Image by Thomas Johnson
Walt Whitman is one of America’s literary giants. The poet lived and worked part of his life in what was then the independent city of Brooklyn and the now borough permeates much of his work. Although more than a century of transformations have significantly changed the Brooklyn that Whitman knew, if one looks close enough it is still possible to see remnants of Whitman’s time.
We previously compiled a list of the Top 10 Coffee Shops in Manhattan for design buffs and now we’re tackling Brooklyn. The following is by no means a complete list of coffee shops in Brooklyn, but after checking out many, many coffee shops, we decided to highlight some of our favorites.
Naturally, we were intrigued when we heard about this flower shop/coffee shop that opened recently in Greenpoint. Homecoming—formerly called Spina, which means “thorn” in Italian—started as a floral design company. Owners Vanessa Chinga-Haven and Paul Diaz hope to lure people in the door with Blue Bottle coffee and donuts by Dough, then keep them hanging around for floral arrangements and gift items. There’s not a lot of space to sit, but the pint-sized shop is a nice place to stop for a coffee and flower bouquet to go. (more…)
Brownstones in Fort Greene. Image via Flickr by by rutlo
According to The New York Times, Fort Greene is having a bit of an identity crisis. It currently multitasks as a mecca for foodies, a center for African American pride and culture, and a new place to settle for the “nouveau riche.” Today, we’ll pick up where the Times left off to discuss the architecture of the neighborhood.
Fort Greene was listed as a small yet mighty historical district in 1983. The area with the most history is perhaps Fort Green Park. According to the National Register Report for Fort Greene, the 1776 Battle of Long Island was fought here, which left 11,500 dead. This battlefield also featured a fort used during the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, constructed by General Nathaniel Greene (Fort Greene’s namesake).
A few weeks ago I attended a screening of the new movie My Brooklyn at the Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church (LAPC) in Fort Greene. This strongly built Romanesque Revival church stands at the corner of South Oxford and Lafayette and is part of the Fort Greene Historic District. Immediately upon entering the main hall, I was struck by a mural that wrapped around the upper balcony. While so many churches have beautiful stained glass windows and large art depicting religious icons, this mural unassumingly displays completely normal people, wearing bell bottom pants, jeans and suits. The movie screening in its own right sparked considerable discussion, but I left the church with the need to know more about the mural I had just seen.
After reaching out to the church for more information, they put me in touch with Ed Moran, a longtime church member who was able to give me background history on the mural and the church. Moran told me that the Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church was completed in 1862 by the architecture firm of Grimshaw and Morrill. Romanesque-Revival was a popular form for urban churches during this period, and was perfect for Presbyterians who didn’t need pomp, gothic details and ceremonial space like Roman Catholics. The Pastor at the time was a man named Rev. Theodore Cuyler, known for his dynamic personality and his fierce abolitionist views. A strong Unionist, his editorials in the New York Independent denouncing slavery were cut out and collected by President Lincoln. Rev. Cuyler and the church made national headlines in later years after allowing the first female, a Quaker no less, to preside as preacher over a Presbyterian service in the United States.
With all the power outages caused by Hurricane Sandy, you might have turned to your bookshelf for entertainment, only to discover that you needed a new book to read. Well, never fear, Brooklynites! Our bet is that you’ll probably find what you’re looking for at one of our eight favorite bookstores in the borough. Inspired by our list of the Top Ten Bookstores in Manhattan, we’ve scoped out the best independent booksellers from Williamsburg to Prospect Heights to Park Slope, and what we found is pretty exciting.
True to its name, powerHouse Arena in DUMBO is known for keeping a packed schedule of high profile, interesting, and sometimes zany literary events that are open to the public. Perhaps my personal favorite of the best bookstores in Brooklyn, powerHouse is also one of the most massive, boasting 24-foot ceilings and six rows of built-in concrete amphitheater-style seating for their events, which usually feature free drinks from Brooklyn Brewery. Unfortunately, like many of the local shops nearby, the bookstore was hit hard by the hurricane–their 5,000 square foot ground level experienced a foot and a half of water damage during the storm surges, and within only 20 minutes, the bookstore was flooded. Dedicated to staying strong through this crisis, the store is holding a #SandyHatesBooks fundraiser in order to pay for the damages (they don’t have flood insurance). In the meantime, we’re keeping our fingers and toes crossed for a speedy recovery for powerHouse.
