How to Spend a Literary Long
Weekend in Queens, NY
Unsurprisingly, Literary Queens Holds Its Own Against Brooklyn and Manhattan
When one thinks of the almighty New York Literary Scene, it is usually Manhattan and Brooklyn they are imagining, not Queens, New York City’s largest borough and the most diverse place in the world. While researching this piece, I visited different literary-centric establishments and spoke with as many people as I could. When I approached an employee of one of the places mentioned below and told her I was working on an article about “literary Queens,” she snorted, “Are you serious? There’s not much here. Try Brooklyn.”
There have always been writers in Queens, but the literary scene is much like the borough itself in comparison to its more heralded borough counterparts. Brooklyn and Manhattan represent what many perceive as the “serious” literary fiction scene, the big time agents and publishing houses, and the money.
But in recent years, Queens has welcomed the opening of independent bookstores, reading series’, open mics, and talented writers and organizers who love their borough and are proud to represent it. Thanks both to long-term literary institutions and newer literary endeavors, any given day offers a slew of Queens literary destinations and events.
· FRIDAY ·
Long Island City (R or 7 subway lines)
Paper Factory Hotel
To get into a bookish mood, begin at the Paper Factory Hotel, a 100-year-old building where an impressive multi-story tower of books sits inside the entrance. The affordable hotel, located in Long Island City, was at one time a printing press and radio station. Much of the interior retains the original architecture of the factory, and you’ll find old typewriters, printing machines, and books inside the rooms, lobby, and co-working space of the hotel.
If you’d like to get a coffee or a drink and get a little work done, stop by Local NY, which has a workspace, Wi-Fi, and a reading nook. It’s a hostel, but the bar area serves drinks and food daily from 8 am and all are welcome. It’s also where Newtown Literary Magazine holds their launch parties. Newtown Literary is an important part of the landscape of literary Queens and serves as the official literary magazine of the borough. Newtown Literary also works with the community to bring writing classes to local schools.
Book Culture Bookstore
There was a time when there were no bookstores in Queens. The last of the Barnes and Nobles closed in 2015. But these days, little bookstores have been popping up and thriving all over the borough, including Long Island City’s Book Culture. The LIC location hosts a number of readings and story times a month. Book store events in Queens very much reflect the Queens Literary Culture—slightly kitschy and leaning towards genre.
To get to any of these locations, you will most likely be taking the 7 train. The 7 train is where the debut of the Queensbound Literary Series took place in 2018 on the platforms and subway cars of the train line that runs into the deepest parts of Queens. There are more of these organized readings on the way, but on any given day, there is something like poetry in the myriad of people and languages that can be heard on the train.
LIC BAR is also set in a one-hundred-year-old building with an original bar and tin ceilings, fireplace in winter, and a sweet outdoor garden in summer. There’s music or a reading on most nights, and the bar serves as host to one of Queens’ most well-known reading series, LIC Reading Series. Catherine La Sota hosts her reading series on the second Tuesday of the month in the bar’s carriage house. She tries to include writers who have lived in Queens, like Min Jin Lee, Megan Abbot, and other quintessential New York writers like Eileen Myles and Lynne Tillman.
· SATURDAY ·
Astoria (N/W train line)
Socrates Sculpture Park
Begin your morning at the Socrates Sculpture Park, which sits across the East River from the high rises of Manhattan. It’s a site-specific sculpture park with regularly rotating and often interactive exhibitions. The park hosts a number of events as well, including music and dance performances, Shakespeare in the Park, yoga, a local market, outdoor movies, and kayaking on the river. It’s an incredible and unique community resource.
When you get hungry, take a walk down Broadway to one of my favorite New York pizza joints, Sac’s, named for the Sacramones, an Italian family with deep roots in the area. They come from the same small town in Italy, Orsongna, that many Italian families in the area (including my own) are from, and there’s a mural of the town in the dining room. The oven is coal-fired and last time I was there, the matriarch of the family, who is in her nineties, was still working in the kitchen.
Astoria Bookshop, located under the elevated N train along 31st Street, was the first bookstore in the area and was a welcome and much needed addition to the neighborhood when it opened in 2013. It’s a beautifully curated store, selling bestsellers and stellar small press books in addition to local, original odds and ends. There is an event or class nearly every day. The store hosts readings for local authors, as well as more well-known literary greats like Roxane Gay. There are regular story times for kids and writing classes for all levels.
Further along down the N line is QED: A Space to Show and Tell, an original spot in Astoria. Between shows and classes, the space holds over 100 events a month. There is an impressive breadth of classes available including writing classes, book proposals, marketing, stand-up comedy, dance, knitting, podcasting, TV writing, and almost anything else you can think of. They also have a podcast studio available in the basement for a reasonable fee.
