In “The Book Refuge” (paywalled), published in the June 23 issue of The New Yorker, Janet Malcolm profiles the Argosy Bookshop on East 59th Street in Manhattan. Founded by Louis Cohen, “the seventh child of a Lower East Side immigrant family,” and run since 1991 by Cohen’s three daughters, the shop is a New York institution, selling old and rare books as well as autographs, maps, prints, and paintings.
Why “Argosy”? Malcolm tells the story:
In 1925, Cohen borrowed five hundred dollars from an uncle and opened his own bookstore, on Fourth Avenue (then the heart of the city’s second-hand-book business), filling it with the books he had accumulated. In his autobiography, he explains how he chose the name Argosy. First, he wanted a name that started with the letter “A,” “as it might appear foremost on any list of bookstores.” That crass criterion done with, “ I ran through some reference books, and selected ‘Argosy’ as my choice, as it had romance attached to it. It symbolized treasure and rarities carried by old Spanish galleons.”
I wrote about another institution with the same name—Argosy University—in 2011. From my post:
I’d always thought “argosy” was related to “Argonaut,” literally “a sailor on the Argo”—the ship in which Jason and his crewmates sought the Golden Fleece. (California Gold Rush adventurers were also called “argonauts” because they pursued a type of Golden Fleece; in fact, that’s the context in which I first learned that word.) Argo means “the swift” in Greek, but argosy has a different and much later etymology: it came into English in the 1570s from Italian Ragusea, “a vessel of Ragusa.” Ragusa, a port on the Adriatic, is the modern-day Dubrovnik.
There’s an Argosy Bookstore in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 film Vertigo, which is set in San Francisco. That Argosy was modeled after a real San Francisco bookstore, the Argonaut, which was founded by Robert D. Haines in 1941 and is still in business, run by the founder’s son and grandchildren.
Bonus link: On Argo, the movie.