ARTS AND CULTURE
Survival Story: Manhattan's Best Indie Bookstores
New York has lost some great bookshops in recent years, but many gems survive. Here are the ones to look out for on your next visit
Independent bookstores are fighting off serious threats to their survival, notably the tireless onslaught of discounted Amazon titles and the sleek portability of e-books. And few challenges are more daunting than the inexorable high rents of Manhattan’s “survivor island.” New Yorkers recently witnessed the gut-wrenching closure of the 38-year-old East Village institution St. Mark's Bookshop and more recently, Dumbo’s beloved neighbourhood locale for art books and social events, PowerHouse Arena. Beyond their eclectic book collections, they were both cultural hubs and platforms for local and unknown authors. They rest in the good company of other dearly departed literati favourites.
But don’t close the book on independent bookstores just yet. The economy is making a comeback, the novelty of digital is losing a little of its shine and the good old book is on the rebound. Could the book and the bookstore become the next darling of the urban hip sensibility, on a par with the Slow Food and farm-to-table movements and the neighbourhood coffee house?
If it’s possible, rugged independents like the legendary Strand Book Store, McNally Jackson and Greenlight will show the way – and prove that if what you want is a warm and intimate places to browse, reflect, people watch, converse, and hang out, what you need is bricks and mortar. Below, here are Billy’s picks among Manhattan’s most vibrant, idiosyncratic, and resilient local bookstores to browse during your next visit.
Strand Book Store
The Strand has been a Manhattan institution since 1927. It’s the only survivor from the era of New York’s “Book Row” (six vibrant blocks featuring some three or four dozen bookstores, which ran from Union Square to Astor Place and enjoyed its heyday in the mid-20th century). New York’s most iconic bookstore, The Strand’s endearing tagline is “where books are loved,” and it loves them enough to house 25 million of them – new, used and rare. The tri-level store covers an entire city block and has been owned and operated by the Bass family for generations. It was started by then-25-year-old Ben Bass in the 1920s with $600. His son Fred Bass, 86, and granddaughter Nancy Bass Wyden are now at the helm, still actively treasure hunting together at estate and library sales.
Strand Book Store
The store’s walls are white and the lighting is bright. Bookcases are beat-up and dusty, and there’s attention-getting, old-school signage around every corner. You can pan for everything from used novels with heartfelt inscriptions from strangers to rare first edition $1,000 artist monographs. The store is also known for cheap new editions, compliments of critics and editorial assistants who have a penchant for selling their review copies. Remaindered hardcovers are strategically positioned at the front of the store (below a sign marked “Lower-priced than e-books”) and outside, bargain hunters will find a paradise of dollar carts. The store also hosts appearances by literary darlings like Junot Diaz and David Sedaris, as well as lively community events, including a book-swap and speed-dating mixer with OkCupid.
If you find yourself uptown in Central Park on a hot summer’s day, check-out The Stand’s kiosks at 5th Avenue and 60th Street. They’ll likely remind you of the book stalls along Paris’ Seine (but with New York moxie).
828 Broadway, 212-473-1452
Strand Book Store
Located in the slowly gentrifying Lower East Side, Bluestockings is consciously radical. The bookstore is run by volunteers and specializes in social activist and progressive perspectives, with topics ranging from race to gender, globalization and climate change. By night, the shop turns into a hub for activist activity in the form of “dyke” knitting-circles, women and trans open-mics, and themed discussions like “feminists on masculinity.” But you don’t have to be a radical feminist or Zapatista to appreciate what the website describes as a space meant to “welcome and empower all people.” The coffee at the in-store café is organic and free trade, naturally.
172 Allen St., 212-777-6028
On an unassuming strip of trendy NoHo, Dashwood is New York’s only shop devoted exclusively to photography books. Founded in 2005 by David Strettell, the former cultural director of Magnum Photos, the store specializes in rare, limited, and out-of-print contemporary photography editions, from the ‘60s to today. Many titles come from European and Japanese publishing houses, independent photographers, and often even Strettell’s own personal collection. Wander through the wooden bookshelves to uncover such haunting worlds as Nan Goldin’s raucous downtown nights or Helmut Newton’s glamorous eroticism.
33 Bond St., 212-387-8520
Bonnie Slotnick Cookbooks
The East Village store boasts New York’s premier variety of new, rare and vintage cookbooks from all corners of the globe. You can grease elbows with chefs, foodies and aspiring cooks while stocking up for your next dinner party or discovering precious relics from New York’s culinary history. Attend a tasting event and you might even bring home a little extra inspiration.
