The Button Thief of East 14th Street Cover

The Button Thief of East 14th Street: Scenes from a Life on The Lower East Side 1927–1957 is Fay Webern’s masterful chronicle of a youth spent in one of New York City’s most vibrant immigrant communities during the harsh years of the Great Depression and The Second World War. Its forty-two beautifully sculpted episodes not only conjure into vivid existence a complete world, but reveal something of the bedrock of the author’s inner being, in which the irreducible hardness, the “is"-ness, of reality may be felt: the burden of survival; the “stone in the heart”; the daily concerns, serious or frivolous, erected on it; and at the same time, always, flying above, indomitable, the muse of poetic imagination and the “spirit of defiance”.

The Button Thief is a joyous, magnificent achievement—an extraordinarily truthful and moving work of art, both radically personal and universal, utterly transcending the category of memoir.

You can read the first chapter of The Button Thief at Literal Latte.


“In The Button Thief of East 14th Street, Fay Webern has performed a kind of magic trick, conjuring a seemingly lost world by means of memory, language, and a handful of photos. Spanning New York’s Lower East Side from the East River to the fringes of Greenwich Village, from the Great Depression through the Second World War and beyond, Webern’s rigorously unsentimental memoir demonstrates definitively that it takes a village––or in this case, a utopian housing project for low-income workers—to raise a child. I love this book.”

—Adam Sexton, author of Master Class in Fiction Writing

“It’s amazing that well into the 21st century, we have been graced with this bittersweet, compelling, and often hilarious memoir of the Jewish Lower East Side during the thirties and the post-war era. Fay Webern’s detailed portrait of this bustling neighborhood of immigrants, shops and overcrowded tenements brings to mind the work of the great Jewish writer Anzia Yezierska, although Webern has a sharper eye, and is less prone to sentimentality. With wit and affection, Webern vividly evokes the progressive housing project her family moved into, and its eventual demolition. Webern’s unique personal story draws us into the very heart of the New York story, revealing the evolving experience of this influential immigrant community, so often mythologized but not always understood.”

– David Winner, author of The Cannibal of Guadalajara and Tyler’s Last

Fay Webern was born on the Lower East Side in 1927 to Russian-Jewish immigrant parents and grew up living at the Lavanburg Homes, an experimental utopian housing community for low-income families. A talented child dancer, she studied from the age of seven with a member of Hanya Holm’s dance company, but her professional ambitions were dashed by an accident she suffered at the age of fifteen. She later had a long career in publishing, rising to copy chief at Scientific American and then senior editor at Encyclopedia Britannica, Harper and Row, and Random House.

Upon retiring in the late 1990s, she studied non-fiction writing at the Gotham Writers Workshop with essayist Tyler C. Gore. With his encouragement, she soon became a regular reader at NYC venues such as The Knitting Factory and Arlene’s Grocery until she moved to Vermont in 2002, where she still resides.

pub date: 2016-12-01
$19.95 | 330 pages
isbn: 978-1-944697-11-2 (paperback)
Cover design by Royce M. Becker