Once upon a time, in the mid- to late 1960s, the East End had a book store every bit as good as the Provincetown Bookshop in the center of town. The East End Bookshop was owned and run by the photographer Molly Malone Cook — partner of the fine poet Mary Oliver — and it possessed both literary and artistic heft. Among its customers and visitors were Norman Mailer, Robert Motherwell and Henry Geldzahler. Its setting was a house built in the second half of the 19th century that was expanded over the years into a courtyard complex once known as the Quadrangle and now as Designer’s Dock.
With a prominent, double-bay storefront on Commercial Street and a warren of other spaces tucked in the courtyard, No. 349 has seen many tenants over the years. There was Nelson’s grocery store in the 1930s, where Truro eggs sold for 39 cents a dozen, and Log Cabin Candies in the 1940s. In the 1950s, there was Hopkins Cleansers (George E. Hinrichs, proprietor — and, yes, that’s Cleansers, not Cleaners), followed by the Wood Shed, where H. John Thompson, the “woodworker of Provincetown,” offered “fabulous wooden sunglasses” and other carved gift items like cobbler’s benches and cocktail trays. Then, in the 1960s, came Gambella Design and Craft in Leather; a gallery used by the artist James Wingate Parr (1923-1969) to showcase his work; the Doris Wiener Gallery, which specialized in Asian antiquities; and Murry Leather Handicrafters, run by Murry Kusmin.
Cook opened the East End Bookshop around the time she was winding down business at her innovative but unprofitable photo gallery, VII, at 344 Commercial Street. Oliver, referring to her partner by her initial, described East End in Our World (2007): “Photographs were still there, on all available wall space, but the predominant business in that combination was literature. In the ’60s whole families came to Provincetown, with their children and their children’s summer reading lists, and M.’s selection provided their needs.” Oliver conducted workshops for young poets at the bookstore on summer evenings. John Waters nagged Cook and Oliver for a job in 1966. His account, as told to Gerald Peary in Provincetown Arts:
“They couldn’t really afford to hire me, but they let me work when it rained, when P’town bookstores are packed. So wherever I was when it was raining I had to run to work! But I loved being there because Molly was a great boss. She did not believe the customer was always right. As a matter of fact, the customer was always wrong. I saw Molly snatch a book out of someone’s hand and say, ‘Get out!’ I was very impressed. I thought, ‘This is my kind of job.’ At the time, they worked a lot with Norman Mailer. If anyone said something bad about Mailer, I was allowed to be really rude and say, ‘Get out of the store and never come back!’ Molly encouraged it, so it was fun to work there.”
Of course, not every visitor was treated that way. When Walker Evans came in one day in September 1967, in the company of Fritz Bultman, Cook asked him to autograph a hardbound copy of Message From the Interior; having surprised him by stocking the book in both paper and cloth editions. She took his picture. “He seemed a very sad man,” Cook recalled years later, “but oh what a fine eye he had.” A lung-related illness in 1969 brought an end to Cook’s time as a bookshop owner.
Through the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, the succession of tenants at No. 349 included the Rainbow Gallery, which sold rainbow-themed decorative art; the Sun Signs jewelry and gift store; the Greenpeace Shop, which sold T-shirts with wildlife or ecological motifs to benefit the activist group by that name; the Rising Sun and Soul to Sole/Silk & Feathers clothing stores; McGuire Studio and Gallery; Taqwa Glass; T-Bear Brothers Jewelry; and Moda Fina, a clothing and accessories store for women whose Web site states that it is closed for rest and renewal.
Its place in the main streetfront was taken in 2010 by the Poli Gallery, a showcase for the paintings of Nicoletta Poli, an Italian native probably best known for her richly saturated, primitive landscapes with dogs; and of the abstract expressionist R. G. Knudsen, a Nevadan who arrived in town in 1971 and was once part owner of Café Edwige. Below the Poli Gallery is a gift store called CapesTreasures.com, run by Felicia Wichrowski with a special emphasis on animal lovers and pets.
In the center of the courtyard is the Song of Myself Photography studio, established by Brad Fowler in 1996. Fowler specializes in weddings and in commissioned portraits; usually black and white, spare in composition, lushly toned. His sitters have included Michael Cunningham, B. D. Wong and the entire Provincetown Players troupe — naked. (Conflict-of-interest disclosure: they have also included me and my partner, Scott, for our 10th anniversary portrait. Not naked.)
At the far end of the courtyard are the Kyle Ringquist Studio and Gallery, a showcase for Ringquist’s paintings, and the Dock View Gallery, where the paintings of Roseann Spinale Mark and others are on view. The property at 349 Commercial has been owned since 2002 by Albert (Alby) R. McMeen III, who had previously operated a bed-and-breakfast in Manhattan, at 333 West 88th Street. In Provincetown, he currently offers summer rentals for four of the 10 units that compose the condominium.