The Drama Book Shop
The new drama book shop with a swirling mass of books strung up all across the store
Photo of the current Drama Book Shop in 2021

There is a hole in the fabric of the theatre landscape in New York City and it is in the shape of a storefront. A respite for many not only from Times Square, but also from the constant hustle that is theatre. It was a place for actors to gather monologues, directors to find new plays, and for playwrights to find inspiration in the footsteps that walked before them and, even more important, for those who walk beside them. There is no place on earth like The Drama Book Shop and as it sits, shuttered in hiatus for more than half the year, its absence can be felt across the community that called it home.

An Unofficial, Incomplete Timeline of Moments In The History of The Drama Book Shop

• 1917 Founded by the Drama League as the Drama League Bookshop for Plays at 7 West 42nd Street.

• 1923 Sold to Drama League member Marjorie Seligman and was incorporated as an independent business on 47th Street.

• 1958 Seligman sold the store to Arthur Seelen, moving the shop, which was housed in a brownstone on 52nd Street.

• 1969 Arthur Seelen hired Rozanne Seelen as his assistant. They later married.

• 1979 A fire ruins a collection of signed first edition books.

• 1982 The shop moves from a commercial building on 52nd Street to Seventh Avenue and 48th Street.

• 2000 Arthur Seelen passes away, leaving the shop to his wife Rozanne.

• 2001 The shop moves to 250 West 40th Street

• 2002 The shop’s Arthur Seelen Theater became the space where Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote much of the music for In The Heights, which went on to win the 2008 Tony Award® for Best Musical.

• 2011 Received a Tony Awards® Honor

• 2016 A burst water pipe floods the store damaging some of their stock. Led by Lin Manuel Miranda, many dramatists and school groups rallied around the shop, buying and signing scripts, scores, CDs, and other merchandise.

• 2019 Due to escalating rent, The Drama Book Shop closes its current location, but not after being purchased by Thomas Kail, Jeffrey Seller, James L. Nederlander, and Lin-Manuel Miranda. New location and opening date to be announced. [Editors Note: The Drama Book Shop reopened in 2021 at 266 W 39th St, New York, NY 10018.]

There was something warm and familiar about the Shop, and whether it was the first or thousandth time you walked through its doors, it felt like coming home. Maybe it was in its colorful floors, and the walls stocked with plays or the mismatched furniture and friendly staff who never hurried artists away, it gave theatre artists a place to pass their days. It created a hub for collaborators to meet one another. But, most of all, in an industry that can make you feel so nameless, it gave many of us a place where people could learn our name. As playwright Crystal Skillman shares, “We were greeted with warmth and love from the staff, who are talented artists themselves, and we could see a future for our work. It’s in the people reading our plays, and our friends’ plays, talking to each other about plays. It is a place where one can buy plays sure, but more than that, it is an NYC community with a rich history of legendary writers whose plays line the walls, and who visit the shop for the same reason we all do - to find solace in this passion we love so dearly that we call theater.”

While one might argue that its most well-known location was at 40th Street, the Drama Book Shop has been in existence for over a century. It has done much to survive the harsh New York City real estate, living a largely nomadic life as it moved from spot to spot and gathering a following of theatre artists so it is a great relief that it will not only be coming back at some point, but that its new home will most likely be its final destination. Pulitzer finalist playwright and solo artist Dael Orlandersmith had been going to the Shop since she was fifteen years old, following it from location to location. She says, “I found it to be MAGICAL…exciting…I found myself staring at the people, the ACTORS saying, ‘One day I will be one of YOU.’”

The word “magic” seems to come up a lot when discussing this Shop. That might have something to do with the fact that Lin-Manuel Miranda met life-long collaborator Tommy Kail and workshopped most of In The Heights there. Or maybe it’s because finding a place of reprieve is such a rarity, especially in the middle of New York City. Of course, it might just be because there is an element of magic to theatre as it evokes the ghosts of all who stood before us. Having a store which emulated that was something rare and truly special.

