Hi Off the Beaten Shelf fam! I'm back from vacation and feeling rejuvenated. I go to NYC every year to visit my best friend and his partner, so that's where I've been. And of course, I have to check out as many bookstores as I can while I'm there.
First up, a fairly new one:
Books Are Magic
Books Are Magic is easily one of the cutest indie bookstores I've ever seen. Cute name, cute display windows, wide open space in the store, the use of pink as a brand color and not in an obnoxious way... Books Are Magic is hard not to fall in love with.
(I was there just a few days before the solar eclipse, which explains the sandwich board, in case you were wondering.)
Fun fact: Books Are Magic is actually owned by Emma Straub, author of The Vacationers and Modern Lovers, which is one of my favorite novels. I was so hoping to get a copy personally signed by Emma, but she wasn't there on the day I visited. Nonetheless, there were plenty of things I liked about the store.
Like the best indies, Books Are Magic goes for quality and curation over quantity. At this stage in my reading life, I don't want to have to sift through poorly organized bookstores for hours on end looking for the few and far between treasures. While I love doing that with things like clothes at thrift stores, my reading life is more focused. I tend to go in with a list of books I'm considering reading in my head, then if I see one of those books on a display table or on a staff picks table, I get it. The way I see it is bookstore staff are book experts, so I trust their opinions. I scout those tables looking for things I might not have picked up on my own, and I'm rarely disappointed.
That's precisely how I found the book I purchased at Books Are Magic: Essays Against Everything by Mark Greif. I'm loving this trend in essay collections because, as an essay writer myself, I like to keep abreast of what great essayists are doing.
The fun didn't stop there. Other unique and notable things I liked included the poetry gumball machine where, for a quarter, it'll spit out a plastic bubble with a poem in it and all the proceeds from the gumball machine go to Planned Parenthood.
I also like the Books Are Magic swag. I tend to avoid branded gear because I hate feeling like I'm paying money to be a company's walking billboard (like, if I'm going to walk around with your brand emblazoned on my outfit, shouldn't I get the shit for free??). But Books Are Magic's stuff is actually super cute because it looks like it's stating a simple fact "books are magic." Only people in the literary world or those who've seen the store in Brooklyn would know it's a real bookstore.
And just when I thought it couldn't get any better, the booksellers put the icing on the cake. Most of the time when I shop in indies the booksellers will either leave me alone entirely––assuming, I guess, that literary folk are solitary and prefer the company of books, which is mostly true, I admit––or they'll ask if I need anything and walk away when I say I'm not looking for anything in particular. Not so at Books Are Magic. I had a fun conversation with one bookseller about how ridiculous the Harry Potter and The Cursed Child book is and the cashier and I spent a good five minutes kvetching about Trump's latest antics.
In short, these are my kind of people and this is my kind of bookstore.
Strand Bookstall at Central Park
The Strand is, arguably, one of the most iconic bookstores in the country. Established in 1927, it's certainly an NYC literary staple. I've been to the main location––the one with four floors and 18 miles of books––several times, but this time I happened upon a nice surprise: they have a bookstall right at the entrance to Central Park (one of the entrances, anyway).
I can hardly think of anything I'd rather do in NYC than read in Central Park, so the location for the bookstall is perfect. Though my picture above only shows one of the walk-in closet-type spaces, there are several tables in addition to these, so the selection is pretty good for such a limited space! I couldn't help feeling very Parisian and cosmopolitan shopping at a bookstall near such a gorgeous (albeit crowded) park.
- Between the Strand Bookstall and two trips to the Strand's main location, I got 4 books:
- On Cats by Charles Bukowski
- The Selfishness of Others: An Essay on the Fear of Narcissism by Kristin Dombek
- Too Much and Not the Mood by Durga Chew-Bose
- Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York, an anthology edited by Sari Botton of Longreads (props to this book because I read it in just a few days, before I even left NYC, and it single-handedly cured me of my long held desire to live there)
Here's where I think the magic of The Strand lies: even though it's a MASSIVE store, they've managed to organize it so well that it still feels well-curated and intimate. I'm always praising small bookstores for being well-curated, but it's because they have to be––they simply don't have space. On the other hand, The Strand has a ton of space, so they could've shoved books into every nook and cranny and made it incredibly overwhelming if they wanted to. I appreciate that they don't.
And their booksellers are among some of the most well-read people imaginable. When I was buying Too Much and Not the Mood, the bookseller ringing me up was delighted I'd picked that book. She said it's one of the best books she's read all year. There are thousands of books in the store and she just so happened to have read one that I'd never heard of (and I'm pretty up and up about the publishing industry) and one that's not on any bestseller lists. That tends to only happen if you're extremely well-read. And now I'm even more excited about diving into the book!
The United Nations Bookshop
You better believe if there are books to be found, I'm going to find them. I had no idea the UN had a bookstore when I signed up for a tour, but I'm practically a book magnet, so I shouldn't have been surprised.
While this bookstore trip was totally unexpected, I was pleased with what I found. Since this bookstore is the UN's dedicated bookshop, it only had books pertaining to the UN and its policies––books by UN leaders, books about UN leaders and activities, and books on peace, policy, education, poverty, gender, sexuality, politics, feminism, human rights, and the like.
The books skewed more toward textbooks, so I actually didn't buy anything. Not that I'm opposed to studying, but some of the texts did seem a little dry. And several of the books (like Universal Human Rights and the UN's Declaration on Human Rights) I'd already read in a college human rights class and still have the books. Nonetheless, I'm thrilled to know such a great resource exists!
Have you been to any of these bookstores? Do you have other favorite NYC bookstores that I missed? Tell me in the comments!