Friday, September 7, 2012

NYC Bookshops, Part III: Downtown

Three Lives & Company. The name is a nod to the three women who originally opened the shop in 1978 and to the Gertrude Stein novel of the same name. (Photo: Christopher L. Smith/ Courtesy of Three Lives).
NYC Bookshops, Part III: Downtown
by Delia von Neuschatz

I headed downtown for this third and last installment of my series on Manhattan bookstores. There are so many good ones that I couldn't stick to my usual list of six and felt compelled to add two more. All in all, from Morningside Heights to Tribeca, York Avenue to Broadway, there are many wonderful bookshops that form vibrant parts of their communities; that are real neighborhood touchstones. They are as diverse as their proprietors, but one common thread running through all of them, at the risk of sounding corny, is passion. One thing that my visits to all these bookstores all over Manhattan (20 altogether) made clear to me is that what compels people to work in a bookstore (or take the plunge and own one) is a love of books and sharing that enthusiasm with their customers.

Three Lives & Company
154 West 10th Street (between 6th and 7th Avenues)
(212) 741-2069
Owner Toby Cox is a former publisher who realized (mostly through his frequent patronage of Three Lives) that what he really enjoyed was the selling end of the publishing chain – the interaction with customers to be precise. So, when the opportunity came up in 2001 for him to purchase the shop, he never looked back. (Photo: Troy Chatterton/Courtesy of Three Lives)
You know straight away as you approach Three Lives that you're in for a treat. There's the striking black façade with the gold lettering and the red front door placed on a diagonal which just begs to be opened. And upon crossing the threshold, you'll find yourself wanting to linger. Not only do the ambient lighting, exposed brick walls and warm wood paneling create a comfortable refuge, but when you begin talking to the passionate and extremely knowledgeable staff, some of whom have been there for well over a decade, you find yourself staying much longer than you had originally anticipated.
And then of course, there are the books. If you’re looking for Danielle Steele, move on for Three Lives doesn’t just order the latest releases willy nilly. It can’t afford to because with only 650 square feet of space at its disposal, it has to be selective … extremely so. What you will find at Three Lives then, and what I suspect keeps customers coming back after everything has been said and done, is the store’s tightly curated selection of titles. Always on the lookout for “a good story well told,” Three Lives concentrates on the crème de la crème in literary fiction although it must be said that it’s certainly not above stocking up on popular requests. So, if it’s Fifty Shades of Grey you’re after, you’ve come to the right place. What’s more, Three Lives also carries a good deal of narrative non-fiction and a healthy dose of travel guides and New York-centric tomes too.
An ample collection of travel guides at Three Lives.
The shop's first-class selection of reads makes it easy to get lost in such a small space.
The Greenwich Village Historical Society has described Three Lives as a “pocket of civility” and the store certainly lives up to that ideal. Patronizing it is an experience to be savored. It is slow food and comfort food in these fast-food times and may Three Lives enjoy continued longevity.
St. Mark's Bookshop
31 Third Avenue between 8th and 9th Streets
(212) 260-7853

•St. Mark's Bookshop closed on February 28, 2016.
St. Mark's Bookshop has been in its present location for the last 20 of its 35 years. When a rent increase threatened to put it out of business last year, the Cooper Square Committee (the same folks who 50 years ago stopped Robert Moses from planting a highway through the Lower East Side) set up an online petition which ultimately garnered more than 40,000 signatures, resulting in a year-long reduction of rent. Several luminaries, including Salman Rushdie, counted among the signatories.
The founders of St. Mark's Bookshop, Bob Contant and Terry McCoy. Cost-cutting measures have included a 50% reduction of their salaries and the early collection of Social Security benefits.
An East Village institution, St. Mark's Bookshop has been in business since 1977. Unfortunately, it is currently struggling to survive. As noted above, the landlord, Cooper Union, has reduced the rent for a year, but that year is almost up now, and St. Mark's Bookshop is looking to relocate. To that end, they have initiated a fundraising drive on the internet through Lucky Ant (whereby donors receive gift cards and discounts) managing to raise enough money to finance a move to a more affordable space. In the meantime, a potential investor has come forward. The two parties are currently in talks and as of this writing, it appears there's a chance the shop will be able to stay put.
To cut expenses, the owners have also reduced inventory, hence the empty shelves.
Still, St. Mark’s has a sizable selection of literary fiction and non-fiction, among other genres. In selecting its inventory, co-owner, Bob Contant, says, “We look for quality regardless of subject area.”
