Islands in the Stream: A Walking Tour of New York’s Independent Booksellers

“Experience has fallen in value. And it looks as if it is continuing to fall into bottomlessness.”

“It is no longer intelligence coming from afar, but the information which supplies a handle for what is nearest that gets the readiest hearing.” –Walter Benjamin, “The Storyteller.” Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn.

When it comes to a reputation for difficulty, the book business is second only to the restaurant business… and no one has yet figured out how to run an online restaurant. The ascendance of e-commerce – along with the consolidation of corporate capital, the real estate bubble, and a host of concurrent factors – has over the last 15 years profoundly altered the reading lives of Americans. The changes are not exclusively for the worse; in the small town where I grew up, for example, it’s become a hell of a lot easier for a high-school sophomore to get his hands on a volume of, say, Angela Carter. But, as the recent documentary “Indies Under Fire: The Battle for the American Bookstore” suggests, the mercantile landscape grows increasingly inhospitable for independent booksellers. A recent spate of high-profile bookstore closings underscores the point (via Ed).

Why does this matter? After a Joshua Ferris reading at an independent bookstore the other night, a friend of mine proposed that our cultural lives are forged by a confluence of information and experience. Information – that Rolling Stone gave the album Born to Run five stars, for example – is a perfectly reasonable way to get a handle on a work of art. But to experience “Born to Run” exploding off the Delaware Memorial Bridge at night, in the summer, with the windows down and a person you love in the passenger’s seat, is to find it seared forever in one’s soul, like Marcel’s madeleine.

The corporate book-purveyor, armed with the best market research money can buy, directs information toward consumers. If I want to find out what Barnes & Noble thinks New Yorkers are likely to want to buy, the downstairs tables at the Union Square B & N can’t be beat. And there are fine books on those tables. But as Walter Benjamin observes, “The acquisition of books is by no means a matter of money or expert knowledge alone.” The experience of the Barnes & Noble – quality controlled, wood-veneered, perfectly odorless – disappears as soon as one is out the door.

A great bookstore, by contrast, is a staging ground for experience. The experience of the zealous clerk. The experience of the comely fellow browser. The experience of seeing Gordon Lish’s first book of stories nestled against Eudora Welty’s in a teetering pile, and reading the first page of “For Jerome” in situ, and feeling that private excitement of the mind. The experience of entering something larger than oneself… the republic of letters. As public libraries downsize stacks in favor of internet kiosks, this last experience, so important for so many of us, is increasingly the preserve of the independent bookstore.

Here in New York, the indie isn’t dead – far from it. Passionate owners and managers and employees understand that they’re not just making sales, but making room for an experience. As a way of thanking them, and celebrating the arrival (finally!) of spring – and in the spirit of Walter Benjamin – I herewith offer a highly selective walking tour of my favorite bookstores in New York.
NYC book store map

“I have made my most memorable purchases on trips, as a transient. Property and possession belong to the tactical sphere. Collectors are people with a tactical instinct; their experience teaches them that when they capture a strange city, the smallest antique shop can be a fortress, the most remote stationery store a key position. How many cities have revealed themselves to me in the marches I undertook in the pursuit of books!” -Walter Benjamin, “Unpacking My Library,” trans. Harry Zohn.

If my wanderings these days took me further uptown, I’d probably have some more stores to single out. As it is, I’ll start with the Gotham Book Mart. This venerable institution, featured in a sexually charged scene in Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis, is also John Updike’s favorite bookstore. This is, as far as I know, all that these two men have in common. In addition to fantastic selection of used & new 20th century literature, the Gotham boasts rare memorabilia, antiquarian treasures, and the best selection of literary magazines you’ll find anywhere… period.

Having got your fill of midtown, amble down Broadway past 14th St. Now we’re really in book country. The Strand, another New York institution, advertises “8 miles of books,” but it feels more like 16. A recent redesign has stripped away some of the flyblown, foxed, and watermarked pleasures of shopping in The Strand, but the vertiginous sensation of being surrounded by millions of cheap books remains… a feeling like playing hooky with a slight fever. Be sure to troll the Parisian dollar stalls outside, as great finds abound. Half-price review copies are great if you’re looking for contemporary fiction. The Strand remains a wonderfully terrible place to go searching for a specific book… I never leave empty-handed, but generally spend several hours and several dollars discovering volumes I wasn’t planning to buy.

