I am very lucky to live in New York, a city with many great independent bookstores. Most people can name at least one: the famous Strand Bookstore, with its claim to house "18 miles of books." And it is indispensable. But there are many more friendly independent bookstores dotting the streets of New York (I used to work in one) where I have spent countless lazy afternoons, walking in with a vow to not purchase anything, and walking out with more books than could possibly fit in my bag. Here, in no particular order, are some of my Manhattan favorites:
Mercer Street Books and Records
206 Mercer Street • (212) 505-8615
Good books and good music have always gone well together, a combination that is exemplified in Mercer Street Books. A Greenwich Village staple, Mercer has specialized in selling rare, esoteric, and out-of-print books for more than twenty years. You can browse its ever-expanding collection of books and records to a soundtrack of full-length albums that the bookstore plays every day. Some shop managers get annoyed when customers spend too much time flipping through paperbacks and not enough time buying, but not at Mercer. I have spent hours reading in the back of this small but densely packed shop without sensing even a hint of impatience from the employees.
St. Mark's Bookshop
31 Third Avenue • (212) 260-7853
If you’re sick of finding a less-than-satisfactory selection of the works of Walter Benjamin, Gilles Deleuze, and Jean Baudrillard in the bookstores you frequent, then St. Mark’s is the store for you. Since the late 1970s, St. Mark’s has been a necessity for the students, artists, and academics of Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Besides having a wide selection of new releases, its unmatched critical theory/philosophy section will scratch the itch of anyone interested in the dynamics of late industrial capitalism. For everyone else, it has an impressive assortment of poetry, affordable popular works, and an expert staff.
Housing Works Bookstore Café
126 Crosby Street • (212) 334-3324
Housing Works is a non-profit organization that organizes around issues of AIDS and homelessness. Housing Works runs twelve thrift shops around the city, and its location off Houston features a full bookstore and café right next door. This bookshop functions as a hub for activism, a literary events space, and a perfect location for people-watching on their second storing balcony seating area. The volunteer staff has always been friendly to me. This is a great place to get a used book that’s cheaper than the subway fare it took to get there.
172 Allen Street • (212) 777-6028
Bluestockings is another multi-faceted establishment, which hosts nightly events featuring poetry, book readings, and activist meetings. Bluestockings probably contains the most extensive collection of radical books in the city. While there are plenty of mainstream works, the majority of the store is dedicated to heterodox subjects such as radical feminism, anarchism, Marxism, queer studies, Zapatistas, and Native American studies. In addition, the Occupy Wall Street inspired art that covers the walls gives the store a rebellious vibe. There are few spots in the city where one can flip through Living My Life while contemplating a poster that states, "Resistance is Fertile."
122 4th Avenue • (212) 982-3550
This one-room store is a do-it-yourself adventure. Customers are given free rein to explore all the nooks and crannies in this cozy and tightly packed shop. Feel free to peel through the random stacks of books or climb one of the ladders to grab a dusty, long forgotten copy of The 42nd Parallel or The Art of Loving on the top shelf. There’s no disapproving store manager to stop you. In 2007, Alabaster was dubbed the "Best used bookstore that's not the Strand" by the Village Voice.
McNally Jackson Books
52 Prince Street • (212) 274-1160
Though McNally Jackson has been in its Soho location for nearly a decade, I just discovered this shop a few months ago, and am so glad that I did. The store hosts a wide variety of notable literary events, such as the recent "Dave Hill in conversation with Ira Glass" or the upcoming "Carlin Romano in conversation with Simon Critchley" (which I plan on attending). In addition, the in-house café gives this store a welcoming touch. The staff is friendly, knowledgeable, and incredibly patient with difficult customers (like me) who want a specific book but can’t recall the name of the book or the author. Turns out the book I wanted was The Price of the Ticket: Barack Obama and Rise and Decline of Black Politics, and thanks to the efforts of the employees, I found it in a matter of minutes.
75 9th Avenue • (212) 627-0304
I work used to work here. But I've loved this store long before I became employed. Posman Books has been family-owned since 1999 and now has three locations throughout Manhattan. The one in Chelsea Market, which includes an extensive children’s section with reading nooks for families, was named the 2012 "Best Bookstore in New York City" by New York magazine . What I like most about Posman is the staff. These folks really care about books and are always willing to recommend their favorite works.
East Village Books
99 St. Mark's Place • (212) 477-8647
Narrow, cramped, and musty: a description that might be a turn-off for some venues, but not at bookstores, and East Village Books provides this atmosphere in spades. A charming shop with a versatile assortment of cheap used book, this is the place to come to if you need a good, worn copy of Jitterbug Perfume or Coming Up for Air. In addition, there is an area in the back of the store that extends outside, where the hardwood floor turns into sand and gravel. The perfect place to reach book-nerd Zen.
Bonus bookstore: While this is not a New York City shop, Shakespeare and Company is arguably the most famous independent bookshop in Paris. Check out this wonderful video profile of the legendary bookstore.