A few of the topics offered by St. Mark's.
St. Mark's stocks over 2,000 periodicals covering everything from fashion to political theory to many literary journals.
As Bob Contant, one of the owners pointed out, publishers need bookstores for without them, they would not be able to showcase their books. It's not that easy, after all, to draw attention to your latest release in the crowded on-line marketplace. Plus, if the community support that St. Mark's enjoys shows anything, it's that neighborhoods need bookstores too. And St. Mark's is very much a product of its environment. As such, it has a large poetry selection, along with cultural theory, art, photography, graphic design and literary fiction. That's not to say that it's entirely esoteric, however. There are plenty of current releases; you just won't find the likes of Bob Patterson on the shelves. You will find Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad (very enjoyable — I highly recommend it), however, and dare I say, even Fifty Shades of Grey. From what I've gathered, that book has helped several stores make their rent in recent months. Here's looking forward to St. Mark's paying their rent in the only place it can ever really call home — the East Village — for another 35 years.
There are also affordable remainders – issues of publishers' overstock …
… along with documentaries
… and notecards and postcards too.
This says it all.
Idlewild Books
12 West 19th Street (between 5th and 6th Avenues)
(212) 414-8888

Current location:
170 7th Ave South
Idlewild is the only travel bookstore in NYC. It occupies the parlor floor of an 1880's building in the Flatiron district. A second store specializing in foreign language books was opened in Brooklyn earlier this year.
David Del Vecchio founded Idlewild in 2008. This former UN press officer is a bibliophile who wanted to open the type of bookstore he was always looking for while jet-setting for his job – namely one that gives travelers a sense of place. Throw his love of languages into the mix and voilà! – the result is Idlewild.
Idlewild was the name of JFK airport before 1963 and this beautiful shop goes a long way towards conjuring up the by-gone days of civilized travel. You are virtually guaranteed to be pleasantly transported to the destination of your choice upon entering this airy, high-ceilinged bookstore/language center. Decorative touches like chairs originally from the American Airlines international terminal at Idlewild, urge you to pause and explore. So do the large windows and abundant seating.
The view out onto the street. The store sells maps and globes too.
Several of the building's original details like the crown moldings and wood floors have been restored and preserved.
The books are arranged by country rather than by subject matter, providing a delightfully comprehensive picture of … well, the world. Virtually every country is covered from Argentina to Zimbabwe. So for instance, shelves dedicated to Japan contain not just travel guides, but classic and contemporary Japanese literature, contain mysteries, graphic novels and books about Japanese baseball.
In the France section, there are many literary delights in addition to the guidebooks. Madame Bovary, The Three Musketeers, A Tale of Two Cities, Belle de Jour, and Gigi, among others, share space with the latest book on Coco Chanel. There's even a biography of Vincent van Gogh.
With its ample selection of fiction and non-fiction reads, Idlewild is as much a literature bookstore as it is a travel store. Idlewild sells French, Spanish and Italian books for children and adults alike.
A sampling of some French children's books. In fact, it has the largest selection of French books altogether in NYC.
And what would make a travel experience even more rewarding than being familiar with your destination's food and culture? Knowing the language, of course! To that end, Idlewild also offers a variety of language classes. Taught by native speakers, they are given in French, Spanish and Italian. A wide selection of foreign language books in the shop will ensure continued verbal proficiency. All in all, Idlewild is for travelers, book lovers and would-be polyglots alike. So, even if you're not about to embark on a journey, go to Idlewild. It's worth the trip.
Language classes are held at the back of the shop, behind the velvet curtains.
Susana A. Benitez teaches Spanish at Idlewild.
The room where language classes are held. French, Spanish and Italian are taught at 4 different levels of proficiency. The classes are popular and book up quickly, so call in advance if you'd like to secure a spot.
The chair is one from a set that came from the old American Airlines international terminal at Idlewild (pre-1963 JFK). Notice how it's not bolted to other chairs or to the floor.
A collection of cheeky Luxe City Guides for the sophisticated traveler are available at the checkout counter.
Idlewild is surrounded by beautiful architecture. The Flatiron Building is a few blocks away.
The Mysterious Bookshop
58 Warren Street (between Chambers and West Broadway)
(212) 587-1011
The Mysterious Bookshop was originally located near Carnegie Hall on West 56th Street for over 20 years. It moved to its present Tribeca digs in 2005.
Otto Penzler, the owner of the Mysterious Bookshop. Otto is so passionate about mysteries, he also publishes them.
