New York, in Bookstores

by Patrick on September 15, 2009

In Brooklyn, people look for ATMs.  They live in a constant state of paranoia.  Does the restaurant take cards?  Call ahead to make sure.  What if I can't find a Chase?  You know I refuse to pay those ridiculous service fees at the bodega.  The cashless economy hasn't arrived in Brooklyn's restaurants and bars; thankfully, it's thriving in Brooklyn's booming bookstore scene, one I was able to sample firsthand this past week.

Bookavore and I

Bookavore and I

I find that when I travel now, especially to New York, where I know many people, my plans are dictated very heavily by geography.  The people I know live, with very few exceptions, in Brooklyn and lower Manhattan.  This is probably an indicator of age, but I prefer to think of it as a statement of how completely awesome everyone I know in New York is.  I mean, Brooklyn: it's where Jay-Z is from, right?  Also, Woodie Guthrie lived there.  Anyway, due to this geographical confluence, I spent almost all of my time in these two places, taking multiple B and F trains back and forth, watching the Brooklyn-bound mustachioed lads tote their copies of n+1 through the rush hour crowd.  I'm kidding, of course.  Nobody reads n+1 on the subway (do they?).  I did see a guy reading the last few pages of Infinite Jest, which is something I imagine I'll never see again.  He looked like the first man to climb K2.

The good thing about spending most of my time where I did is that there are still too many literary people and places to see.  I had to further narrow my itinerary, so I cut out a trip to The Strand.  I've been there many times, and I enjoy a good bargain as much as the next guy, but I wanted to see some new stores, so no Strand trip.  Other quintessential New York things I didn't do on this trip:  eat a bagel.

Christine and Adrian (Adrian is paid in toys, so it's legal.)

Christine and Adrian (the next generation)

The first stop on my bookstore tour was Word in the Greenpoint neighborhood of Brooklyn.  Word came to my attention last year because of the incredible efforts at online promotion by the store's owner, Christine, and by its manager, Stephanie, known to the online world as Bookavore.   For a tiny store, Word has a huge online footprint, with its booksellers ranking among the most influential on the net.  In short, I had to visit.

I was not disappointed.  On a beautiful day, my wife and I trekked over to Greenpoint to visit this incredible store.  Word is small, though not the smallest store I've seen by any means, and what they pack into their space is amazing.  They manage to have a great selection of fiction and non-fiction, a very welcoming kids' section, non-book items like reusable baggu bags, and more.  Anyone walking into the store finds a table with books that have obviously been chosen with love.  There were popular books, there were books I've been meaning to read (I love when a bookstore can consistently put books in front of me that I want to buy.  You'd think it's easy, but every time I enter a Barnes & Noble, I'm confronted with discount diet books (By the way, I'd never buy a discounted diet book.  If it worked, wouldn't it have sold?), so go figure).  There's even a surprisingly spacious event area downstairs.

And the people working at the store?  Also amazing.  Stephanie and Christine were both so enthusiastic and friendly it made it hard to leave.  Plus they got us donuts from Peter Pan which were fairly inspiring on their own.  We talked shop for awhile, and enjoyed some of the donuts (personal favorite:  toasted coconut) as people wandered in and out.  The store has a great neighborhood feel.  The mailman dropped off the mail and chatted for a minute or two.  The whole thing seemed like something out of the past, when people shopped at their neighborhood stores and knew each other and greeted one another on the street.  But it wasn't happening in the past.  Word is, in fact, a relatively new store.  They're providing a template for one possible future of bookselling:  a small shop that knows and serves its neighborhood.  Christine and Stephanie pointed out, for instance, that they really don't carry any political books.  They'll order them for customers, but it isn't what their store is about.  They know themselves and they know their market, and consequently, they have a terrific store.

After our trip to Word, we headed over to Cobble Hill to visit Book Court, a store recommended to us by a bunch of our bookish friends.  This is another gorgeous store.  They've recently expanded into a new room behind the main part of the store, and it was filled with sunlight when we were there.  Talking with a few of the folks working at the store, it was obvious that Book Court benefited from the surrounding community enormously.  Karl, who was working in the new room at the time, said that “If you were to place a bookstore anywhere in the country, this is pretty much where you'd want it.”  And he's right.  There are approximately a million published authors living within four square miles of the store.

Edan in the gorgeous new room at Book Court.

Edan in the gorgeous new room at Book Court.

Book Court has a very literary feel.  They were among the many stores that I encountered displaying literary journals front and center, right near the entrance of the store.  N+1, Electric Literature and A Public Space occupied some very valuable literature at Book Court, as well as at other stores.  This is one difference I noted between LA and NY bookstores.  While stores like Vroman's, Skylight and Book Soup carry most literary journals and magazines, very rarely are they as prominently displayed as they were at Book Court and Three Lives.  The exception to this rule might be the huge McSweeney's display near the front registers at Skylight.

