Wednesday, August 22, 2012

NYC Bookshops, Part II: Midtown and Upper West Side

Argosy has been at its present location since 1931. Its huge stock of antiquarian and out-of-print items is spread out over six floors of this East 59th Street building and also fills a large warehouse in Brooklyn.
NYC Bookshops, Part II: Midtown and Upper West Side
by Delia von Neuschatz

My exploration of Manhattan bookstores continues. Below are my favorite ones from Midtown and the Upper West Side, again, in no particular order.

116 East 59th Street (between Lexington and Park Avenues)
(212) 753-4455
The ground floor at Argosy. Ships (notice one hanging from the ceiling) is a motif throughout the store.
Judith Lowry, one of the owners, is the second of three generations at the helm of Argosy, which has been “sailing” since 1925.
Stepping into Argosy from the hustle and bustle of 59th street feels like stepping back into another time and place. It is cool and quiet and dark and just like the treasure-laden Spanish galleons for which it is named, it is groaning with riches. This third generation family business carries out-of-print and rare books on almost every subject. It specializes in modern first editions, American history and the history of medicine and science.

Argosy also has a huge collection of antique prints and maps and if it's autographs you're looking for, you won't be disappointed. Its eclectic collection contains signed documents from many notables from the likes of Lord Byron to every American president including Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson. It also has signed photographs of innumerable movie stars: Clark Gable, John Wayne, Paul Newman, Betty Davis, Joan Crawford, Elizabeth Taylor, Elvis Presley and many more. In short, Argosy is a wonderful place in which to treat not only yourself, but family, friends and colleagues too. The shop fields calls from all over the world from politicians to heads of state to mere mortals seeking gifts for a special occasion or just to say thank you.
Original vintage prints and posters start at $300.
Argosy has an enormous number of original prints – copperplates and lithographs – covering virtually every subject. A one-stop shop, Argosy will be happy to frame them for you too.
Globes are also on offer ...
… as are maps and views.
Original 19th century oil paintings can also be purchased at Argosy.
These beautiful illustrated books make for great presents (for oneself or for others).
Some of Argosy's more exceptional holdings include a first edition of James Joyce's Ulysses in beautiful condition ($65,000) and an excellent first edition of Charles Darwin's Origin of Species. Yes, that Origin of Species. The latter will set you back a bit more – only about $150,000 or so. But if these rarities are a bit too rich for your blood, don't despair. There is something for every budget and I do mean every budget. Right outside its doors, you will find stands filled with an ample supply if $1 books and $3 prints.
This first edition of Ulysses without a spine is $30,000.
The first edition room on the second floor of Argosy.
$1.00 books.
These illustrated art books are only $3.00.
Prints are available for as little as $3.00, too.
A few of Argosy's autographed letters.
Ben Lowry is the third generation to carry on the Argosy family tradition.
The Complete Traveller Antiquarian Bookstore
199 Madison Avenue at 35th Street
(212) 685-9007
The Complete Traveller has been in existence and at the same location since 1978.
When it first opened (under a different ownership), the Complete Traveller sold new travel books only. The change to antiquarian books was gradual.
Sure, there are some good travel bookstores out there, but I doubt there’s another that’s quite like this one. That’s because the Complete Traveller deals strictly in rare and vintage travel-related books. You won’t find any Lonely Planet guides here, nor any plug adaptors, but oh ... the treasures you will stumble upon. Of course, there’s a large collection of manuals that cover pretty much every place on earth throughout different periods of time, but in addition to that, there are vintage maps and travel narratives too, helping to “complete” the whole picture.
Travel guides sure don't look like this in today's disposable world.
And that's not all. The Complete Traveller is a great place to find unique gifts, not just because of the distinctive travel-related material, much of it beautifully bound and illustrated, but also because there's a sprinkling of interesting items that you wouldn't necessarily expect to find there. There are first editions of notable works of fiction such as D. H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover and Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind (sold), for example, along with autographed photos of sports superstars such as Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle. Like all the best bookshops, the Complete Traveller is a reflection of its owner's interests.
