Book event in Brooklyn Bridge Park—Monday, July 7, 7 pm

Once again we will be kicking off the Books Beneath the Bridge series in Brooklyn Bridge Park, this time with a talk by Elizabeth Mitchell about the history of the Statue of Liberty.  She will be discussing her new book on the subject, Liberty’s Torch (Atlantic Monthly Press).

The event will take place on the steps of the Granite Prospect, with downtown Manhattan, and Miss Liberty herself, in the background.

This past fall, Mark Cersosimo shot part of this short film inside Freebird. Aside from being grateful for making the store appear so attractive, The Roving Typist’s subjects (C.D. Hermelin and his portable typewriter) are right up our analog alley. He’s more manual, while we strive for Selectric, but it’s all the same in the end. Enjoy this bit of old school style streaming on your new fangled machines.


Join us at holiday book fair, Saturday, December 7, in Park Slope

Running with the Pigs at Seabrings Mill

It didn’t take long to get a response to our query about the possible existence of Dowd’s Island in the Gowanus inlet before Red Hook was developed into an industrial and commercial port.  Eymund Diegel, an old friend of the store and a font of information on Brooklyn’s much maligned canal gave us his best interpretation of where the island might have been situated. He also sent us the map above which show the original contours of the Red Hook waterfront:

Based on the geographic description, I think Dowd’s Island was the informal name for the cluster of small islands (or a small island at Hicks and Wolcott) that were eventually landfilled for the Red Hook public housing projects. “Dowd Island” was probably  the island at Wolcott Street separated from the mainland by the artificially dug out Red Hook Canal. Ginger Creek, the natural tidal creek, would have been just west of it at what is now Otsego street (see Ratzer Map above)
The adjacent A shaped beach (go to Tasmania for a 1851 view of that area) matches the Brooklyn Eagle’s description. It would have been accessible through the Seabrings Mill dam works, keeping in mind that anything in green shown on the Ratzer Map would have been flooded with three feet of water during high tide: That is what the pig racers would have been splashing around in.
H.P. Lovecraft wrote the satanic novel The Horror in Red Hook starring detective Thomas F. Mallone in this neighborhood. Just in case you needed more “stories” to entertain wide eyed children at Freebird.
This “tinkerville” evolved into a “Hooverville” in the 1930’s, a place where the down and out could survive the Great Depression.
Thanks Eymund!

Down on Dowd’s Island

5 Volume History of Brooklyn, Queens, and Long Island (1925) from Freebird Books on Square Market

While posting on our new Square Market page (where we are starting to feature and sell a variety of our New York books), I discovered this tantalizing anecdote about a lost island that may have once existed at the foot of Hicks Street in the Gowanus Inlet.  The 5-volume history of Brooklyn and Long Island (see above) is a weird, disjointed 1925 collection drawing from a variety of archival sources. 

One chapter called “Famous Founders of the City” peculiarly features a man named Dowd who claimed the island as his home in 1830s.  The account appears to be lifted almost verbatim from an October 7, 1888, Brooklyn Eagle article entitled “Down on Dowd’s Island.” However, the 1925 history sanitizes some of the more lively writing by the Eagle reporter. No other record remains (at least on the internet) of Dowd’s Island or the Gingermill Creek and the Penny Bridge that perhaps once defined Red Hook south of our store, but we will let the Eagle tell the story of that lively scene that even by 1888 was a distant memory:

As for fishing in the waters that surrounded the island and in Gingermill Creek, which ran from the foot of Columbia street into the bay, it could not be excelled, while mussels, clams and natural born oysters were so abundant that visitors looked upon those shell fish with contempt. The Penny Bridge at the head of Hamilton avenue, where toll was gathered at the rate of 1 cent per head, was a kind of annex to the island. There was a boat house and a tavern there, kept by a Mr. Weils, whose son, William, is now engaged in the shoe business in this city. It was a lonesome, desolate place, having a long sandy beach in the shape of the letter A, and at the point of the so called letter Rocky Point was situated. It was a dangerous spot for all kind of craft, and some of the rocks remain there yet; but it was a great resort for fishermen…As already stated, it was settled by artistic tinkers, who tramped by day shouting out: “Any kittles to mind,” and at night or on Sundays a stranger could be accommodated with any kind of amusement he was seeking after. It was a fashion in those days and considered excellent sport for a downtowner, who, being belated, after a day’s fishing and seeing no boats handy, to seize on a fat swine and straddle the brute, who, to get rid of its rider and tormentor, always took to the water and swam for the main land, carrying its human cargo on its back. This was what the ardent sport desired, but very often he got more than he bargained for in the shape of a pair of black eyes and a bleeding proboscis from one of the many tinkers who seemed to be always lying in wait for the sportive stragglers. It was a queer settlement, and the people who settled in that locality were more than queer.

—The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, October 7, 1888

A new sign after almost 10 years in existence.  And a real beauty as designed by Bruce Viemeister!  Many thanks Bruce.

A new sign after almost 10 years in existence.  And a real beauty as designed by Bruce Viemeister!  Many thanks Bruce.

Event in Brooklyn Bridge Park, Monday, July 8, 7 pm

Join us Monday, July 8, in Brooklyn Bridge Park for a group draw led by illustrator, James Gulliver Hancock, author of All the Buildings in New York (That I’ve Drawn So Far).

For the second year in a row we help kick off the “Books Beneath the Bridge” series, in which Brooklyn indies help program author events on the Granite Prospect of the recently developed Brooklyn Bridge Park.

