Islands in the Stream: Our “Walking Tour of New York’s Independent Bookstores,” Revised and Expanded

March 17, 2009 | 1 book mentioned 19 4 min read

**We’re doing a version of this tour in May. Click here to get all the details.

I. Introduction

By the time our original “Walking Tour of New York’s Independent Bookstores” hit the web in 2007, its first stop – the Gotham Book Mart – had closed its doors for good. As I type these words, stop number 5, Greenwich Village’s venerable Oscar Wilde Bookshop, looks likely to join the Gotham on the honor roll of bookstores past. The Strand Annex in lower Manhattan is, as of last summer, no more.

It would be belaboring the obvious to say the last two years have been tough times for the bookmen and bookwomen. And yet, despite the vagaries of the business, independent bookstores continue to open, and to serve as hubs for communities real and imagined. I’ll spare you the exegesis on why I think this matters – we’ve covered that ground in the original post, and elsewhere. Instead, I’d like to offer you a new and improved edition of the Walking Tour.

You can still find brief descriptions of many of the stops in our first “Islands in the Stream Post,” but the route we’ve charted has changed, and we’ve added new stops, with new descriptions below. In addition, through the magic of modern technology, we’ve created an information-rich online map of the tour.

The full-size version of this map contains all of our capsule reviews, plus directions and website links. [Update: You can also now add your own edits to the tour at our Collaborative Atlas of Book Stores and Literary Places.] Below we offer the step-by-step itinerary, including capsule reviews for the newly added stops.

II. The Tour

  • Stop 1: St. Mark’s Bookshop (31 3rd Avenue at 9th Street).
  • Stop 2: The Strand (828 Broadway at East 12th.)
  • Stop 3: Partners & Crime Mystery Booksellers (44 Greenwich Avenue at Charles Street)

    This well-stocked half-basement shop in the heart of Greenwich Village is one of several area bookstores that specialize in mystery books. The staff is steeped in the store’s chosen genre, making this an excellent place for suspense buffs to find new titles and old classics.

  • Stop 4: Three Lives & Co. (154 West 10th Street at Waverly Place)

    The owners of Three Lives know that varnished wood and books go together like Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, and so the whole space has a uniquely warm atmosphere. The staff – one of the friendliest and most knowledgeable in the city – contributes to the sense of ease and comfort. Three Lives has also figured out how to maximize the number of titles placed face-up or face-out, which makes browsing easy. This is a particularly good spot to look for literature in translation; Ingo Schulze’s New Lives was prominently displayed on a recent visit.

  • Stop 5: Housing Works Used Book Cafe (126 Crosby St. between Prince and Houston)
  • Stop 6: McNally Jackson (formerly McNally Robinson) (52 Prince St. between Mulberry and Lafayette)
  • Stop 7: Bluestockings (172 Allen Street between Stanton and Rivington)

    Bluestockings, the venerable, cooperatively run Lower East Side institution, puts the independent back in independent bookstore. Of New York’s many bibliophile haunts, this one boasts perhaps the most pronounced curatorial sensibility. Punk, feminist, progressive, culture-theoretical, and environmental sensibilities predominate, without domineering. With its extensive and esoteric periodical section, its frequent events, its adventurous front tables, and its terrific coffee, Bluestockings is a great place to make a discovery.

  • Now, across the Brooklyn Bridge to Stop 8: Melville House Bookstore (145 Plymouth Street at Pearl Street, Brooklyn)

    Melville House HQ, as I like to think of it, is part publishing house, part bookstore. The daily operations of Dennis Loy Johnson’s stalwart independent press take place in Bat-Cave-like secrecy behind a nifty set of pivoting bookshelves. Up front, shelves and tables are stocked with the Melville House catalog, as well as the wares of other Brooklyn-based independents and literary magazines, including Akashic Books, Ugly Ducking Presse, N+1, and A Public Space.

  • Stop 9: BookCourt (163 Court St. between Pacific and Dean)
  • Stop 10: Freebird Books & Goods (123 Columbia St. between Kane & Degraw)
  • Stop 11: WORD (126 Franklin Street at Milton Street, Brooklyn)

    WORD, a new Brooklyn bookstore, seeks to bring the Three-Lives/BookCourt model of the cosy neighborhood bookstore to the off-the-beaten-path precincts of Greenpoint. In this case, WORD combines top-shelf contemporary literature with a great selection of kids’ books. Frequent events and a terrific staff help cement the connection between store and neighborhood. With one of the more impressive internet efforts among NYC independents, WORD is doing online community-building, as well.

III. The Future(s) of Independents

Not just in the Big Apple, but all over America, the rapid technological and economic transformations of the last decade have profoundly altered the ecosystem in which independent bookstores exist. Far from solemnizing the end of an era, however, our Walking Tour seeks to illuminate some of the strategies that may help our favorite bookstores thrive in the 21st Century. A glance at our last three stops serves to illustrate the point.

Since we first wrote about BookCourt (Stop 9), the store has expanded, nearly doubling its square-footage. This has allowed it to create a more generously apportioned area for children’s books – a growth genre in this baby-booming neighborhood, and a turf BookCourt can now vigorously compete for with the Barnes & Noble down the street. Another advantage of expansion: the store can now book readings for big names such as Richard Price without fear of running out of space.

Freebird Books (Stop 10), under new ownership, has expanded in a more metaphorical sense, building up its events calendar. Readings and screenings, post-apocalyptic book clubs, and back porch barbecues help attract readers over to quiet Columbia Street. Owner Peter Miller also maintains a lively, involving blog detailing his discoveries in the used-book trade.

WORD (Stop 11) has nudged the events-plus-online-presence strategy even further toward the latter. With a frequently updated blog, a Twitter account, a facebook following and a highly functional website, Word involves even those readers who can make it to the store only infrequently. Millions alum Patrick Brown, now blogging for L.A.’s Vroman’s Bookstore, has written perceptively and at length about how a bookstore’s online dimension can become more than window-dressing. I’ll be interested to see how aggressively, and how successfully, independent bookstores expand their online efforts in the coming years.

More mapping fun: The Millions’ Collaborative Atlas of Book Stores and Literary Places

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.