Walk down Metropolitan Avenue toward Union Avenue, and you’ll stumble across a strange storefront, advertising “Italian, French, and Sicilian Bread…and Comic Booklets.” No, dear friends, this is not a bakery; it is Desert Island comics, a fiercely independent purveyor of all published material that is artistic and worth reading. It’s an oddly visual little shop, too, filled with artwork for purchase by local and international artists. “It’s not exclusively about comics,” owner Gabriel Fowler said in a 2008 interview with Block Magazine. “I wanted to have work in here that’s affordable art. It’s about community and the quality of the stuff.” Even if Sandy’s got you grounded for now, you can still check out Desert Island once the subways are up and running at the upcoming Brooklyn Comics and Graphics Festival, at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church in Williamsburg from 12-7 P.M. on November 10. (We love the store’s current Halloween display window, created by local artist Gary Lieb–check it out here).
Truly a community institution (even down to its establishment in 2008, which was funded largely by approximately 70 individual community lenders), Greenlight Bookstore in Fort Greene is well-stocked in multiple genres, and its beautiful, curvaceous interior lends itself well to the multiple book clubs that meet there every week. We like Greenlight because of the friendly vibe of the place–the staff is incredibly knowledgeable, and, if you become a regular here, just as apt to start up a conversation with you about your family as about their opinions on the latest bestseller or a hot indie find that they’re obsessed with.
I recently went to BookCourt for a Junot Diaz reading, and though it took me a while to actually find the shop (probably more due to my inherently terrible sense of direction than to the store’s actual location), I was pleasantly surprised by the store itself. Complete with a whole basement level full of more books to choose from, BookCourt is pretty, warm, and has enough open space that you don’t feel claustrophobic while you’re browsing titles. Of course, this typically changes whenever the store hosts popular events–the Diaz event was so packed that my friends and I felt more like we were attending a rock concert than a literary reading. But what I like best about BookCourt is that bestsellers are always 30% off there, and that their staff recommendations are nearly always en pointe. And, if you’re in Manhattan and simply can’t make the trip (or just don’t feel like it), they also run a fully operational online store.
If the weird, seemingly oxymoronic name of this Prospect Heights book shop doesn’t get your attention, its enormous inventory certainly will. A little dingy and slightly unorganized, this used bookstore feels more like a hoarder’s apartment–but in a way that makes you feel cozy and mysterious all at once. A major player in the small zine scene, I first visited Unnameable last year as a part of Boog City Festival, a kitschy, kind of bootleg celebration of poetry, music, and boutique literary journals. Events here are either held downstairs in the basement or in the small, gravel-filled back yard. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why Unnameable sticks with you, but it does. Maybe it’s the sensation that any book you pick up will reveal another, equally intriguing title hidden beneath it, or maybe it’s just the fact that Ample Hills Creamery is right across the street. Regardless, it’s worth a visit; wear your favorite worn-in jeans, scuffed-up Chucks, and a grungy hoodie, and you’ll feel right at home.
The Thing (1001 Manhattan Ave.):
Greenpoint’s favorite second-hand shop, The Thing, is not exactly a bookstore, per se, but that doesn’t stop us from loving it. Though The Thing is widely famed for its unbelievable record collection (Pitchfork recently lauded it as one of its favorite record stores in the nation), we like its equally impenetrable and random selection of second-hand paperbacks. Sure, you may have to wade through mountains of wicker furniture and old lamps just to find the stacks of books in the corner, but if you’re into hunting for treasure, then you’re more than likely to snag a good find in here, especially if you’re into sci-fi, romance, or horror classics. If rummaging through piles of junk is not your thing, then perhaps The Thing is not for you. I just like it because I can also browse their collection of old typewriters while I’m there.
