Neighborhood

My Harlem: Cash for Gold

Development Assistant William Armstrong takes us on a tour of the neighborhood

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  • Photo: William Armstrong

  • Photo: William Armstrong

  • Photo: William Armstrong

  • Photo: William Armstrong

The glow of a Harlem brownstone, as it is cooled by the evening, is what I look forward to on my daily meanderings around Harlem. I like to believe that each brownstone represents a chapter in the illustrious history of Harlem. While walking on my daily commute to work, I look for a story in each brownstone I pass. Multiple doorbells tell me which ones are now apartments and iron gates reveal newer buildings, while differences in decay lead me to suspect whether additions had been made to the exterior. While growing up in the suburbs of Maryland, the most exciting neighborhood observations I could make were newly paved speed bumps—so imagine how my affection for city architecture has replaced the vinyl siding I’m used to.

There's always something new to arrest my attention: an art gallery hidden here, a bakery, barbershop or small boutique there. The beauty of a brownstone mixed with the energy of a local business reinforces why I love Harlem so much. It's invigorating when you find something that can only be found in your community. As if collecting pieces of gold, I wander, capturing experiences only I can keep.

My most recent treasured experience lead me to uptown’s only antiquarian bookstore, Jumel Terrace Books, in Harlem’s historic Sugar Hill district. In a beautiful 1891 brownstone, which also functions as a bed and breakfast, Kurt Thometz has one of the most fascinating homes in Harlem. Thometz’ home was once owned by Dr. Thomas Matthews, the first black neuro-surgeon to graduate from Harvard Medical School. His reputation was so prominently known throughout New York that Queen Elizabeth II asked to have tea with him while here for the 1976 Bicentennial. Not only has his living room hosted tea with a queen, but his home was also once a pop art house in the 1970’s (evidenced by the hot pink radiator in the living room). Thometz bought the home from a fellow rare book dealer, he told me, before quickly rattling off the history of his home and the surrounding community. He told me which jazz legend, black leader or artist lived where, and guided me through the history of the oldest home in Manhattan—the Jumel Terrace mansion directly across the street. After a tour of the four libraries in his home, he led me to the bookstore on the ground floor of his home.

Thometz selects what he sells based on who lived in the neighborhood. To him, the bookstore is more for the community and socializing than for a source of income. Organized by categories such as R&B, Autobiography, Art, Drama, etc., the selection is so overwhelming I had an extremely hard time making a choice. Caught between his rarest book, The Confessions of Rick James: Memoirs of a Super Freak, and his best seller I Was a White Slave in Harlem, I came away with three relatively cheap and rare finds: Time on Two Crosses: The Collected Writings of Bayard Rustin ($45), I Was a White Slave in Harlem ($35) and Beware ($50), a catalogue of work from artist Michael Ray Charles (b. 1967). I truly paid cash for gold, not only walking away with chapters in books, but also unlocking one of Harlem’s many brownstone chapters.

For more information, visit jtbandb.wordpress.com and jumelterracebooks.com