New York City has always had a reputation as a hub for the literary-minded. Storied establishments that still remain, like The Strand and McNally Jackson, are stocked with whatever your literary lust might need. But for when you’re in need of a quieter reading encounter, there are a handful of hidden bookstores in NYC that you might pass on the street without noticing the cave of wonders inside. And while some from the list may be small, don’t underestimate the generous selection that can fit in one hole-in-the-wall.
We started putting together this article back in 2019, before the untimely passing of Michael Seidenberg, founder of Brazenhead Books. We had been in the midst of communicating with him to feature Brazenhead when we heard the news. This article will conclude with a tribute to Brazenhead, though it is no longer in operation. It was a space that was characteristically New York, founded by a quintessentially New York New Yorker. So take a break from buzz of the city, and dip into one of these off-the-beaten-path but hidden bookstores in NYC!
1. Burnt Books, 1014 Manhattan Ave, Brooklyn
Burnt Books is “open nearly always” according to one of their Instagram posts. This used bookstore is hidden within a bodega in Greenpoint called Green Discount Corp. Opened in July 2022, it was founded by Jason Mojica, owner of the nearby sister bookshop Hey Kids Comics!. The shop used to be marked by a spraypainted “Burnt Books” sign on the sidewalk, but now the giveaway is a wooden sign that points toward the shop. The selection of books inside encompasses a wide range of secondhand titles from classics by Hemingway to books on interior design, astrology, New York History, and more!
2. The Book Cellar, 1465 York Avenue
Love library books so much you want to keep them forever? Stop into the Book Cellar, concealed in the back of the NYPL’s Webster branch on York Avenue on the Upper East Side. This little spot is the book equivalent of a 24/7 extensive garage sale. The amount of paperback volumes that fit into the basement space is a near miracle, and the prices are unbeatable. While visiting, we heard a woman buying a whole armful of novels comment to the cashier, “These would be the price of a single book from Barnes&Noble!” She’s right. The Book Cellar is also great for donations, so if you love the finds, you can also give back. Give cheap books, and ye shall receive.
3. Albertine, 972 5th Avenue
Here’s one for the Francophile in all of us: Albertine, located at the back of the Cultural Services of the French Embassy, the former Payne-Whitney mansion on Fifth Avenue. It’s not exactly a likely place for a bookstore, but with a beautiful, well-lit space and a broad selection, it won’t disappoint. Brush up your language skills with translations, pick up your favorite French philosopher, or take on Proust— you’ll be surprised at how much there is to discover. It’s your chance to step into this amazing building, which was formally mostly off-limits to the public.
Mansions of Fifth Avenue Tour
If you have time to spare, the upstairs area of Albertine is a perfect reading space, replete with comfy chairs, lighting reminiscent of lanterns, and a Grand Central-like design of the stars on the ceiling based on the ceiling at the Villa Stuck in Munich. Whether you buy a book or bring your own, it’s the perfect hidden getaway from the bustle of the city. Join us on our next Gilded Age Mansions of 5th Avenue tour to step inside!
4. James Cummins Booksellers, 699 Madison Ave., 7th Floor
James Cummins Booksellers is invisible from the street. Located on the 7th floor, sandwiched between two designer stores, it’s not the place one goes for a paperback thriller. But Mr. Cummins has managed to fit an impressively diverse collection of rare books into a small space. The store has the air of a lost age— the walls are lined with the kind of stately, hefty tomes that Beauty and the Beasts’ Belle might have wanted in her library. Take a look around – you might be surprised what you see: children’s books a hundred years old and memoirs of the Civil War are just a few of the treasures that are stored here.
