New York is home to many independent and secondhand bookstores. Though rising rents have shifted the locations of a lot of these stores, many are still open for business. Beyond the book stacks, though, lies hidden histories, interesting facts, or other things you might not know from passing by the bookshop on the street or a stop inside. We went to ten of our favorite bookstores to learn about some of the secrets and little known facts about each bookstore. Read on to learn more!
1. Argosy Bookstore’s Famous Customers
Argosy, whose doors have been open since 1925, is the oldest surviving independent bookstore in New York City. Founded by Louis Cohen, who reportedly called it Argosy partially because the letter “A” would appear first in telephone directories, it is an antiquarian bookshop specializing in first edition books, antique maps, and prints.
It was originally located on 4th Avenue’s infamous “Book Row“, a group of blocks containing dozens of secondhand bookstores. Climbing rent prices eventually forced many of Manhattan’s bookshops to close or relocate, as was the case with Argosy. Five years after it opened, it moved to 116 E. 59th Street. Since then, it has had a number of famous customers, employees, and merchandise in the six-story townhouse it calls home in Midtown at
Cohen became acquainted with U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who ordered books from the store via catalogue, and later helped First Lady Jackie Kennedy stocked the White House library with books from Argosy. President Bill Clinton is also a frequent customer, joining the ranks of other famous fans, such as singer Michael Jackson, musical theatre lyricist Stephen Sondheim, former actress Princess Grace Kelly, Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci, and fashion designer Donatella Versace. Writer and musician Patti Smith even worked at Argosy for a time, but was fired when she accidentally spilled rabbit glue on a nineteenth-century Bible.
2. The Strand’s Hidden Gems
No list of New York’s independent bookstores would be complete without The Strand, the independent and rare books bookstore founded in 1927. The store’s slogan is “18 miles of books”, because if you lined up every book in the store side by side, it would stretch across more than 18 miles. The store is massive for an independent bookstore, with three floors full of shelves.
The Strand, named after the street in London, has become well-known, but there are still places within its hallowed shelves that get less traffic than others. The third floor rare book room, for example, is notably less crowded than the first and second floors. Reachable only by elevator, it has a reading nook area with armchairs, and display cases with rare first-edition books.
The Underground level of the Strand, below the Main floor, is also full of hidden gems. It features non-mainstream books, secondhand titles, records, textbooks, and banned books. Many of the books on this level are much cheaper than those on the floor above
The Underground books are certainly cheaper than the store’s current most expensive volume, an edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses, signed by both the author as well as painter Henri Matisse, who did the illustrations for the edition; the book is currently priced at a cool $45,000.
3. Alabaster Bookstore, a Glimpse into Book Row
Just one short block from the crowded Strand lies another independent bookstore—smaller, quieter, and cheaper. Alabaster Bookstore features unbeatable deals, such as $2 outside books, stacks full of books labeled $5, and first-edition secondhand titles for about $10-$13.
What’s interesting about Alabaster is that, even though it only opened in 1996, it is the last independent bookstore on Fourth Avenue, formerly the legendary “Book Row.” While all the other bookstores on the block relocated decades ago due to skyrocketing rent (even the neighborhood Strand), Alabaster has moved in.
The bookshop is smaller than most, but is packed with volumes, and their fiction section especially is large and diverse. Along with secondhand classic fiction, they also stock contemporary fiction, how-to books, religious texts, comic books, poetry, art history books, and so much more.
4. Rizzoli Bookstore, Bringing Luxury to Books
Rizzoli is an independent bookstore that first opened in 1964. With marble floors, wood-paneled bookcases, and elaborate chandeliers, the store’s interior was made to resemble 19th century luxury Parisian apartments. From 1964 to today, the store has specialized in illustrated books and international literature.
Rizzoli Books was founded by Angelo Rizzoli, an Italian publisher. Rizzoli also had a lesser-known career as a film producer in Europe, and was a producer on films such as La Dolce Vita (1960), 8 1/2 (1963), and Red Desert (1964).
In the 1970’s, Rizzoli opened more bookstores in Chicago, San Francisco, Washington D.C., and other cities across the United States. Also during the 1970’s, future designer and art collector Robert Polo worked part-time at Rizzoli’s flagship store.
Rizzoli relocated to West 57th Street in 1985, and then when the Midtown building was demolished, it moved to Broadway in NoMad in 2015, where it remains today. Though the other Rizzoli bookstores across the country have closed, Rizzoli opened a new boutique store in 2010 at the Italian market chain Eataly, specializing in cooking and food books.
5. Housing Works, Reading for a Cause
Housing Works, down in SoHo, sells books and coffee for a cause. The umbrella organization is the largest community-based AIDS-service organization in the country, and is dedicated to eradicating AIDS and homelessness.
Housing Works has a number of thrift store locations as well as the bookstore cafe, the profits of which go to research and medication for AIDS. The bookstore, which has been open since 1994, is staffed by volunteers, and all the books stocked are donated.
