Brooklyn Eagle recently featured “Astor Place Vintage” (Touchstone Books/Simon & Schuster), a novel by New York-based writer Stephanie Lehmann, in which the past and the future intersect through the lives of two young women.
Amanda Rosenbloom, owner of a shop called Astor Place Vintage, is drawn to the history she unfolds through a century-old journal while 20-year-old Olive Westcott, who lives in the midst of Victorian ideals that constrain her freedom, yearns for liberties that the future might bring. Amanda’s glimpse into the past begins when she visits a Manhattan apartment to appraise and purchase clothing from a wealthy, elderly woman. It is there that she discovers a journal concealed in the lining of a fur muff – a journal that belonged to Olive.
Olive had moved to New York with her father in 1907 in the hopes of becoming a department store buyer. But when her father passes away, her finances leave her in no position to pursue her ambition. She instead accepts a low-paying job as a saleswoman at the Siegel-Cooper Department Store (the building still stands today as a Bed, Bath & Beyond on 18th Street & 6th Avenue).
As Amanda becomes increasingly captivated by Olive’s journal, her life begins to fall apart. She seeks to uncover the mysterious content in Olive’s final entries, and by forging connections to the past, Amanda takes steps toward embracing her future.
Lehmann will celebrate the release of her novel – which has received rave reviews from esteemed writers and critics – in Brooklyn on June 27, with a reading and signing at Bay Ridge’s BookMark Shoppe. In anticipation of the author’s Brooklyn appearance, Brooklyn Eagle checked in with Lehmann. She shared with us which book inspired her novel and revealed a few details about what she’s working on now.
How did your idea for this story originate?
My previous novels all took place in contemporary New York City. I wanted to do something different this time around, and the idea of setting my novel in the past intrigued me. Living in the city, I find that the past can feel very present. The architecture is a constant reminder that New York will continue on, but we are only temporary visitors. I love to think about people walking down the same streets a hundred years ago. That led me to the concept of writing about two people who lived here at different times, and having their stories eventually converge.
Then I read a novel that inspired me: “The Ladies’ Paradise” by Emile Zola. It’s set in a huge department store in 1860s Paris, and the story centers on a young woman who arrives in Paris without any money and takes a job as a shopgirl.
So I decided to use the setting of a department store in my novel. And I quickly realized that store would be Siegel-Cooper, the original occupant of the most beautiful beaux-arts building on 18th Street and Sixth Avenue. It’s now a Bed, Bath and Beyond.
For the present-time story, I hit on the idea of a vintage clothing store owner. It made perfect sense. The modern character would romanticize the past, and the character from the past would aspire to being modern. Once I nailed that down, I knew I had something.
The book is deeply rooted in the New York landscape – did you do much research in preparation?
I did tons of research, and there is loads of information out there thanks to Google Books and having the New York Public Library near at hand. It’s difficult for an obsessive person like me – who gets very interested in what I’m focused on “now” and have a hard time transitioning into what I “should” be doing – to get things done. As a matter of fact, I’m still doing research for my website, where I’m posting lots of background information on life at the turn of the 20th century. I’m also working up a presentation on department stores, and how they were originally about much more than just shopping, and led to unprecedented freedom and independence for women. Really!
Do you find New York City to be a particularly inspiring and supportive environment for writers?
I used to meet writers in workshops, but long ago I stopped showing my work while in progress, so I haven’t belonged to any groups in a while. (Though I have to say, leading up to this publication, I’ve found a whole new world of online groups of writers, and readers, who are very supportive in terms of navigating social media and publicity.)
The city itself, however, is tremendously inspiring and I find the atmosphere totally conducive for the writing process. I tend to be “inside my head” a lot, whether writing or thinking about what I’m writing, and it’s such a solitary pursuit, so I love being able to wander the streets totally surrounded by people without being required to speak with any of them. My family sometimes complains that I act that way around the apartment, too!
What does your writing routine entail?
These days it’s something like this: Wake up, have coffee and toast, look on Etsy and Ebay for vintage clothing, answer emails, post on Facebook and/or Twitter and/or Pinterest, check emails again, have more coffee along with something sweet as bribery to start writing, start writing, take a break and go online to waste time, drink more coffee and bribe with sugar again, get back to writing, go online… This basically takes place all day and into the evening, except for when I’m at my part-time job or a family member needs attention. Somewhere in there I make myself eat something without sugar and leave the apartment to experience that inspiring city out there. Jeez, when you actually see it all spelled out like that it’s kind of horrifying.
What’s the best book you’ve read this year?
“I WANT THAT! How We All Became Shoppers” by Thomas Hine. I’m very into non-fiction these days, and this book is a wonderful, perceptive cultural history about consumer society. I love history when it’s not just about war or politics and helps me understand how the world got this way. (In other words, when it includes women.)
What are you working on now?
That’s a big secret. Okay, I can say that it’s another historical, but it takes place in my home town of San Francisco. The thing is, I’m having a struggle, because I really want to write about New York again. So my characters are trying to get in a car and drive clear across the country. And they hardly even had roads then! I don’t know how this is going to work itself out.
The June 27 event will begin at 7:30 p.m. The BookMark Shoppe is located at 8415 3rd Avenue in Bay Ridge.
Stephanie Lehmann received her B.A. at U.C. Berkeley and an M.A. in English from New York University. She has taught novel writing at Mediabistro and at Salon.com, where her essays have been published. Like Olive and Amanda, she lives in New York City. Visit AstorPlaceVintage.com to learn more.