Starting at 7 pm, shortly before the sun sets behind the outdoor stage, James Gulliver Hancock will lead the audience through his own process in documenting the buildings of New York through line drawing.  And he will help us in our own attempts to sketch the skyline just beyond.  Guaranteed one of the best still life studies you’ll ever have.

Details: Monday, July 8, 7pm

Talk / signing with James Gulliver Hancock, author of All the Buildings in New York

Granite Prospect, Brooklyn Bridge Park
Free and open to the public

Directions to the park:

Freebird Books

Photos of Sackett Street from the 1960s


It’s been a while since we posted more photos of the neighborhood circa 1960-70, but we were motivated to return to the project after meeting a friend of King Berry’s last night (during King’s graduation party), who happened to grow up in the Puerto Rican community along the South Brooklyn waterfront. After identifying many of the people in our Flickr sets—including one that was of him working on reclaiming an Irving Street lot—he inspired to us to continue uploading images.  We hope to talk to him further about his memories and his knowledge of the neighborhood as it existed then, but meanwhile here is another taste of what these blocks once looked like.

The latest set is one focusing on a long lost ballpark on Sackett Street, a “poor people’s field,” built upon yet another empty lot nearby—ruins of the once thriving Brooklyn industrial complex laid low after containerization gutted the waterfront.  

Graduation party for Columbia Street’s King Berry this Saturday, June 8, 4 to 10 pm


Anyone regularly walking the stretch of Columbia Street between Kane and Degraw is accustomed to the sight of an impossibly slight, impeccably dressed man hunched over a stool, sipping coffee in one hand and elegantly cupping a cigarette in the other.

King Berry is the unofficial mayor around here and at 70 years old is capping off a long career in service to the community with something he forgot to get along the way: a Bachelor of Science in public administration. We celebrate that milestone this Saturday in the backyard of Freebird. Please join us to congratulate King!

Those who have crossed his path, and it is his path we all cross down this end of Columbia Street, are instantly infected by his boundless enthusiasm and his outsized heart. It is astonishing that he is heading into his seventh decade. He remains as unwrinkled and sharp as his crisp Oxford shirts.

King’s degree is from Medgar Evers College, which is oddly fitting. Evers became a Civil Rights icon 50 years ago this month after dying at the hands of Southern supremacists, but his true legacy is as a fearless community organizer. The loss of Evers coincided roughly at the moment King gained his political consciousness. A young father (his daughter was born in 1964), he had dropped out of high school to work at a toy factory in Sunset Park—peculiarly enough stenciling ABCs to the tops of chalkboards.

It was after getting suspended by management for insubordination that he left behind the factory grind and 75 cents an hour to dedicate himself to public service. Inspired by LBJ’s Great Society he helped form a non-profit called Grass Roots, which worked with youths in the Fort Greene neighborhood. King was the de facto bookkeeper, writing up grant proposals, managing budgets, and overseeing a budget that grew by the end of the ‘60s to $200,000 (which was allotted for classes on technology, GED prep, Swahili, and basic economics).

After Grass Roots was dissolved, King never strayed far from outreach—he was Director of Community Relations for Ft. Greene’s Cumberland Hospital through much of the 1970s (arranging for technicians to screen local children for lead poisoning and sickle cell anemia), a human resources manager for Catholic Charities, Brooklyn coordinator for the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and a compliance agent for the NY State Department of Taxation and Finance. He has remained a steadfast advocate for the poor and the elderly, especially in his more recent home (at least since the ‘90s) on the Columbia Street waterfront.

How did he come to be called King? It’s a nickname he inherited from his father, who was named Solomon. But it fits him like a crown. His is a regal soul and we are lucky to call him our friend.

Release Party and Reading Sunday, May 19 at 3 pm

imageSunday, May 19, 3 pm

Join Douglas Watson for the release party of his debut collection of fiction, The Era of Not Quite (BOA Editions) Douglas will be joined for a reading by special guests Hannah Tinti (author of The Good Thief and Animal Crackers and editor-in-chief of One Story) and Anthony Tognazzini (author of I Carry A Hammer In My Pocket For Occasions Such As These).

Winner of the inaugural BOA Editions Short Fiction Prize, Watson’s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Fifty-two Stories, Tin House Flash Fridays, One Story, Sou’wester, The Journal, Ecotone, Salt Hill, and other publications. His story “Life on the Moon” was chosen by Dan Chaon and Wigleaf in 2012 as one of the year’s top fifty very short fictions. He will be featured as a literary debutante at One Story’s 2013 Literary Debutante Ball. Watson was born in Scranton, Pa., grew up near Reading, Pa., and graduated from Swarthmore College. He holds an MFA in creative writing from Ohio State University and an MA in history from Brown University. He lives in New York City, where he works as a copy editor for Time magazine.

Praise for The Era of Not Quite:
"Once upon a time, an acquaintance of Kurt Vonnegut, having read all of the writer’s books, accused Vonnegut of putting bitter coatings on very sweet pills, and I am here to level the same charge against Douglas Watson. Yes, this collection is a relentless catalogue of frailty, folly, and mortal misery, but if you look beyond the cholera, the neck wounds, the burning feet, the bleached bones, the voids, the caves, the deaths at sea, the stillborn babes, the senseless yearnings of the heart, the grief and despair and profound loneliness, then what you will find, reader, is a tender, lovely, elegant celebration of the very idea of life, of living. These are vital and exceptional tales.”
—Chris Bachelder, author of Abbott Awaits