The next day was Manhattan day for us, as we took the train over to meet Vroman's Blog regular Julie Klam for the first time.  This was also our only trip above 57th St.  Julie was wonderful, as to be expected, and after our all too brief coffee date, Edan and I went to McNally-Jackson, where we chatted with their events promoter and internet guy Dustin.  I couldn't stop taking pictures of McNally-Jackson.  The store is so beautiful and fits in perfectly in chic SoHo.  With two floors and a cafe, this was among the bigger stores we visited, and they seemed to be doing a brisk business while  we were there.  I especially loved how their signage reflected the brand and sensibility of the store.

Housing Works

Housing Works

After MJ, we took a quick walk to Housing Works, just a few blocks away.  This is one of the most unique spaces I'd seen.  High ceilings, industrial-feeling support columns, walls of books, a PBR sign and a catwalk second floor — it was like a bookish character's Manhattan apartment in the movies.  With their coffee bar and seating area, it wasn't hard to see why Housing Works is famous for putting on some of the most creative events in the city.

Awesome display and signage at McNally-Jackson.

Awesome display and signage at McNally-Jackson.

The final stop on our bookstore tour was Three Lives, a store I'd never heard of but that people on Twitter couldn't stop raving about.  Located in the West Village, this little shop is a literary lovers dream.  It's another small store, but it's diminutive size belies an enormous selection of literary fiction and non-fiction.  It was all the books I wanted, and none of the ones I didn't.  On a rainy Friday afternoon, it was the perfect place to pop in and get out of the fall weather.  I eavesdropped on a conversation between the buyer and a sales rep, and even found a Joyce Cary book to buy for myself.  So in short, another win for Twitter.

Three Lives on a rainy day.

Three Lives on a rainy day.

After a thoroughly literary week (did I mention we also went to a reading, plus had dinner and drinks with our various bookish friends (we really only have bookish friends)), we went to Princeton for a wedding.  I didn't visit any bookstores in New Jersey — no time — but it was remarkably beautiful.  Oh, New Jersey, I'm going to take  back some of the things I said about you.

At BEA and the ABA's Winter Institute, booksellers often say they feel energized by being around so many people who are every bit as excited about selling books as they are, and that's what I felt on this trip.  Talking to so many enthusiastic book people gave me great hope for independent stores and for books in general.  In short, it was invigorating.  New York, I salute you.  Thank you to everyone who welcomed my wife and I into your stores, homes and drinking establishments.  You made our trip wonderful and exciting, if a tiny bit tiring.

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The Franzen Interface » North by Northwestern
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{ 10 comments }

Sherry 09.15.09 at 6:25 pm

So glad you were able to sample a doughnut from Peter Pan, which also has pretty good bagels.

Erin 09.15.09 at 8:34 pm

Great post! I visited Word and McNally Jackson on my last trip to NYC, and reading this makes me want to return again to check out the others. Thanks for sharing.

Anderson Interiors 09.16.09 at 6:03 am

Great post that any bibiliophile wiill appreciate! I arrived here via a link on Twitter and enjoyed my visit. Love the picture of Three Lives book store!

Emma 09.16.09 at 6:08 am

Hooray! I’m so glad New York and its bookstores put on their good faces for you. I would have been very sad if this post had started, ‘Well, I sure have a lot of bookish friends in NY, but boy are they morons, because…’

Jennifer Joan Nelson 09.16.09 at 7:50 am

Is that Brooklyn statistic real?

I’m so glad I came across this; I’m going to pass it on to New York friends who I think will enjoy it. I know there’s a lot to see here, but another store I love is The Corner Bookstore on Madison and 93rd. It’s way out of the way, but it’s lovely, and there are a handful of UES gems that make the trip worthwhile.

Laura 09.16.09 at 10:32 am

Infinite Jest is actually one of the most popular subway books of the summer (according to the New York Times very unscientific poll: http://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/09/09/what-youre-reading-on-the-subway/

Patrick 09.16.09 at 11:06 am

Maybe I should’ve made it clear that, unless cited, every statistic on this blog is completely made up by me. Though there certainly are a lot of fiction writers living nearby. Brooklyn is the fiction writing capital of the US.

Australian Online Bookshop 09.16.09 at 3:19 pm

Great article. I’m constantly amazed at the quality and quantity of really good bookshops in NY. very lucky shoppers is all i can say.

Dustin 09.17.09 at 8:58 pm

Thanks for the kind words Patrick. It was indeed very cool to see both of you in the store. You should have mentioned you’d gotten donuts, though, I could have made an effort to top that. Now I’m going to have to bring something New Yawk-ey along when I visit Vroman’s next.

Kassidy Minyard 04.16.12 at 12:54 pm

Wow, great article post.Really thank you! Awesome.

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