Our theme for the month of July is “stunt journalism.” Writers were asked to try something new, take on a challenge, or perform some other interesting feat strictly for the purpose of writing about it.
As a relatively new resident of New York City, I am often overwhelmed by the number of restaurants I could try, places I could shop, and experiences I could have on any given day. Sometimes, the amount of choice is overwhelming, and instead I go home and curl up on my couch.
As a lover of books and local businesses in equal measure, I decided that instead of being overwhelmed by choice I would try to do it all in one day. According to Google, there are twelve independent bookstores in upper Manhattan, the section of the city I call home. All told, I made to eight of them—three are not open on Saturdays and one I wasn’t able to get to before closing time. This is what I found:
Sister’s Uptown Bookstore: 156th and Amsterdam (Washington Heights)
“Can I help you find anything today?”
“Just browsing,” I told the bookseller, which is the same thing I’ve told every bookseller in the history of forever.
“Well, my name’s Jennifer, just let me know if you need anything.”
Jennifer walked back behind the counter while I scanned the stacks.
“Excuse me, um, do you need help finding a book?”
I turned to find a three-year-old bookseller-in-the-making (Jennifer’s granddaughter, according to another overheard conversation) peering up at me. It was at this moment I knew I would not be leaving empty-handed.
My new friend led me over to the picture books and confidently pulled out the first book she saw. It’s a book of English and Spanish poems. I thanked her for her help and started to look through it, while she scampered to help someone else, no doubt.
Logos Bookstore: 84th and York (Upper East Side)
This somewhat-religious bookstore reminds me of my Christian book roots. The section labeled “C.S. Lewis and Friends” seems the most natural thing in the world. The ten dusty copies of Wolterstorff’s Lament for a Son greet me like an old friend. The store cat does not.
Westsider Used and Rare Books: 80th and Broadway (Upper West Side)
The books are almost literally everywhere. Nooks, crannies—check. Stairs, floors, tables, random ledges—check. Actual bookshelves? Yeah, they’re on there too.
I started in the poetry section only to find myself in tennis, psychology, and interior design with each successive shuffle. I craned my neck to see the tops of shelves, which stretch to improbable heights. It’s unclear if customers are allowed to use the ladder, but I was not keen to find out
Google says they close at 11:00, their website says 10:00, and at 9:20 the long-haired-yet-definitely balding proprietor announced, “I’m gonna close in 10 minutes.”
The Corner Bookstore: 93rd and Madison (Upper East Side)
This place is the epitome of charm: antique tin ceiling tiles, built-in wooden bookshelves, and the oldest cash register in existence, complete with actual bells and whistles. There’s a no cell phone sign on the front door, and as I watch an elderly man write a check for his purchase, I wonder if such a sign is even necessary among their regular clientele.
Revolution Books: 132nd and Malcolm X Boulevard (Harlem)
Scattered amongst the shelves at Revolution Books are colored signs that read, “want more great books like these? Donate to our Indiegogo campaign!”
A bookseller approached me and we went through the normal exchange: can I help find something, is this your first time here, let me tell you a little about the store.
Then things took a turn.
“I’m going to show you a five minute video now so you can learn more, okay?”
I had been nodding along with his spiel and now had nodded my way into the back part of the store with a video screen and two plush red chairs.
The video was a small portion of a larger speech by Bob Avakian, leader of the movement whose bookstore I’d apparently stumbled into and author of The New Communism. It was only after the video that I realized the bookseller was wearing a shirt with Bob’s face on it.
Book Culture: 82nd and Columbus (Upper West Side)
Book Culture is the big kahuna of independent bookstores on the Upper West Side, with three different locations serving the neighborhood. It’s big, it’s clean, and it shamelessly carries a significant number of items that are not books—candles, bags, cards, dishes, lotions, and the like. It fills the Schuler-shaped hole in my little Grand Rapidian heart. But the best part is the little letter writing desk tucked in the back corner, where they provide stationary and postage for anyone who feels so inclined to dabble in the art of handwritten correspondence.
Albertine: 79th and 5th Ave (Upper East Side)
Real talk: this bookstore is in a mansion and is part of the Culture Services of the French Embassy. I had to go through a security station before entering the bookstore, which was definitely a first. Here, English and French language books and speakers mingle amicably. That, combined with the marble columns and robin’s egg blue walls, makes one feel instantly regal. There is a mural on the ceiling of the second floor that I plan to visit often.
Word Up Community Bookshop: 165th and Amsterdam (Washington Heights)
Word Up is volunteer-run bookstore and community event space in Washington Heights. The inventory is primarily used books in both English and Spanish. I pulled Sharon Creech’s Absolutely Normal Chaos from the kids section, and other than faint crease marks and a 90s cartoon cover, it looked brand new. One of the volunteers asked me, “Is this your first time visiting our store?” When I confirmed that it was, she clapped her hands and did a little jump of excitement. “We’re so happy that you’re here!” she said, and I had no trouble believing her.