It's no secret that literary culture is strong in New York City, which means it's home to some marvelous bookstores. I have a tradition of visiting NYC once a year to see my best friend on the planet for a week, though I also make some time for bookstores when I go.
Each of the three bookstores I visited on my most recent trip are vastly different, so I'm going to tell you how they stack up in my humble bibliophile opinion.
The Strand is something of a mecca among book lovers. Founded in 1927 and located just two blocks from Manhattan's Union Square, Strand, with its 18 miles of books spread out over four stories and a basement is legendary. There's no end to the stream of people buying books, bookish clothing and accessories, and gifts, like Charles Dickens and Jane Austen action figures.
There are new books, used books, stationary, journals, rare books, and just about any kind of book you can imagine. Suffice it to say, if Strand doesn't have it, you're going to have a hard time finding it.
It sounds like bibliophile heaven unless you're easily overwhelmed by an abundance of visual input and get anxiety in crowds. The first time I visited Strand last year I had a hard time relaxing because there was so much going on. This year I came prepared---I knew what I was getting myself into and I was determined not to let that sense of overwhelm lessen the joy I'd have at being surrounded by books.
Well, unfortunately that didn't happen. So I'm forced to admit that as much as I want to adore Strand, it's not my ideal bookstore. I still enjoyed it and bought two books there, but I can't honestly rank it among my top favorites. It's a classic case of "it's not you, it's me."
Posman Books (Chelsea Market location)
Posman Books was more my speed. Located in the classy, upscale Meatpacking District of Manhattan, Posman adds a lot of charm to the area. It's a cozy bookstore with well-curated display tables of thoughtful books. And with the cute reading nooks for kids (and adults, if you don't mind getting on the floor), Posman is definitely more approachable than a massive store with endless options.
Whereas Strand felt a little corporate-y to me, Posman felt somewhere between small corporation and mom-and-pop shop. It has many of the features of a beloved indie bookstore, but the one thing I missed was booksellers being on the sales floor hand-selling customers the books they love.
As a reader, there's nothing more I love than people sharing their enthusiasm about books with me. I know booksellers read a lot, not to mention see trends in readers' buying habits, so I'm always especially curious to hear about the books they and their clientele enjoy. Since I wasn't looking for any book in particular and actually hung out in the store for a considerable amount of time before making my selection, there were plenty of opportunities to approach me about books.
Although I did end up buying two books thanks to the well-curated table displays, I have a feeling I could've been talked into three or four if a bookseller had brought my attention to some books they recently read. There's something to be said for booksellers hand-selling books, and I hope indies never lose sight of just how important that is.
WORD was the smallest of the bookstores I visited, which meant it was also the best curated. When you have limited space, making efficient and excellent use of that space is a must. This is where I think WORD really shines. Although the space is hardly larger than my apartment (and I don't live in NYC, so my apartment is rather sizable), it felt roomy and because there's limited space, I knew that when I saw an outward-facing book on display it had to be a good one.
The employees were exactly what you want in an indie bookstore. When one saw me eyeing a shelf of nonfiction bestsellers, she didn't hesitate to tell me which ones she'd recently read and loved. And she was perceptive---she picked up on my Southern accent, struck up a conversation since she was from South Carolina, and even suggested a couple of places nearby to visit. Score! I felt like she was genuinely excited to share her love of books, which made me really keen on shopping there.
I actually enjoyed being in WORD so much that I felt compelled to buy books I'd already read. In fact, that's exactly what I did. Although I read Between the World and Me last year after having borrowed it from the library, I decided I needed my own copy. And I was more than happy to give those dollars to WORD.
I ended up buying two books, the other being The Feminist Activity Book, a coloring book of intersectional feminism. Now that's what I call thoughtful curation!
And the winner is...
WORD all the way! Seriously, there's no competition. Between the friendly, helpful staff, the excellently curated selection, and the smaller space, WORD is pure perfection. WORD understands that less is more and that a personal touch really goes a long way in building a community around your store. Should I ever move to NYC, I'll gladly travel across the Burroughs to shop at WORD.
Do you have a favorite NYC bookstore? What's your favorite bookstore like? Tell me in the comments below!