Grab a drink and some pierogies at Bohemian Hall and Beer Garden, which is on nearly every list of things to do in Queens. Make sure to check out the pictures of the original property when it was surrounded by nothing but farmland and imagine all the change that this place has seen. This is where I met my husband, and where I spent a large portion of my youth, involved in all sorts of debauchery, way before it appeared on any list or had security guards.
Hell Gate Bridge
From here, walk over to Astoria Park, a vast and green stretch along the river and home to the Hell Gate Bridge, which, if the population of the city were wiped out, would be the last thing left standing. It resembles a castle or fortress, and spans the most tumultuous water in the city—the Hellgate tidal strait, the location of countless shipwrecks, drownings, and disasters.
After getting inspiration from the bridge, head to the next neighborhood over from Astoria, Jackson Heights (accessible via the 7 train). Stop by Espresso 77, which hosts the longest running reading series in Queens, First Tuesdays. The series is committed to focusing on Queens writers and also serves as an open mic.
Just down the road is Terraza 7, home of the Queens Writers Resist, a group of writers dedicated to fostering community, supporting artists, fighting for democracy, and raising money for local nonprofits. If they are not having an event that night, there will likely be another event happening that reflects the vibrant neighborhood. The bar serves local beer from Queens breweries and is open until 4 am every night. The venue stages music from all over the world, spoken word performances, dance, and plays.
· SUNDAY ·
Calvary Cemetery & Ozone Park
Spend your final day in central Queens, which is full of literary inspiration. Dissident Gardens by Jonathan Lethem is largely based on Sunnyside Gardens, a community in the Sunnyside neighborhood of Queens. On the border of Sunnyside is Calvary Cemetery, the largest cemetery in New York, famous for its view of the skyline that eerily mimics the gravestones over which it rises. And it’s the final resting place of Harlem Renaissance writer Claude McKay.
Jack Kerouac wrote his early books and plotted his early road trip for On the Road while living with his parents on the second floor of 133-01 Cross Bay Blvd in Ozone Park. He used to sit and write at GlenPatrick’s Pub, on the other side of the eight-lane Cross Bay Blvd.
Flushing Meadows Corona Park
You can spend a whole weekend exploring Flushing Meadows Corona Park. In The Great Gatsby, Nick Carraway and Gatsby take a ride through the Valley of Ashes, where Tom Buchanan’s mistress owns an auto body shop. This industrial area is now Flushing Meadows Park and Citifield, which is still lined with auto body shops and junkyards. Inside Flushing Meadows Park is the Queens Museum, which holds a permanent exhibit of a warehouse-room-size, to-scale model of the five boroughs of New York City. It’s something every Queens kid visits on a field trip, and it’s just as breathtaking every time you see it. Also inside the park is the Hall of Science, with countless hands-on science exhibits, and The Great Hall, part of the World’s Fair in 1963, was a building designed, with its 100-foot undulating walls, to make you feel as if you are floating in space.
Louis Armstrong House
A few blocks away in Corona is The Louis Armstrong House, which offers daily tours of his meticulously maintained home allowing you to see where he slept, sat, and what he saw out his window. A short walk from there is the Langston Hughes library, which maintains the city’s largest collection of Black Heritage reading and reference collection, including the Langston Hughes Art Collection. The library, and all branches of the Queens Library, are constantly supportive of local authors, and regularly hold readings, classes, and events at all of their locations.
Further into Queens, on the R line, is Kew Gardens. Kew Gardens is home to the newest Queens bookstore, Kew & Willow. It’s a beautiful space with dedicated, book loving owners who used to work at the Barnes and Noble down the road in Forest Hills before it closed. A number of their clientele are older people who love books and have lived in the area for a long time. When I went in to visit, there were kids reading in the children’s area and a number of people browsing the shelves. One elderly woman pointed to a high shelf and explained to a worker, “I walk in and a book calls to me. See that one up there? It’s saying ‘Me, Me, Me!’”
The bookstore is home to a few different reading series, including Alex Segura’s Noir at the Bar, and Friends of Maple Grove, which also holds a reading at the nearby Maple Grove Cemetery. Segura, a crime writer, said that Queens is home to a lot of mystery and genre writers, and the Queens literary scene holds less pretense than Brooklyn and Manhattan.
The lush and vast Forest Park borders Kew Gardens, and, like most of the natural areas of New York City, bears the marks of the Wisconsin Glacier in its fields of hills and sunken lakes, home to many species of birds. The park contains large groves of oak and pine, hiking trails, abandoned train tracks, and a hundred-year-old carousel made of hand carved wooden figurines.
Further out in Queens near the Long Island border is the gigantic Creedmoor Psychiatric Facility, likely an inspiration for Victor LaValle. You could also explore the streets of Flushing, where Ha Jin novels take place, or Jamaica, where Julia Alvarez lived. There isn’t time, though, not this weekend. And all the good literary monuments are in Brooklyn, anyway.