Joy around the corner

A love newsletter, for a change.

There are a lot of things I want to say right now. My mind is a snow globe of chaotic debris, and at a time of year when many people are slowing down for the holidays, I’m all riled up.

I could talk about the groundswell of support for the Substackers Against Nazis letter, or the handful of heinous responses we’ve received, or the lack of response from the Substack founders. I could talk about how the presumptive Republican candidate for president is quite literally quoting Adolph Hitler in his campaign speeches, or how the killing of more than 20,000 people in Gaza makes me so sick that if I think about it too hard, I fear I’ll never return from the bottom of that well. I could talk about how Elise Stefanik duped some naive people into thinking she cared about Jews when she skewered Ivy League presidents about antisemitism and then turned around and went down to Mar-a-Lago to hang out with her “friend,” Donald Trump. You know, the guy quoting Hitler.

But yesterday I decided to spend the afternoon offline doing something fun and a little whimsical and frivolous. So instead of skating down a hallway of horror, I’m going to tell you about something nice.

Monday marked the 25th anniversary of the theatrical release of Nora Ephron’s You’ve Got Mail, and I was invited by On Location Tours to check out a press preview of their new walking tour. It was, to date, the best press invite I’ve ever received.

I remember seeing the film with my parents when it first came out—probably on Christmas Day, as is Jewish tradition—when I was 11. Admittedly so much of it went over my head, but at the time I think I understood the novelty: A film singularly focused on how we communicate online. But even though it was so much about the future, it remains an evergreen love letter to New York’s Upper West Side. We need more love letters.

You’ve Got Mail, the story of an independent bookseller and a corporate book baron-turned who go from enemies to lovers, is based on the 1937 Hungarian play Parfumerie. But it wasn’t the first film to use it as source material. The Jimmy Stewart romcom The Shop Around the Corner came out in 1940, and a Broadway musical, She Loves Me, premiered in 1963. (When my high school did a production in 2004, you better believe I landed the Meg Ryan role.) Parts of it have aged very poorly—like the whole Tom Hanks realizing his professional enemy, Meg Ryan, is his pen pal but not telling her for a while and gaslighting her—but I’ve done my very best to remain enchanted by the whole thing two and half decades later.

The walking tour took us all around the Upper West Side, which you realize is actually quite enormous when you’re hoofing it in freezing wind. Some of the landmarks remain the same: The brownstone used as the exterior of Kathleen’s (Ryan) apartment; Verdi Square, where Kathleen tells Joe (Tom Hanks) she hopes his mango is ripe; Gray’s Papaya, where they grab a hotdog; and, of course, Zabar’s grocery store. Sadly other’s have been lost to the sands of time and rising rents, like iconic H&H Bagels, which is now a Verizon store; The antiques store used as the exterior of the Shop Around the Corner is now a dry cleaners; and Cafe Lalo, the site of Kathleen and Joe’s would-be first date is at least temporarily closed because of a legal dispute. 

Seeing the changes to the neighborhood in the intervening years reminded me of a quote from the film. “Someone, some foolish person, will probably think it's a tribute to this city, the way it keeps changing on you, the way you can never count on it, or something,” Kathleen says when her store finally closes. “I know because that's the sort of thing I'm always saying. But the truth is... I'm heartbroken.”

And it’d be understandable to feel heartbroken as chains continue to eat up the neighborhood, rents skyrocket, and corners become unrecognizable. Yet on the flip side, there’s hope. 

In 1998, it seemed like Barnes & Noble—the book chain that inspired You’ve Got Mail’s fictional Fox Books—would destroy bookselling and book culture as we knew it. At the time, it was impossible to imagine what could overtake their mall-like stores with built-in Starbucks. Then came Amazon and e-readers, and for a good while it seemed, again, that there couldn’t possibly be a reality beyond this. And then COVID hit, decimating most of the independents already hanging on by a thread.

But then something funny happened as people started coming out of lockdown. People’s e-readers started collecting dust. They realized that it’s actually nice to skim a physical copy of a book before you buy it. And going to the bookstore, for children and adults alike, is an event. The New York Times reported in 2022 that 300 independent bookstores have opened in the last few years—many opened by business owners of color. 

“It’s not just a bookstore, it really is a de facto community space,” author Ava Chin told the Times of Yu and Me Books in Manhattan’s Chinatown. “I don’t think we realized we needed a bookstore until we had one.”

And so in some ways You’ve Got Mail is a sort of tribute to the way the city keeps changing and the way you can never count on it. But a fun fact I learned on the tour reminded me that you can always count on the memories.

Our lovely guide Grace explained that the film’s producers had originally asked Barnes and Noble if they could use their Upper West Side location as the set for Fox Books. But B&N said absolutely not, your movie is about how much we suck. (Which, fair.) So instead they chose the former Barney’s department store on 17th Street and 7th Avenue to bring Fox Books to life, and at that detail, my eyes lit up—for it was there that my mom, a salesgirl working her way through social work school, met my dad, a stylish customer.

Even though the store has long since closed, my family can count on this memory. And new ones are always just around the corner.

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