Face it. Reading is sexy, and an integral part of the culture in New York.
Which is why we thought it would be helpful to give you the rundown on our favorite book nooks in the city (never fear, Brooklynites, your guide is coming soon!). From a lofty art book store filled with natural light, to a semi-subterranean hideout for mystery lovers, to a secret bookstore with the vibe of an artist’s salon meets speakeasy, we’ll tell you about what we believe to be the best of the best in the most literary city in the U.S.
Situated in Midtown Manhattan, just below Central Park, between 5th and 6th Avenues, Rizzoli bookstore, despite selling a little bit of everything to stay competitive, specializes in art books and coffee table tomes. Certainly, the store’s inclination toward artistic and architectural literature is evident in the store’s actual design; the store’s high, almost domed ceiling and elegant marble staircase immerse visitors in a feeling of lavish luxury. The books themselves are kept in beautiful, carved wooden shelves and arranged neatly on sprawling tables. If you are a fan of the library in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, this bookstore will not disappoint. It’s worth a visit just to pretend like you live there for an hour or so.
The stairway at Van Alen Books in Midtown. Photo courtesy of The Wall Street Journal.
Another art bookstore that you should check out is Van Alen Books, located at 30 W. 22nd st. While it’s not breathtaking in the same way as Rizzoli, the architecture book selection there is incredible. When you walk into the very modern space, the first thing you’ll probably notice is the huge yellow staircase that stretches into the center of the store. The bookstore, which was designed by LO-TEK pro-bono, aims to revitalize the necessary but waning connection between architecture and the physical book in this age of e-reading and the impermanent, virtual page. Interestingly, for a space that was originally created with the idea of the importance of the book in mind, the books don’t seem to be the focus; rather, the bookshelves only take up the right hand wall and back corner, near the cash register. Still, the small collection is rich and impressive, and boasts some interesting and illuminating tomes on the practice, history, and theory of the architectural field.
If you and your word nerd friends are ever out one night, and you can’t decide whether to visit a new bookstore and peruse the shelves for some quality verbiage, or whether you want to just chill at a hip bar with a laid back vibe (and maybe an activist bent), don’t fret! Housing Works Bookstore Cafe is the place for you. The SoHo store sells used books in a massive space (with a sweet second story walkway) that still feels cozy enough, and it also sells beer (yes, beer) at the cafe in the back of the store. Even better, the store hosts literary and musical events more often than not, and you can usually snag a used copy of Kerouac, Toni Morrison, or even something as contemporary (and raunchy!) as E.L. James’s 50 Shades of Gray for a decent price. Plus, part of all the profits from book sales go toward promoting AIDS research and awareness. Really, what more could you want in a bookstore? (Unless you just want more books, in which case, you can always pay a visit to The Strand, famed for its “18 miles of books.”)
The first floor of McNally Jackson, where the store also has its own printing press and a cafe that sells coffee, tea, and snacks. Photo courtesy of McNally Jackson Bookstore.
When it comes to organizing literary events that have serious star power but still remain accessible to the public (usually for free), there is no better bookstore in Manhattan than McNally Jackson. The official book-signing location for the annual New Yorker Festival, McJ also hosts talks with upcoming and renowned authors from all genres. In the past year, the likes of Sloane Crosley, Ian Frazier, Lev Grossman, Maud Newton, Ben Marcus, and Molly Ringwald have all given talks or readings in the basement floor of this SoHo establishment. The store also hosts a monthly series called “Nerd Jeopardy,” various workshops in several genres, and many literary journal launch parties. Needless to say, McJ is worth a trip for the fun stuff happening there, even if you don’t necessarily buy a book.
Even from the outside, Printed Matter is clearly dedicated to promoting visual art.
