side. The younger people on Columbus Avenue hurry past the old alley, failing to notice the small sign on the shop’s door. For the Upper West Siders who recall the shop’s bright purple awning and Mr. Avery’s friendly banter, though, the sign brings a sense of melancholy. They remember an old friend and a neighborhood of the past, hoping that they can carry on even just a bit of the bookseller’s spirit.
There will be a memorial service for Johnny on Saturday, July 15 at 11 a.m. Meet at 72nd Street and Central Park West, Northeast corner.