The death of George Whitman, the proprietor of bookshop/intellectual kibbutz Shakespeare & Co. in Paris, should give everyone who reads pause to think about what makes a great bookstore - and, in a time when they keep closing down, where we can even find one.
Somewhere, in someone’s New Year’s resolutions, is a determination to read more. I don’t want to read more, just better. I get sick of staring at a Kindle or iPad screen that delivers all my books pre-chosen, Amazon-approved, cross-referenced with all my previous purchases and credit-card orders with the immaculate servile attention you see in movies about 19th century madams in upscale brothels; I like to go out and show some agency, some free will, and decide what I would like to read by consulting someone smart, who loves books, who owns a bookstore and who doesn’t communicate in algorithms- or even particularly like devices with buttons.
To me, a great bookstore is crowded with shelves, with editorial commentary slyly inserted like old bookmarks signaling how the books are curated. The “jazz” section might be in the basement where tourists wouldn’t venture while the latest biographies are right by the register for quick trips and a commemorative t-shirt. It’s a place where the owners fight the orderly demands of modern commerce and embrace enough randomness to allow an idea and a surprise to glitter long enough to attract a reader - a reader who is not there with a purpose and an agenda with a rigid intellectual “List” app in the place of his soul, a reader who is not thumping on his iPhone as if it were a hamster wheel - a reader who is looking for inspiration and a trip to different times, different thoughts, radical departures from the honking of horns and the jostling of backpacks on the street outside. A good bookstore is a refuge, a library, a church for ideas (preferably with at least a few unattended chairs by the stacks, ready to be appropriate as pews for the pious). A great bookstore, to me, is City Lights, in San Francisco, or Skylight Books in Los Angeles. You may or may not come out with a book, but you will certainly come out with some ideas.
Bookstores like that are rare, and when you can find them, they are meant to be destinations. So I asked some folks on Twitter what their favorite bookstores are in New York City. My intention is to visit them all in the next three months or so, and maybe you should too. If you have a favorite that’s not here, add it in the comments and share the wealth.
And here is a handy map, designed by my friend Derrick Nunnally, that makes it all that much easier.
Old-school Columbia undergrads will remember the 112th Street location as Labyrinth Books - now roomier, hipper and the designated go-to place for tractatuses, manifestos and treatises.
Book sellers, upper Broadway from 110th to 116th
The tables full of used books for sale, from enterprising proprietors working from carts or cars, are designed to suit an intelligent reader’s whimsy and are some of the greatest reasons to visit Morningside Heights.
Spare me the disdain for megabookstores; this one has a great selection that would make even a dorm-room Marxist willing to at least enter the door. A giant bookstore with a customer base on the bookish Upper West Side is always going to be on top of its game, and this one, despite the soulless trappings- including a Temple to Nooks that takes up too much of the main floor - usually has a pretty good selection of fiction and spirituality (the cooking section is nothing to sneeze at, either). In fact, it has a lot of everything, because it’s the size of a Costco. My favorite part: the travel-writing section, hidden on the second level next to the mini-Starbucks. Well-lit, well-stocked, and nearly always empty.
This got several votes, because the selection is smart and the staff is charming. Just as importantly, my one New York City spotting of Keanu Reeves was outside this store, which I believe settles the matter.
Nerdier than you’d think, and always thought-provoking on everything from Jewish art to Sumerians to fashion to New York City art to Islamic architecture.
- Posman Books, Grand Central
The best part about Posman is that first long table of new fiction. Usually they are books you’ve seen before, but they are so well-chosen and arranged that the emphasis changes; you want to explore them again.
The mahogany front is alluring and the outside table is always packed with strange, random bits of music, history, cookbooks and poetry that belong in a book about books. The inside has affordable prints and a smart staff.
A great art and design selection - in fact, probably the best you’ll find anywhere.
- McNally Jackson, SoHo
Smart selection, good events, a solid inside track with the hip young writer crowd, and, not incidentally, a great Twitter account.
- Housing Works, SoHo
An irresistible mix of old books, old architecture, and a very contemporary approach to social issues ranging from protests to (its core mission) of support for those struggling with AIDS. Great events, too. One of the classics.
- Idlewild, Flatiron District
You have to brush on your grade-school Spanish at some point, even if only to pronounce “bodega” correctly.
- 192 Books, Chelsea
Over by the High Line, a charming, lively, intellectual bookstore you’ll want to visit again - don’t forget just because it’s over by 10th Avenue.
- Three Lives & Company, West Village
I’ve never been there, but an enthusiast calls it “a real gem.” I’ll explore.
- The Strand, Union Square-ish
The totes here are cultural shorthand for “well-read,” and the highlight is the racks of used books outside - endlessly fascinating and $2 each. Plus, they buy your old books.
- St. Mark’s Bookshop, East Village
New York Magazine said the saving of this bookstore is one reason to love New York:
St. Mark’s Bookshop is hardly a typical bookstore; it’s where Susan Sontag used to spend most of her Sunday evenings with Annie Leibovitz and where Allen Ginsberg met Philip Glass.
- Alabaster Bookshop, East Village
I never walk by this bookstore, and its racks of fascinating old books outside, without the urge to dive into one - or two, or five. It’s a small shop, but a smart one, and because some of the books are used, there are wonderful prices.
Your basic great neighborhood bookstore, with a gigantic selection for kids.
- Community Bookstore, Park Slope
An adorable Web site doesn’t hurt.
- Greenlight Bookstore, Fort Greene
Rachel Elson, a great tweeter and a fan, says it is “clean, well lighted, opinionated,” and Mike Froggatt adds that there is great coffee just two doors down.
Haven’t been there, but it gets high marks for smarts.
(Why are there no good destination bookstores in Queens? Can we do something about this?)
That covers the major ones. What did we miss?
Thanks to a host of tweeps, including @cmollenkamp, @howiewolf, @rachel_elson, @jenrossa, @mpfrog, @robert_nolan, @kellysjones, @bunnyshop, @kimbenabib (who gave a shoutout to Ursus Books on the Upper East Side), @hb8 (who mentioned Printed Matter), @susanmcp1, @_mikehayes, @rurugby, @finadd (who mentioned Word in Greenpoint and Desert Island Comics in Williamsburg), @davidtaint, @meenasaurus, @MarekFuchs (who put in a word for Partners in Crime on Greenwich Ave.), @marykatedubuss, @guyecaprio, @samdolnick, @greatesttrades, @CommunityBkstr, @FrankLynch, @martyswant, @heyavishay, @jimbinder, @taylorhoward, @ihuey, @Editer, @black_von, @sfiegerman and others who contributed ideas and enthusiastic recommendations.