The bookstore has a balcony seating area, spiral staircases, and a cafe area that sells coffee, tea, pastries, and sandwiches. The bright, spacious location also doubles as an event venue after hours—the space has hosted weddings, panels, movie nights, parties, and even live concerts.
6. Albertine, a Francophile Paradise
Photo by Jess Nash
From the outside, the Cultural Services of the French Embassy looks like another beautiful Upper East Side townhouse. But not only is it a Gilded Age mansion connected to the Payne and Whitney families (and designed by architect Stanford White), there’s a unique bookstore inside. Albertine is the only bookstore in New York focused on French and English literature. They have over 14,000 titles over their two floors, some of which are French titles translated to English, others are original French books, and most are English books translated into French.
The second floor especially is a must-see. It is notable for its breathtaking star-filled ceiling, which is actually a hand-painted mural modeled after the ceiling of the Music Room at the historic Villa Stuck in Munich, Germany. Display cases on the wall also feature early editions of Simone de Beauvoir’s books and Proust’s works.
If you go to Albertine and wonder why some books are a bit pricey, it’s because the shop complies with French law that fixes book prices so that they cannot be enormously reduced. This helps keep even the smallest of booksellers and publishers in France in business.
While you’re there, check out the newly renovated Venetian Room, a Gilded Age parlor right next to the bookshop, donated to the embassy.
7. The Mysterious Bookshop, bringing Suspense to TriBeCa
The Mysterious Bookshop, open since 1979, is the oldest and largest mystery-specializing bookstore in the world. Like many of the bookshops on this list, it has relocated from its original location. Once in Midtown, it now serves the Tribeca community.
The store was founded by Otto Penzler, renowned mystery fiction editor. Penzler is considered a great authority on mystery fiction, and now publishes original mystery books through his publishing imprint, The Mysterious Press. These books are available among other titles at the bookshop.
The bookstore also has a story series called “Bibliomysteries“, which includes novellas written by well-known mystery and suspense writers, exclusively for the store. The store also has limited editions of novels by such mystery writers as Michael Connelly and James Ellroy.
The Mysterious Bookstore also hosts book subscription clubs, a newsletter, events, and a blog dedicated to what’s new in mystery and crime fiction.
8. Three Lives and Co., a Writer Hotspot in the West Village
Small, friendly, and homey, Three Lives and Company is everything you could wish for in a cozy independent bookstore. Located in the corner of a brick building in Greenwich Village on West 10th Street and Waverly Place, its selection is small but diverse.
Three Lives and Co. has been a neighborhood staple in the Village since 1968. After having an almost-closure in 2016 due to sale of the bookstore’s building to a new owner, community members rallied around the shop and it stayed open.
Offering everything from new releases to niche genres and classic literary staples, it has not only a great variety of literature, but is a favorite spot for renowned authors. Writers Zadie Smith, Oliver Sacks, and Patti Smith were/are frequent patrons of the store. 1999 Literature Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Cunningham even called it “one of the greatest bookstores on the face of the Earth”, and said it always makes him “feel rejuvenated”.
9. powerHouse Books, a Place With One-Of-A-Kind Books
powerHouse Books, an extension of the event space “powerHouse Arena” located in DUMBO next to the Manhattan Bridge, is a small bookshop focused on art and photography books as well as self-published and limited edition books. Though it has a handful of mainstream titles available, the majority of books there are from smaller, independent publishing companies, including their own.
Since its opening in 1995, the bookstore has continued to thrive. Located in a former warehouse, the store has bright space for books as well as seating. The venue has held many book parties and events, featuring authors such as Salman Rushdie, David Sedaris, Tracy K. Smith, and Paul Auster, among others.
Publishing hopefuls can even get their chance to see their title on shelves: Powerhouse Books has a publishing submission program which, for a $300 fee, gives applicants a detailed and constructive evaluation of their book as well as the chance to be published in the Powerhouse bookstore.
10. McNally Jackson, a Thriving Independent Chain
McNally Jackson has been a staple in SoHo since 2008, and just opened a new location in Williamsburg, Brooklyn earlier this year. The bookstore has a large selection of titles and merchandise, but it is the cafe that really sets the store apart. The fully-fledged cafe attached to the store attracts customers that inevitably become book browsers.
The McNally Jackson website even sells their books available for delivery, in an effort to compete with giants like Amazon and Barnes and Noble online retail sites. Lastly, McNally Jackson has also extended to stationary; there are now two locations for McNally Jackson’s “Goods for the Study” stationary store. The stationary branch sells notebooks, pens, office accessories, and furniture.
Next, full a more exhaustive list of NYC’s independent bookstores, head here. Also check out Cafe Con Libros is a Feminist Coffee Shop & Bookstore in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and 10 of NYC’s Most Quirky Themed Bookstores.