Some of the shop's first editions. Lady Chatterley's Lover is $200.
Two vintage maps of Europe. The store also has an extensive selection of American maps.
Arnold Greenberg, the owner of the Complete Traveller, is a former attorney who, for the fun of it, wrote travel essays for publications like Frommer’s, among others, while he was practicing law. Here he stands in front of a prized and highly collectible set of Baedeker guides. Founded by German publisher Karl Baedeker, these are the forerunner of modern travel guides. They were extremely popular from the 19th century well into the 20th century. So preeminent were they during their time that the word “Baedeker” become a generic term for travel guide. They range in price from $40 - $2,000.
These English Baedekers for 1914 Russia are very rare as the rising political unrest during that time coupled with the outbreak of WWI, severely curtailed output. The price is $2,000.
It was back to business as usual for Karl Baedeker after WWI. Here he is shown in France amidst the bombed aftermath, taking notes for his new edition.
Still, in these economically challenging times, why have a shop that sells only old books on travel when there's money to be made on things like Parisian shopping manuals and squishy neck pillows? Well, as Mike Durrell, the extremely knowledgeable manger, patiently pointed out to me, these types of books are very collectible. There are a good number of collectors who are keen on a particular place or a particular author. They are also a wonderful source of information for researchers.

A customer who is very interested in Sigmund Freud came in recently asking if the shop had any material on an out-of-the-way hotel in northern Germany that Freud had once stayed at. And wouldn't you know it, The Complete Traveller did indeed have information on that hotel! This is the type of data that one would certainly be hard pressed to find by electronic means. And then there's also the fact that these vintage books provide a snapshot of a particular place and time. Some English travel guides written a hundred years ago, at the height of the British Empire for instance, have a very different outlook – let's just call it less open-minded – than anything written today. Thomas Cook's 1911 guide to India, Burma & Ceylon - $100. Potential insights into a certain mindset – priceless.
Michael Durell, the Manager. Michael is a musician, actor and fittingly, a licensed New York City guide. He has written and is co-starring in a murder mystery called Shamus, which will be staged this fall at The Producer's Club.
WPA guides for New Jersey from 1955 and 1977. The Works Progress Administration, a New Deal program, sponsored the American Guide Series covering 48 states and three territories in order to provide work for writers, photographers, cartographers, bookbinders and so forth during the Great Depression. Quite a few famous photographers and writers like James Baldwin and Eudora Welty contributed material, albeit anonymously, rendering the quality of these guides very high. Federal sponsorship eventually passed on to the states. Today, these guides are no longer being produced.
A page depicting Castle Rising in Norfolk, England from the A & C Black Norfolk & Suffolk guides. A & C Black, English publishers of, among other things, the annual Who's Who, pioneered the technology for reproducing watercolors, rendering their volumes very beautiful and highly collectible. Prices range from $100 - $500.
A Spanish biography of Eva Perón.
A first edition of short stories by Somerset Maugham. The story “Rain” was made into a movie in 1932 starring Joan Crawford.
A signed first edition of Churchill's six-volume The Second World War.
A few more of the Complete Traveller's eclectic offerings.
This photograph shows customers calmly browsing shelves in a bombed-out London bookshop during the Blitz. The “Keep Calm and Carry On” edict was apparently taken to heart.
A collection of Rudyard Kipling's work. Notice the swastika, originally a Sanskrit symbol denoting well-being.
A serendipitous collection makes it a pleasure to browse at the Complete Traveller.
31 West 57th Street (between 5th and 6th Avenues)
(212) 759-2424
Rizzoli occupies three floors of a historic townhouse which was once the showroom of Sohmer pianos. Perhaps incredibly for ever-changing New York, Rizzoli is only the second-ever occupant of this building. Sohmer had moved in in the early 1920s and Rizzoli followed suit in the mid-'80s. The Steinway showroom down the block provides the only clue that this stretch of 57th Street was once known as “Piano Row.” Rizzoli has recently added two more NYC locations – a boutique on the ninth floor of Saks Fifth Avenue and an outpost in Mario Batali’s Italian mega-market, Eataly.