If you’re looking for a complete change of pace, you might want to stop in at Printed Matter, in Chelsea. A thoroughly established New York institution in the art scene since the mid-seventies, Printed Matter seeks to promote “artists’ publications,” or books conceived by artists. The store defines the content of the books it sells as “artwork for the page,” and hosts exhibitions of these books throughout the year. Its biggest event is the New York Art Book Fair, which it presents annually to feature the work of upcoming book artists in the city. The bookstore, whose space functions very much like a gallery in that it is usually swathed in the material of its most recent exhibition, is a non-profit organization primarily dedicated to promoting the concept of book art; their website is filled with resources for aspiring artists, and the store itself puts on several lectures for visiting classes all year long.
(When you’re done at Printed Matter, be sure to stroll on over to its literary next-door neighbor, 192 Books, Chelsea’s most beloved neighborhood general interest bookseller.)
Forbidden Planet is the central hub for comic book and graphic novel enthusiasts in the city.
Speaking of the intersection between visual art and books, Forbidden Planet near Union Square is particularly well-stocked in graphic novels and comics. If you’re a literary type (or just someone whose bucket list doesn’t include attending ComicCon), don’t scoff when you come in; once you wade through the slew of action figures, superhero apparel, and other cult phenom paraphernalia, you’ll find shelves upon shelves of top quality literature. Sure, you’ll find your standard Marvel and DC Comics selections here, along with some lesser known comic brands, but what sets this store apart from the other comic book stores in the city is the scope of its inventory that would appeal to the literary set. (Gary Gianni’s take on Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea or Droopsie Avenue by Will Eisner, for instance.)
However, I would like to give a special shout out to the wonderfully grungy St. Mark’s Comics and to Midtown Comics for having two floors of nerd necessities (and for having a life-sized Spiderman hanging out on the stairs).
Bluestockings (Allen Street and Stanton Street):
Appropriately situated in the Lower East Side, Bluestockings is a bookstore dedicated to activism of all sorts. Walk into this store, and most days, you’ll see thoughtful New Yorkers thumbing through feminist texts or hanging out and discussing the inequalities of the current capitalist system while they wait for their organic, free trade, or vegan coffee from the cafe. At night, though, the place is a hub for all kinds of literary events–film screenings, talks, readings, open mics, knitting circles, book clubs–you name it, and Bluestockings probably has it. According to their website, Bluestockings has at their core the desire “to create a space that welcomes and empowers all people.” Makes perfect sense to us, and we love to hang out in this haven of intellectual discussion and universal acceptance.
Tribeca’s mystery-only bookstore, The Mysterious Bookshop, is filled with this kind of ominous decor appropriate to the genre.
Mystery lovers around the city know that the best place to get their crime fic fix is here, at The Mysterious Bookshop, just off of West Broadway. The store itself is anything but mysterious or foreboding; a quaint little space with a basic layout–shelves all along the three interior walls, tall white windows on the wall facing the street–the bookstore is actually quite a pleasant place to linger. Since the recent closing of Partners and Crime in Greenwich Village, The Mysterious Bookshop is the only all-mystery bookstore left in the city. Be sure to drop by this killer bookstore before it disappears, too!
Brazenhead Books (secret location):
Mysterious in a totally different respect, the only way to access Manhattan’s “secret” bookstore is to know someone who knows someone who knows the bookseller; if not, let’s just say that you’ll need to put in some serious research time in order to get to the information you’ll need to make an appointment to visit the small bookshop, which is stuffed into a little apartment. But lack of space doesn’t make this bookstore any less enchanting; visiting Brazenhead has the exclusive feel of a speakeasy, but Michael, the bookseller who runs the operation, is anything but inaccessible. During my visit, while I browsed the walls full of individual books (he doesn’t buy anything in bulk–instead, Michael buys the books like he sells them, one by one), I found myself immersed in an intelligent, lively conversation about everything from life to books to the writers we liked to religion, politics, and human nature. For the few who have had the privilege to visit, Brazenhead often becomes a home away from home. The books are all in wonderful condition, too; I made a great find by Borges on my visit. It might feel like a lot of work trying to find out how to get there, but we like Brazenhead so much that we think it’s definitely worth it.
Get in touch with the author @kellitrapnell.