Having been in existence since 1979, the Mysterious Bookshop lays claim to being the oldest mystery bookstore in the US. And sadly, it will soon have the added distinction of being the only mystery bookstore in New York as their one true competitor, Partners & Crime located in the Village, will close its doors for good in September. On a happier note, however, the Mysterious Bookshop shows no signs of following the same fate, having become well entrenched in its relatively new neighborhood of Tribeca.
The Mysterious Bookshop is not only the oldest mystery bookstore in the US, but at 2,000 square feet, it is also the largest.
The shop has everything from rare and collectible books to pulpy paperbacks. A few treasures include a first edition of Jim Thompson's Nothing More Than Murder ($1,750) and hard-to-come-by British first editions of Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy ($2,000 for the set).
The Mysterious Bookshop also carries the largest collection of Sherlock Holmes (aka Sherlockiana) in the US.
From its loft-like downtown digs which house an impressive 20,000 – 30,000 volumes, the shop sells mystery books, of course, and a whole lot more besides. Basically, “if there’s a crime or a hint of a crime in a book, we’ll carry it,” says Ian Kern, the manager. So, to that end, the Mysterious Bookshop also stocks espionage, suspense and crime fiction. You will spot releases from current favorites you may not expect to see there like Alan Furst, Jo Nesbo and Joyce Carol Oates alongside modern mystery writers like James Lee Burke and Michael Connelly. And of course, you can always count on finding mystery classics from the likes of Agatha Christie, Raymond Chandler, and Arthur Conan Doyle.
These first editions range in price from $100 - $500.
A few more first editions.
Good deals are on hand as well.
The shop’s wide range of children’s books further contributes to its popularity. Crowd-pleasing series like Harry Potter, The Sisters Grimm and The Mysterious Benedict Society has turned the shop into a family destination of sorts. And then, there are the book clubs – seven in all. With names like “British Imports,” “Hard Boiled” and “Soft Boiled,” they cater to a plethora of different tastes and are collecting rather than reading clubs. Upon enrolling, you (or a lucky giftee) will receive a signed modern first edition every month … at no additional fee. Zip. Zilch. Zero. That’s because the Mysterious Bookshop does not believe in charging extra, as some stores do, for obtaining an author’s autograph. With so much to offer and a knowledgeable staff on hand to boot, it’s no mystery why the Mysterious Bookshop is a real treasure – and worth the trip for all of you uptown dwellers.
The Mysterious Bookshop's collection of children's books makes the store popular with young families.
The shop holds 4-5 events per month – readings and discussions and book release parties with a focus on local authors.
Ian Kern wears many hats at the Mysterious Bookshop – Manager, Event Coordinator and Buyer.
McNally Jackson
52 Prince Street (between Lafayette and Mulberry)
(212) 274-1160
McNally Jackson wows. I think I might even have said “Wow!” out loud when I first walked into this lively, no expense-spared, two-story shop. It is a soaring space with many striking features from a massive light fixture/sculpture hanging from the ceiling to a hip café. A café! This is the first one that I’ve seen in an independent bookstore in New York. And bustling it was too on this particularly scorching weekday afternoon.
The café at McNally Jackson. Notice the impaled books hanging from the ceiling and the chic sconces.
Roger Pantano, the Manager, and Fiona Duncan, one of the sales associates. McNally Jackson prides itself on having a diverse staff. Roger is a recent transplant from San Francisco and it is obvious from his bonhomie that he hasn't been corrupted by the Big Apple … yet.
And then, after a talk with the manager, Roger Pantano, I discovered that McNally Jackson is about substance as much as it is about form (if not more so). Roger was quick to point out that what makes McNally Jackson stand out, first and foremost, is its careful selection of books. Virtually every book is vetted by the owner, Sarah McNally. The second noteworthy aspect, according to Roger, is the extremely knowledgeable staff whose diverse tastes ensure that they will find something that is bound to please pretty much anyone.
A stylish display of food and wine-related books at McNally Jackson.
Some deals to be had at the shop.
McNally Jackson carries a carefully chosen selection of titles which includes fiction, non-fiction, art, architecture, design and cookery, among others. It also has a large collection of Spanish books from all over the world. It even has a Spanish workshop where you can practice your language skills.
A spacious stair landing is put to good use.
McNally Jackson has a comprehensive selection of periodicals and journals too, including some hard-to-find ones.
