As a confirmed bibliophile, I have long held the view that New York is one of the world's quintessential book cities. Not only are there countless perfect locations to sit and read, but there are literally thousands of books set in this iconic city and of course dozens of bookstores to whet your appetite for the next great novel, slightly worn classic, or inspiring work of non-fiction.
In the spirit of all things literature, here are my favorite New York book haunts.
Sometimes the journey is as important as the destination. Such is the case when walking to the New York City Public Library, along than the so called "Library Way" that extends from Park Avenue to Fifth Avenue along East 41st Street. The sidewalk contains a series of 96 bronze plaques quoting some of the most prolific men and women in contemporary and historic literature, poetry, and philosophy. From Virginia Woolf to Lewis Carroll, be inspired by phrases like Descartes' "the reading of good books is like a conversation with the best men of past centuries" to Ernest Hemingway's "All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened."
The New York Public Library's Humanities and Social Sciences Library sits majestically at the end of East 41st Street with two regal lions (Patience and Fortitude) flanking its monumental stairway and entrance. The backdrop of several films, including Ghostbusters, Spiderman, The Day After Tomorrow, and, most recently, Sex and the City, the Library houses some 15 million items, including medieval manuscripts, ancient Japanese scrolls, contemporary novels, baseball cards, and even comic books.
It has a selection of reading rooms and different areas to explore and the architecture alone is worthy of a visit. Although certain collections are only accessible with a library card issued to New York residents, others are available to all including Art and Architecture, Asian and Middle Eastern, Children's, Periodicals, Jewish, General Research, Maps, U.S. History, Local History, Genealogy and the Slavic and East European collections.
One of the city's most beloved stores is Strand Books (tel. 212/473-1452; www.strandbooks.com) located on Broadway just south of Union Square at 12th Street. Known for its "18 miles of books" inside you will find a huge selection of more than 2.5 million used, new and rare books. The family-owned store is a goldmine for art and photography with one of New York's largest collections of fine art books at discount prices. It also features the largest rare books collection in the City, with first and signed editions of many modern books, a large assortment of hard-to-find books, and collectibles in every field. Then there are also the thousands of new titles at 50% off the cover price, as well as a wide variety of "front list" books ordered directly from the publisher at 25% or more off the cover price. It is a browser's heaven and a great place to meet fellow book aficionados.
If small and intimate is more your thing, then Left Bank Books (tel. 212/924-5638; www.leftbankbooksnyc.com) on West 4th Street in the West Village is a quaint example of an old-style book store. They specialize in contemporary first editions, especially fiction, poetry, drama, and literary non-fiction plus they also stock a good selection of photography, art, and film titles -- both new and used. This is the place to go if you are particularly interested in buying author-signed copies and like me, you love the idea of owning a first edition with its original dust jacket. Owned and run by a retired English professor, her love of literature and knowledge makes it a pleasure to shop here with plenty of British writers and English-language literature of the Caribbean, Africa, India, Canada, and other Commonwealth countries, as well as translated works. The store's former owner still works there and he is always happy to talk to customers about any books, especially film and photography.
When it comes to kids' books, I have two favorites. Bank Street Bookstore (tel. 212/678-1654; www.bankstreetbooks.com) on the Upper West Side at 2879 Broadway (at 112th Street) and Books of Wonder (tel. 212/989-3270; www.booksofwonder.com) in Chelsea, at 18 West 18th Street. The latter is home to a sizeable collection of classics and contemporary children's literature plus it has some decent rare and first edition books for sale. It also houses an in-store Cupcake CafÃ© so you and your children can sip hot chocolate, indulge in a sugar treat and read together in a relaxing environment. The aisles are wide so there's no problem with strollers. Bank Street is chock-full of kids' titles and has an incredible array of local and international books for kids of all ages. It's a little tight and cramped but so rewarding and it is virtually impossible to leave without purchasing at least one book each time you visit. The staff is particularly helpful and can match your child's interest to any number of books effortlessly. They also have author signing, events, games and toys. So although you may be tempted to duck into a Barnes and Noble or pick up that latest bestseller at Borders, try an independent bookseller instead for a more authentic New York book experience. The independent booksellers of New York have united to form an alliance, the IBNYC and their website (www.ibnyc.org) provides a list of over 60 unique and culturally important stores located across the city, plus a map to show you where they are.
Once you have your book in hand, my top five places to read in the City are:
- The gardens surrounding the Cloisters (part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art) at Fort Tyron Park -- or if you have paid admission, within the Cloisters themselves.
- Bryant Park, at the table and chairs set up near the carousel at the south end
- Central Park, on the lawn next to Belvedere Lake, overlooking the castle
- Tudor City Park -- especially when it has snowed, a quiet oasis off East 41st Street near First Avenue
- The Pier at the end of West 10th Street, on the Hudson River
And after a long day of pounding the New York City pavement, you'll need a place to read some more and eventually sleep. The Library Hotel (tel. 212/983-4500; www.libraryhotel.com) on the corner of Madison Avenue and 41st Street (one block from its namesake) pays homage to books by dividing its accommodation floors into the ten major categories of the Dewey system: Social Sciences; Literature; Languages; History; Math and Science; General Knowledge; Technology; Philosophy; The Arts; and Religion. Each of the sixty rooms is filled with a collection of art and books relevant to a topic within the category of the floor it belongs to so guests can request a room based on their interests, for example the Literature floor features themes from Poetry to the Classics, even Erotic Literature. The Math and Science floor has both an Astronomy and Botany room. There is also a public Reading Room, a Poetry Garden with terrace and the Writer's Den, a cozy nook with a fireplace and enclosed garden terrace. Winter rooms rates here start from $225 per night (in February, 2008) but there website also lists a number of special prices for events and holidays throughout the year, for example St Patrick's Day weekend (March 13 to 17, 2009) from $275 per night, Easter weekend (April 9 to 12, 2009) from $295 per night and July 4th weekend (July 2 to 5, 2009) from $265.