In its absence, there is really nowhere else to go to discover new plays in physical form. Whereas large chain bookstores carve out play sections that often seem like a hurried afterthought, The Drama Book Shop put us center stage. One could argue that they helped provide playwrights with a way to have a voice, to break through the well-known and well-worn American canon to be an active part of the conversation. During my six years of undergraduate and graduate education, I had to read Hamlet about five times, along with Arthur Miller, Samuel Beckett, Tennessee Williams and Harold Pinter—all giants in their own rights—but my education lacked playwrights who were currently making theatre, who were actively sculpting the new canon. I left school barely understanding what the American theatre really sounded like, but the shelves of the Shop contained an education for anyone looking to learn. As playwright Nelson Marcano-Diaz shares, “I didn’t train formally as a playwright…so going to Drama Book Shop on the regular might as well be called my MFA program.”

Like many, I learned a lot from the Shop. I learned who I am as a playwright by reading my contemporaries, by expanding my classic foundation of theatre to include the words of Stephen Adly Guirgis, Lynn Nottage, and Dominique Morisseau. Suddenly, I could see a place for myself in theatre. I could see the rules I had been taught being broken up in ways that not only inspired me, but ultimately turned me into the playwright I am today.

My history with the shop began in 2012, when I took part in Write Out Front, an event put together by Micheline Auger. Playwrights wrote in the window of the shop, their screens on display for whoever walked past. I was a fledgling playwright and, though the Shop had been at its 40th Street location since 2001, it was my first time visiting. That was also the day I met longtime employee, Freddy Padilla.

To many, Freddy was the face of the shop, often the first one to greet folks upon entering (along with Chester the dog), and always ready for a recommendation or two. He worked at the 40th Street location for eighteen years, from the moment the shop opened [at the 40th Street location] until the moment it closed; one of the only employees who holds that distinction.

Freddy helped build the shelves at 40th Street; he put them up and took them down at the end of its run—shelves like the recommendation shelves. Freddy, like all employees, recommended plays. He specifically sought, recommended and advocated for plays that fell off the beaten trail of the classics, looking for plays that embraced pop culture by playwrights like Adam Szymkowicz, Qui Nguyen, and Kristoffer Diaz. He was an advocate for plays that are led by people of color, that contain complex (if not badass) female-identifying characters. His taste and sensibilities fall outside the norm as he introduced countless playwrights to a new American canon of theatre. His shelf would frequently sell out, and he helped construct a broader understanding of what theatre can be as he elevated these voices.

I met Freddy the day I wrote in the window of The Drama Book Shop and I was lucky enough to get to marry him six years later. So, the Shop holds an extra special place in my heart because it’s not only the place where I learned how to be a playwright, but it’s the place that introduced me to my best friend. I would meet Freddy after work at the shop, stand by the register, and wait for him so we could go home together. I would loiter by the shelves of new plays or chat with the employees to get their opinions on new shows or receive invitations to their shows.

More often than not, I would stand by the shelves and watch customers as they quietly read stacks of plays, probably discovering their newest favorite playwrights, deciding what plays they wanted to produce or what monologues they wanted to tackle. I would see people meeting one another, bumping into friends, gathering up the courage to talk to a playwright that they admire who just so happened to be at the shop that day, I could see them sparking new collaborations, new friendships, new love.

That Shop was nothing if not full of love. And sure, love has no known form so it isn’t something that we can see with the human eye. But I believe that when you stood in that Shop, among all the plays, filled to the brim with artists at all stages of their careers, embracing fellow artists, feeding their souls, when you stood in that Shop, you could see love.

Photo of Gina Femia
Gina Femia

’s work has been seen/developed at MCC Theater, Playwrights Horizons, EST, Page 73, Playwrights’ Center, CTG, Theater of NOTE, Panndora Productions, among others. Gina is a 2019-2022 Core Writer with the Playwrights Center, and an alum of EST Youngblood, Page73’s Interstate 73, Pipeline Theatre’s PlayLab, New Georges' Audrey Residency, Nashville Rep’s Ingram New Plays Lab, and Parsnip Ship’s Radio Roots Writer’s Group.