5. Chartwell Booksellers, 55 E 52nd St.
If you go looking for Chartwell Booksellers, you may find yourself walking in circles around a Midtown block. 55 East 52nd Street is home to the investment company Blackrock, with a large indoor privately-owned public space on the ground floor. You’ll see a pleasant waterfall, a Starbucks, maybe you’ll cross the public space and find yourself on 53rd Street. But, on a wall opposite from all the buzz is a sign in a royal red color with an arrow: “CHARTWELL Booksellers. The World’s Only Winston Churchill Bookshop.” Follow it behind the elevator banks and discover a handsome store with curved window displays and wooden bookshelves, devoted to England’s most famous prime minister.
The decor is clean and crisp, just like Winston would have liked it. The books are not just biographies, but anything related to the Prime Minister, like history books on events he lived through, or works on connected politicians. Also available are various Churchill-themed antiques and collectibles. Chartwell is a testament to the tucked-away treasures among the bookstores of NYC.
6. Aeon Books, 151 E Broadway
Aeon Books was founded with a mission to shed light upon works and authorial viewpoints that are often overshadowed or not given their due. One owner, Josiah, phrased it “reclaiming some element of New York City’s cultural landscape which has been covered by reckless development and cookie-cutter productions.” The store was born from the convergence of the ideas of two local booksellers who wanted to make a difference doing what they love. Aeon itself is tucked away down a flight of stairs near the Manhattan Bridge, but inside is a wide space, as well as a room in the back dedicated to events, talks, and readings in the same conceptual vein.
7. Dashwood Books, 33 Bond St.
Dashwood Books is the place to go if you love photography. The quaint Noho shop lies below street level down a metal staircase, but once inside, it has attractive, artistic decor and aesthetically pleasing stacks of art books. Dashwood was opened in 2005 by former Culture Director of Magnum Photos David Strettell, and now specializes in post-1960’s and rare photography collections. If you love the shop, you can also check out Gucci Wooster Bookstore, which opened last year on 375 West Broadway, and is also curated by Strettell. The official bookstore of the fashion brand of the same name, it also offers fashion photography books and exhibits on the Gucci label.
8. Westsider Books, 2246 Broadway
Westsider Rare and Used Books is the kind of bookstore that you stumble across once and wonder how you got so lucky. Located on Broadway on the Upper West Side, its width is far from indicative of the scope of its collection. The tiny space is packed from floor to high ceiling with books. Your only difficulty finding your next read may be reaching up high enough to grab it. The fiction selection seems neverending: pull out one tightly wedged paperback, and you’ll discover you’ve uncovered a whole underlying layer of books. If fiction is not your thing, there’s also an upstairs loft packed with nonfiction, including art and photography books. Hopefully, these hidden finds can continue to ignite more bibliophiles and illuminate subject areas that are too often forgotten in more mainstream shops. There’s a gold mine of unique bookstores under New York’s surface with character and quirk to match.
9. Molasses Books, 770 Hart St, Brooklyn
Molasses Books is down a small residential street in Bushwick. Don’t walk by too fast and you might mistake it for someone’s house, because you’ll want to take your time relaxing with a book in this one-room shop. You might say Molasses is one half books, one half coffee—the walls on the left and right are floor to ceiling bookshelves, while the back wall is a counter and espresso machine. The book highlights include a good collection of plays and poetry, as well as a shelf of literary and film criticism. If you’re looking to trade in your old books, this is the place to do it. You can you use store credit for both books and drinks. Lend your already read’s to someone else for a free coffee,
Bonus: Brazenhead Books
The award for perhaps New York’s most secret bookstore surely goes to Brazenhead Books, the apartment filled top-to-bottom with books that earned its title as a New York City legend. Located on the Upper East Side, Brazenhead was only available by appointment, but owner Michael Seidenberg, who was single-handedly responsible for the care and keeping of the space, was always open to giving interested visitors a look around. Because of his persistence and dedication, the hidden bookstore in NYC survived a move, and continued to grow and thrive afterwards. Sadly, Mr. Seidenberg passed away in 2019. He will be fondly remembered by book buffs and New York nerds alike, and for his passion that earned Brazenhead a place in what might be called New York folklore.
For more on books, check out 10 of NYC’s Oldest Libraries and Their Secret Histories