And then, there are the events. One can attend author readings, performances, panels and discussions. All of this activity keeps McNally Jackson hopping and makes it an integral part of the neighborhood. On a recent day, the store hosted both a reading by Peter Yarrow of the folk music trio Peter, Paul and Mary and a puppet show in the children's section. There's never a dull day at McNally Jackson.
The children's section in which puppet shows are staged.
And last but not least, McNally Jackson has something no other bookstore in New York City has — the Espresso Book Machine. This impressive, copier-looking device sits front and center and clicks and whirrs away while performing one task — it prints books. It will actually spit out a whole book while you wait. What's the purpose of this when you're surrounded by books, you say? Well, the purpose is two-fold. First, you can self-publish and second, you can summon up an out-of-print book on the spot. With everything it has to offer, McNally Jackson is a destination in and of itself. Indeed, its many repeat customers come from all over the city.
For a modest set-up fee plus an affordable price per copy (about $15), you can produce your very own book with the Espresso Book Machine. And depending on the self-publishing package you choose, McNally Jackson will even stock it on its shelves and in its e-store.
The print-on-demand service of the Espresso Book Machine is convenient for the customer and for the store. With about 4 million books to choose from in the public domain plus many more from an ever-expanding publisher network, you're spoiled for choice. McNally Jackson can save on shelf space and its customers can save on time and shipping fees. You can have a beautifully printed and bound paperback, hot off the presses, in the time it takes to quaff … well, an espresso at the adjacent café.
266 Bleeker Street (between 6th and 7th Avenues)
(212) 807- 8655
A rent spike caused Bookbook to move a few blocks away (making room for the deep-pocketed Bookmarc, a Marc Jacobs store, in its wake).
Like all good bookstores, Bookbook has a diverse and knowledgeable staff. Yanik Faylayev (left) hails from Uzbekistan and is fluent in Farsi, while George Goss is from a bit closer by (Connecticut) and takes beautiful photographs.
Pat Weaver, the author of The Borough of Blackwell, a children's book, works at Bookbook.
Formerly known as the Biography Bookshop, Bookbook moved down the street a few years ago, re-christening itself and expanding its selection in the process. While it still stocks a good number of biographies, the shop also carries a selective assortment of fiction, non-fiction, travel, poetry, philosophy, film, theater and children's books. In addition, its range of NYC and Greenwich Village-based books is quite comprehensive.
Where Bookbook shines is also in its pricing. Not only are its hardcovers marked down 20% year-round, but it also carries remainders. These are unused publishers' overstocked books sold at about half off the cover price. More bargains are to be had on the tables outside. The cash register was singing when I was there and with its first-rate inventory and cut-rate pricing, it's easy to see why Bookbook is a favorite among locals and tourists alike.
A few of Bookbook's remainders.
Some more remainders.
T-shirts and graphic novels are also amongst the offerings at Bookbook.
Strand Bookstore
828 Broadway at 12th Street
(212) 473-1452
The Strand, named after the famous publishing street in London, opened for business in 1927 on 4th Avenue between Union Square and Astor Place, aka “Book Row." Strand is now the last survivor out of a total of no less than 48 bookstores on Book Row in its heyday. One can safely say that with 2.5 million books spread out over 55,000 square feet in its current location on 12th Street and Broadway, the Strand is not just surviving, but thriving.
Fred Bass, who had started working in his father's store at the age of 13, took over the running of the business in the 1950s after completing a stint in the Armed Forces. He now runs the store with his daughter, Nancy Bass Wyden.
The motto for this third generation family business is “18 miles of books” and they’re not kidding because this book emporium is HUGE. Even more volumes are available online through their site. The whole operation has certainly done its bit for the community because it employs no less that 240 souls to keep it all going. When I was there on a summer’s weekday afternoon, it was crammed with shoppers. I even saw something I’ve never seen in a bookstore before – customers maneuvering through the aisles with shopping carts. So, to what does the Strand owe its popularity? Well, there’s the wallet-friendly pricing for one thing. Every book is discounted from 10% to as much as 50%. Used books, new books, even reviewers’ copies are all there for the taking at recession-proof prices. Plus, you may be able to augment your income by selling your books to the Strand, for they buy books too.
Miles and miles of book shelves. You may even spot a celebrity or two among the stacks because who doesn't love a bargain? Celebrity sightings include Mick Jagger, Julianne Moore, and Orlando Bloom.
Half-price books at the Strand keep customers grinning from ear to ear.
Some discounted coffee-table books. The Strand claims to have the world's largest assortment of art books.
Another factor is the vast selection. American history and literature, fiction, philosophy, psychology, children's books – it's all there.