Rizzoli brought in Italian craftsmen to restore the intricate plasterwork, which was original to the Sohmer piano showroom.
The wood paneling and chandeliers are from Rizzoli's first store at 712 Fifth Avenue, its home since 1964 until it moved to these premises in 1985.
As Rizzoli is owned by an Italian publishing conglomerate, it is not an independent shop, but it nonetheless deserves mention here for several reasons, not the least of which is that it is one of the most beautiful bookstores I have ever seen. When you step in and look up at the soaring ceiling, ornate plasterwork, gleaming wood paneling and dramatic chandeliers, you know that you are not in Kansas anymore. That the Italian newspaper, Corriere della Sera is sold in the shop, also lets on that you have stepped into another, better realm. And then, there are the books themselves – glossy design-oriented tomes on art, antiques, architecture, fashion, interior design – you name it, the visual arts are well represented here. Not in the market for a coffee table book you can show off to your friends? Well, there's probably something for you at Rizzoli's anyway as it carries a selection of popular fiction and non-fiction books, movies and magazines too.
A few of Rizzoli's offerings.
This Yves Saint Laurent Haute Couture, The Complete Works 1962 – 2002 by Pierre Bergé, is one of a limited edition of 500 boxed sets. Each set is made up of four hefty volumes containing reproductions of the sketches, runway notes and fabric samples for every garment Saint Laurent ever created. They are housed in a custom wooden cabinet which has to be delivered on a shipping pallet because it weighs 85 lbs! You know of course that all this couture does not come cheap. It can be yours for $2,750 (+ $150 for shipping).
A sampling of what's inside the YSL Complete Works.
And last but not least, the beautiful guitar music wafting through the store led me up to the third floor where I found a wide and eclectic music collection. If you're yearning for the sounds of Katy Perry or Snoop Dogg (or is it Snoop Lion these days?), read no further, but otherwise, you'll be well rewarded with a selection of pretty much every type of music from classical to jazz to Italian, Spanish, African, Reggae, Cuban, Indian, Brazilian Lounge, Celtic, Acoustic African, and the beat, I mean the list, goes on.
Some of Rizzoli's wide-ranging musical offerings.
Antonio Ximenez is one happy employee. This native of Spain has been working at Rizzoli since 1969! Incredibly, even though Antonio is now actually retired and lives in Hawaii, he likes being at Rizzoli so much that whenever he's in New York, he stops in the store not to shop, but to actually pitch in. When he's not helping customers at Rizzoli, Antonio can be found painting for he is also an artist.
Rizzoli's stylish boutique on the 9th floor of Saks Fifth Avenue opened earlier this year.
Posman Books
9 Grand Central Terminal at Vanderbilt and 42nd Street
(212) 983-1111
The front window of Posman Books inside Grand Central Terminal.
Greg Logan, the Manager, knows just what his customers – a diverse group made up largely of busy commuters and tourists from near and far – are looking for.
Inisde Posman.
With no less than three Manhattan locations, Posman Books is a thriving family-owned operation. They're doing something right because not only have they been in business for some 30 years, but are currently looking to expand. The flagship store in Grand Central Terminal caters to a good number of commuters coming to and from places like Westchester and Connecticut who expect the store to carry the latest and the greatest as mentioned in venerated publications like The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and the Financial Times. And Posman of course, is happy to oblige, thereby stocking a well-curated selection of current releases in hardcover and paperback, fiction and non-fiction. But, there's a lot more, including a sizable business section (as one might expect considering the audience), travel, cookery, fashion and children's books too.
Some stylish choices.
There's a good assortment of books on interior design …
… and cookery too.
If you're rushing on your way home and forgot to pick up a birthday gift for your little one, don't worry, Posman also carries educational toys and games. In addition, you will find an ample supply of gift cards, writing journals and daily planners conveniently located at the front.
Posman has a generous supply of children's books and toys ...
… and stationery too.