Continuing downtown, forgo the cramped Astor Place B & N in favor of St. Mark’s Bookstore. You can’t turn around in this fantastic shop without elbowing a brilliant intellectual… they’re drawn here by the shelves full of recondite critical theory, post-New York School poetry collections, and cutting-edge art books… and by the feeling of rubbing elbows with the East Village denizens who penned them. Pick up some Slavoj Zizek, enjoy the condescension of an existentialist clerk… and be sure to wear your plastic-framed glasses. You’ll emerge feeling 15 IQ points smarter.

  • Stop 4: The folding tables on W. 4th St. (W. 4th between West Broadway and Mercer)

book tablesOkay, not strictly a bookstore, but what’s better than lollygagging on a sidewalk on a sunny day and discovering W.G. Sebald? Prices are negotiable, and the guys who sell the books make even the most hardcore bibliophile look minor league.

  • Stop 5: Oscar Wilde Books (15 Christopher Street between Greenwich Ave. & Waverly Pl.)

The country’s oldest gay and lesbian bookstore has been serving the West Village for more than 40 years. For founder Craig Rodwell, a “gay and lesbian bookstore” was not a clearinghouse for erotica, but rather a bookstore whose shelves spoke to the lives of the gay community. The store has been central to advocacy efforts for gay rights and, in the 80s, recognition of the growing HIV/AIDS crisis. Many a young poet has worked the register here, and a recent program invited authors like Michael Cunningham to spend an afternoon clerking, offering patrons a unique chance to chat informally with their favorite writers. Or was that Three Lives I’m thinking of? (154 W. 10th at Waverly Place)

This tiny shop on Carmine St. seems to run largely on remainders. Thus, prices are low, low, low. The sensibility is well-represented by the name. Here’s the place to find Zen esoterica, punk rock poetry, and various books from the political left. And you don’t have to worry about your money going to right-wing PACs. Much like…

Having worked up an appetite, stop into this gorgeous loft space on atmospheric Crosby St., and buy soup or a knish or coffee… for a great cause. This bookstore, staffed by volunteers, stocked with donations, sends 100% of its proceeds to its parent organization, Housing Works, which provides medical care, job training, housing, and other services to New Yorkers with HIV/AIDS who have faced homelessness. It’s truly an amazing project, and boasts some of the best literary programming in the city… like a recent reading/concert featuring Jonathan Lethem in conversation with George Saunders. Free! Of course, I’m biased, as Housing Works signs my paychecks.

McNally is maybe the most lavishly appointed bookstore in the city. Here, much attention has been paid to the aesthetics of the literary experience. Book displays feature small presses that produce beautiful books, like Coach House Books or Archipelago Books. The fiction section used to be arranged nationally (French, German, English, etc.), but is now, alas, alphabetical. Still, it’s hard to leave McNally without something lovely. If you’re not sure what to read, a friendly and knowledgeable staff is eager to share its favorite titles.

  • Now, across the Brooklyn Bridge to Stop 9: BookCourt (163 Court St. between Pacific and Dean)

BookCourt is not only my neighborhood independent bookstore, it’s the very model of a neighborhood bookstore. The selection of books and periodicals is large enough to meet everyone’s interests, and well-curated enough not to be overwhelming. Displays are tailored to the neighborhood’s reading habits… the BookCourt top 10 is always strikingly different from that of any bookstore in Manhattan. Benches on the sidewalk out front offer a comfortable place to crack open one’s latest purchases.

This ur-used bookstore is where I took in the above-mentioned Joshua Ferris reading, and so I’ll defer to Mr. Ferris for a description:

“There’s creaking hardwood floors, a pleasant dog on a thrift-store recliner, and the inimitable smell that comes of old comforting books long shelved back to back. It’s my favorite used bookstore in New York because it gets everything right: the big plate-glass window, the bell on the door, the enviable view of Manhattan, and the always well-stocked fiction section. Plus, a palpable feeling that you’re in a place where books, no matter how old, are alive and well. […] Open Mic, special guests, and food and drinks, including Moxie soda (oldest in America) and corndogs. Freebird is the kind of place that reminds you of why you read, why you wander New York streets in search of something, and why you know it when you find it.” (via TEV)

And now my feet are tired and it’s time for a beer and a corndog. But if you want to keep exploring, you should check these out, too (commenters, please feel free to add to this list):

is the author of City on Fire and A Field Guide to the North American Family. In 2017, he was named one of Granta's Best Young American Novelists.