Many more books, CDs and DVDs can be found downstairs.
And last but not least there are the events, which are held several times a week. But the Strand doesn't hold just book signings and readings, as enjoyable as those might be. The Strand, in partnership with The Paris Review, has created a literary salon called Strand Dialogues whereby writers are paired with actors, playwrights and poets in discussions and even performances about their works. Some notable and varied participants include Alex Katz, Rosamund Bernier, James Franco, David Lynch and Mario Batali.
On a recent evening, celebrity chef, Marcus Samuelsson of Red Rooster fame, was at the Strand to sign copies of his memoir, Yes, Chef and to be interviewed by food writer, Amanda Hesser.
A large crowd came to hear Marcus Samuelsson speak, enjoying some wine and refreshments in the process.
Marcus Samuelsson's poignant memoir.
The coincidentally-named Jessica Strand is the Events Director.
A corner of the Rare Book Room where events are held. The room is open to the public.
These events are held on the lofty third floor, which also houses the Strand's rare book collection. Goodies include a complete set of Mark Twain's works which has the distinction of having two autographs — Mark Twain and Samuel Clemens. This one will set you back $15,000. There's also a first edition of Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind in pristine condition with the first dust jacket, which can be yours for $10,000. But with prices beginning as low as $15, there's something for everyone in this antiquarian depository.
This is a very rare 1935 edition of James Joyce's Ulysses. It is illustrated by Henri Matisse and signed by both, James Joyce and Matisse. Although the artist signed all 1,500 copies, the author only signed 250 of them. One story in circulation about this discrepancy is that when Joyce saw the illustrations, he believed (erroneously) that Matisse had not read his book and had made the drawings for Homer's Odyssey instead. In a huff, he refused to sign any more copies. The price of this little gem is $45,000.
The signatures of James Joyce and Henri Matisse.
Matisse's illustrations.
Jenny McKibben in front of some rare book treasures, which are safely kept under lock and key. Jenny is adept at creating libraries. The Strand has created libraries for a wide range of clients from the Waldorf-Astoria to Polo Ralph Lauren and even Steven Spielberg.
Some vintage items at the Strand which routinely rents its wares to interior decorators, set designers and photographers.
The view from a landing.
It's difficult to leave empty-handed with such a wide variety of merchandise.
All in all, you can pretty much buy anything at the Strand except for textbooks. That is the one type of book they do not carry.
The Strand also operates a kiosk at 60th Street and Fifth Avenue.
Shakespeare & Co.
716 Broadway at Washington Place
(212) 529-1330

Current location:
939 Lexington Avenue
(between 68th and 69th Streets)
(212) 772-3400
Lest there's any confusion, the only connection between NYC's Shakespeare & Co. and the famed Parisian bookshop is a shared name.
With four NYC locations, all within easy proximity of various college campuses, this independent chain of bookstores specializes in the buying and selling of textbooks. But, each store caters to its neighborhood too and to that end, carries a wide and distinctive range of books. That is certainly the case with Shakespeare and Co.’s East Village outpost. When shelves bear irreverent names like “Drinking, Smoking and Screwing,” “Eurotrash,” “Boss Tweed” and “Le Film,” you get a pretty good idea of what’s on offer (or at least are intrigued by the names and want to explore) and you also know that you’re in a different type of a place. In what other bookstore will you find Bedside Kama Sutra sharing floor space with Winnie the Pooh (albeit at a respectful distance)?
The “Drinking, Smoking and Screwing” section.
The “Chef Boyardee” table. Shakespeare &Co. conveniently props up the books so they’re easier to see.
Sex and marriage (or perhaps just sex) …
… and the baby carriage
Also, Shakespeare & Co.'s drama section is second only to that of the legendary Drama Book Shop. Not only will you find plays among books on film and film history, but also guides on writing fiction, poetry, screenplays – everything for the established or aspiring actor and writer. In short, Shakespeare & Co. has managed to cater to a wide range of tastes while retaining its edge.
The young Staff Manager, Steve D'Amato, in front of the shop's hallmark – its wide selection of playscripts. Shakespeare & Co. also sells screenplays.
If you haven't found a book you want at Shakespeare & Co., you don't need to leave the store empty handed as there are plenty of other things on which to splash your cash. Board games are on offer …
... as are DVDs
... and some clever notecards too.
You can even get your Mac stuff fixed there.
Click here for NYC Bookshops, Part II: Midtown and Upper West Side
Click here for NYC Bookshops, Part I: Upper East Side