Handy NYC guides conveniently located at the checkout counter.
Book Culture
2915 Broadway at 114th Street
(646) 403-3000
Book Culture caters to its Upper West Side neighborhood in more ways than one. Yes, there's a good collection of popular fiction and non-fiction in this bright and airy space, along with academic journals, an extensive mystery section and books on subjects ranging from cookery to religion to the arts and mind and body. There are also many eye-catching, non-literary items to choose from: scarves, backpacks, letterpress notecards, rubber stamps and the like.
Book Culture's cheerful interior.
Book Culture's collection of scarves. Some literature-inspired t-shirts.
Book Culture offers a variety of graphic novels – fiction and non-fiction stories presented in a comic-strip format.
This is all well and good, but if you have children, you may be interested to learn about Book Culture's extensive children's department which not only contains a wide selection of storybooks in different languages (English, French and German), but also stocks games, toys and learning aids – so many in fact, that you could almost describe the downstairs area as a toy store with books. It was hopping when I was there on a hot Friday afternoon not least of all because a Spanish story time had just gotten under way. But Book Culture doesn't only cater to tots. It has books for young adults too on some serious subjects ranging from coping with one's sexual orientation to dealing with anxiety and building self-esteem. In short, Book Culture has something for kids of all ages from 0 to 100.
Frankie David (left) and Caitlin Nagle are two managers who are unabashedly enthusiastic about their jobs.
Frankie David leads a Spanish-language story time in front of an appreciative audience.
A pint-sized nook in Book Culture's play area.
Children's books in Spanish and German. Oftentimes, Spanish, German and French parents will find their childhood books at Book Culture and buy them for their own kids.
There's an extensive selection of apparel, games and toys.
Just down the block from Book Culture, you can catch a glimpse of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.
Westsider Books
2246 Broadway (between 80th and 81st Streets)
(212) 362-0706
Selling second-hand, vintage and rare tomes, Westsider Books is not short of subject matter as it covers pretty much every topic under the sun: fiction, literature, history, art, cooking, chess, cartoons, horror, mythology, Judaica, sexuality, New York, etc. It's all there. Another thing Westsider Books is not short on is atmosphere. The narrow shop does not beguile with bright lights and colorful gewgaws, that's for sure. But lined with books from floor to ceiling and decorated with dusty French horns, plastic skeletons and old-fashioned telephones, it offers up character in spades.
Bryan Gonzalez, the owner of Westsider Books, describes the shop's décor as a cross between his own eclectic tastes and Sanford & Son.
Some decorative items at Westsider Books.
Something else you will find plenty of at Westsider Books is reasonable prices. Not only are their hardcovers easy on the wallet, but Westsider also buys current used books and re-sells them at about half off of the cover price. So, if you want to own one of the latest best-sellers but don't feel like paying retail (and who does?) give them a call or better yet, stop in, for you're sure to find something else there that will appeal whether inside or outside amongst the $1.00 bargain bins. All in all, Westsider Books is one of those places that can only be found in New York. It's the type of idiosyncratic spot that helps give this city its inimitable energy.
The view from the second floor. Notice the horns and skeleton, a Halloween leftover, hanging above the front windows. Notice also the large collection of movies on VHS tape on the stairs – something VCR owners will appreciate.
These illustrated French fables from the early 20th century are $20.
These first editions range in price from $25 - $100.
Some lavishly illustrated books. The book on classic cars is $25 – half off the cover price.
Clockwise from above: Not an inch of space is wasted at Westsider Books; Westsider Books has a large number of vinyl LPs, but the bulk of their record collection, more than 30,000 in all, is housed in another shop – Westsider Records – at 233 West 72nd Street; There's a vignette around every corner, even in between the stair treads.
A corner chock-a-block with books.
A reading nook at Westsider books.
Bryan Gonzalez, the owner of Westsider Books, took one look at David Ray (above) a couple of years ago when David was working at a nearby Barnes & Noble and thought to himself: “I want this guy working with me.” The rest is history.
Click here for NYC Bookshops, Part I: Upper East Side.