Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Independent Bookstores

A few days ago, before I so rudely interrupted myself, I was going to tell you about independent book stores in New York. There is only one truly great and mighty independent store still thriving in Manhattan; all others are cheap imitations. That store is the Strand at Broadway and 12th, one of the largest bookstores in the world. If you can’t get it there, you probably can’t get it anywhere, though, of course, that isn’t strictly true with the advent of the internet. But for those who still like to browse non-virtually, the Strand is the mother lode for all browsing. Its three floors are bulging with books, vomiting with volumes, are stuffed with shelves that torture you with their torrents of tomes. Some of the books are new; most are used, and the deals are uniformly unbeatable. The problem with the Strand is that it’s too big for its own good. After a while you get woozy craning your neck to scan the top of their towering twelve-foot high shelves, or scouring the unalphabetized paperback rows for that perfect and impossibly cheap must-have yarn.

So once I have given the Strand a good going over, I sometimes like to retreat to a much smaller, quieter, and impossibly charming place sitting on the border between Soho and the Village on Crosby Street. It is called Housing Works Bookstore and Cafe, and is part of a chain of thrift stores in Manhattan that are run to benefit the homeless and people with AIDS. As the name suggests, it includes a place to sip a cappuccino or enjoy a glass of wine while you peruse the fruits of your browsing, and with its high ceilings and the spiral staircase that leads to its wonderful second floor cat walk, you feel like you’ve stepped into someone’s fantasy of a second-hand bookstore. Housing Works resembles a library at times. People often speak in hushed tones and sit at tables for many hours at a time. It is a peaceful, unhurried place where you can go to escape the rush of the city, and, unlike the library, stay pleasantly caffeinated at the same time. On every trip, it seems, I also recover a book I had forgotten I needed, often at a surprisingly good price.

I get an inordinate pleasure out of finding the right book at the right time. When I was a graduate student, this was often a necessity. Now, many years later, it still remains important to me, perhaps as much as anything as a kind of metaphor for the real possibility that some book is just waiting for me to pluck it from the shelves. And, hey, if that meant-for-me volume can be unearthed in a pleasant bookstore where they also serve double espressos, well, so much the better.


  1. Book stores are all about time. If you have time, you can appreciate them, if you don't...Right now, books stores are filled with the unemployed, underemployed and homeless where I live. And they aren't buying any books.
    With trends like on-demand publishing, down-loadable digital 'books', an unlimited virtual market place, only places like Manhattan with uber-dense populations and big numbers in the 'high culture' demographic will be able to support hands-on stores. And libraries, the only real alternative, are being sacrificed in the name of budget balancing. I hope New York can keep the faith.

  2. Mercer Books is also a great place to go..around the corner from the Angelica. You can find good records there too.

    In Metuchen we have a great small bookstore called The Raconteur..It is such a wonderful place. Good music and readings. The owner takes great care in making sure the set up of the place (he used to do set designs) provides you with "little nooks" to immersed yourself in your reading.