If you’re in Greenpoint and you don’t want to dig around at The Thing all day, WORD’s got you covered. A seriously kick-ass community bookstore with the best YA book events in the city (that’s Young Adult for all you non-lit nerds out there; think The Hunger Games or–yes, okay–The Twilight Series, and you’re on the right track), WORD is one of the best bookstores I’ve ever set foot in. It is community-oriented, but globally-minded, eccentric, helpful, and reliable, accessible to hardcore word nerds but still inviting to dabblers in the art of reading. It is fun to hang out there, and their selection celebrates both well-known authors and first-time crafters of fiction and nonfiction. Plus, they truly love Greenpoint, and will tell you all about their favorite hangouts if you let them. Essentially, WORD is the kind of local bookstore that doesn’t just inhabit its community, but enhances the personality of the neighborhood and strives to promote its welfare. And if all this somehow fails to convince you to make the trip, WORD’s website also gives its own reason to stop by: “Because books are the repository of all that is good in this world, and we love them, and we love you.” We love you, too, WORD. Quite a bit.
On the surface, Book Thug Nation doesn’t look like much–it’s just a big square space with glass doors, concrete floors, and unfinished plywood shelves–but it’s home to one of the largest selections of used literary fiction in all of New York City. If you’re not much of a fiction reader, you might be interested in their philosophy, film criticism, or biography sections. But the real reason Williamsburg residents hang out at Book Thug Nation (aside from the name, which is undisputedly awesome), is for the low-profile, high-minded events they continually host–like indie film screenings, weird and informative lectures, and of course, readings. Basically, if you’re a hipster, you’ll love Book Thug Nation. Just remember to stop at the ATM before you visit; all sales are cash only.
What are some of your favorite Brooklyn bookstores?
Get in touch with the author @kellitrapnell.
Enclosed in a chain-metal fence with a few nondescript shipping containers within sight, from afar it may be easy to miss Dekalb Market in Downtown Brooklyn. However, this outdoor urban space deserves a comprehensive meandering.
I ventured into the marketplace on a Wednesday afternoon after the lunch rush and this enclosed space offered a retreat from the normal hectic pace of city life.
All of the retailers and food vendors conduct their businesses from salvaged shipping containers, a particular type of renovation that has gained momentum in the past few years. This transformation of purpose, from carrying cargo to housing food stalls and boutiques, challenges the idea of how one form can perform multiple functions in different contexts. Additionally, the exterior shell of the containers and outdoor area maintain an industrial aesthetic while on the contrary, the interior of these stores shed this style and instead assume a chic atmosphere typical of a storefront boutique. Sustainability practices are evident beyond the use of shipping containers, especially with the urban-agriculture workshops at the farm that is also located within the market.
Now as for the shopping, there are several high-end boutiques and specialty shops that are Etsy-esque in style (in fact, several entrepreneurs do have Etsy accounts). Never Let Me Go and Etsy Artist Assembly are just a couple of the stores that I explored. In addition to the jewelry that is sold at both stores, Never Let Me Go also sells photography collages set onto wood panels while Etsy Artist Assembly offers hanging air plants in clear glass pots. Then, just for fun, I checked out Far Far Away Toys, a haven for any Trekkie, Star Wars enthusiast, or comic book fan. The owner, Gary Hernandez, has been collecting memorabilia for the past three decades.
Tucked away in one of the corners is Robicelli’s, a must-go and must-eat bakery and cupcake place. I inquired specifically about their cupcakes (seeing as positive reviews occupy one of their walls) and they have over 200 cupcake recipes that are on rotation throughout the season.
Afterwards (in a bizarre sequence) I sampled the buffalo and barbecue chicken wings at Dekalb Wings. The chicken was tender and the sauce was flavorful, so thus I was very content. The hand wipes the owner handed to me earlier definitely came in handy after devouring this meal.
Dekalb Market is a fun and quirky place to window-shop (maybe indulge in buying a couple specialty items), have a meal, and read a book during the week. However, the market also hosts several events during the weekend which are listed here.
Get in touch with the author @iyisak