28 E. Second St., 212-989-8962
McNally Jackson Books
Run by Canadian Sarah McNally, a book editor in a past life, McNally Jackson is one of New York’s City’s most thriving bookstores. The Nolita shop showcases two storeys and 65,000 titles – that actually isn’t too many volumes for such a large bookstore, so we’re talking about expert curation here: Look for serious staff picks, popular and obscure novels, fashion magazines, coffee table books, cookbooks, children's books and poetry. McNally Jackson is also the official book-signing venue for the The New Yorker Festival and plays host to its own readings, book clubs, writing workshops, and original conversations with a variety of rising and established stars (especially from New York). The buzzy café serves Stumptown coffee, and speaking of freshly pressed goodies, the store’s state-of-the-art, reportedly $85,000 “Espresso Book” machine prints and binds books on demand, offering an impressive 63,000 self-published and public domain books. Watch out for McNally Jackson’s second location, set to open in Williamsburg, Brooklyn by 2017.
52 Prince St., 212-274-1160
Yvonne Brooks/McNally Jackson Books
Mercer Street Books & Records
For more than 25 years, this cramped but endearing Greenwich Village haunt has been a treasure trove of rare and out-of-print used books and records (including the personal library of admired Manhattan realist artist Jack Levine). Come for both the thrill of the hunt and eccentric people watching, while full-length albums croon in the background.
206 Mercer St., 212-505-8615
Housing Works Bookstore Cafe
This non-for-profit shop in SoHo enjoys a massive selection of used, mainstream, and rare books, with all proceeds going towards fighting AIDS and homelessness. It’s also a prime spot for fraternizing with well-read locals and tourists over wine and beer at the relaxed bar. At night the space fills with literary and musical performances.
126 Crosby St., 212-334-3324
Three Lives and Company
Set on one of the most charming corners of the West Village, Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Cunningham once described this store as “one of the greatest bookstores on the face of the Earth.” Under a well-worn tin ceiling reminiscent of an Old World grocery shop, new releases are lovingly laid out like blocks of artisan cheese. Staff-recommended hardcovers and paperbacks compete for precious real estate with New York-centric titles, literary fiction and cookbooks.
154 W. 10th St., 212-741-2069
Books of Wonder
Reputed to be the best children’s bookstore in New York, Union Square’s Books of Wonder stocks the latest in children’s and young adult books, as well as rare vintage finds, from picture books to collectible posters and prints. The young and young at heart can also come out to play for storytimes, themed parties, author readings and colourful art exhibitions.
18 Eighteenth St., 212-989-3270
Printed Matter and 192 Books
Just off Chelsea’s art gallery row, Printed Matter offers some of New York’s most eclectic and daring art publications and books conceived by artists. A New York art institution in itself since the 1970s, the shop-slash-gallery hosts art exhibitions, installations, performances, artist talks and the annual New York Art Book Fair.
While in the neighbourhood for Printed Matter, don’t miss another gallery area favourite,192 Books. Owned by famed art dealer Paula Cooper, the sun-filled modern shop not only features stylish art tomes, but a lively selection of general interest titles from literary fiction to history, gardening, travel and children’s books.
231 Eleventh Ave., 212-925-0325
192 Tenth Ave., 212-255-4022
After the closure of its breathtaking 57th Street location, Rizzoli was resurrected in NoMad with the shop’s original chandeliers and cherry wood bookcases. Specializing in art, design and fashion books for the most discriminating of coffee tables, the bookstore’s elegance is reminiscent of the library from Beauty and the Beast. There’s also a wall-sized Fornasetti designed mural that dreamily depicts Mediterranean cities amongst clouds and hot air balloons.
1133 Broadway, 212-759-2424
This Flatiron shop – whose name recalls the original moniker for JFK airport – is a mecca for travel guides, world literature and travel-inspired fiction and photography books. Idlewild also offers language classes in French, Spanish, German and Italian. Spin the globe and pick your top destinations for satiating your wanderlust.
12 West 19th Street, 212-414-8888
Nestled inside the Beaux Arts mansion of the French Embassy on Museum Mile, the Albertine is named for the ethereal muse of Marcel Proust’s In Search for Lost Time. The two-floor space is indeed a dreamy place to “get lost in time” with more than 14,000 contemporary and classic French-language titles (and translations mixed in for good measure) from across la francophonie. Designed by Jacques Garcia with the contributions of several French artisans living in New York, the space features a luminously bejewelled constellation fresco, as well as wood-crafted floors inspired by Versailles. There’s also a dedicated reading room where you can escape with Le Petit Prince and sink into a supple leather armchair.
972 Fifth Ave., 212-461-3670