Joel Holland illustrates some of New York City’s best-known and most beloved independent bookstores, presented here with descriptions by David Dodge.
828 Broadway at E. 12th St.
Lithuanian immigrant Benjamin Bass opened New York’s most famous independent bookstore, the Strand, at its original location on Fourth Avenue between East Tenth and Eleventh Streets in 1927. At the time, the Greenwich Village icon was part of “Book Row,” which stretched over six city blocks and included at least forty-eight bookstores. In 1958 Benjamin’s son Fred moved the Strand a couple blocks north to its current home on Broadway. And today it’s the last of the Book Row shops still standing—a distinction its owners seem determined to make up for by offering over 2 .5 million titles for sale (which, if their signature red logo is to be believed, translates into “18 miles of books”).
The Strand is known just as much for the variety of its books on offer as the quantity. A gander through the “dollar carts” on the sidewalk might turn up titles like So You’re Going to Have Brain Surgery and I Didn’t Know I Could Do That on CompuServe!
Meanwhile, in the rare-book room, you’ll be surrounded in collectibles, some of which are worth tens of thousands of dollars. It’s also available to rent for private events, meaning you could celebrate your birthday or, say, your wedding vows in the same room that houses a $45,000 limited edition of Ulysses, illustrated by Henri Matisse.
The store’s staff is intimidatingly well-read, which is not by accident: since 1970 applicants for jobs there must complete a “literary matching quiz,” pairing authors to books’ titles. (Quick! Who wrote Waiting for Godot?)
52 Prince St. between Mulberry and Lafayette Sts.
Opened in 2004, this independent bookstore has quickly become a SoHo mainstay, with tourists and regulars alike popping in to make a purchase, grab a beverage from the café, or simply browse the latest offerings. The shop is also known for its events, which include outdoor poetry readings in the nearby Elizabeth Street Garden and book signings with authors. Rather than scraping by in the era of digital media, McNally Jackson is thriving, having expanded to three other locations around New York City since 2018.
1313 Madison Ave. at E. 93rd St.
Opened in 1978, this bookstore tracks orders by hand using a filing drawer instead of a computer, and they check out customers with a cash register that’s over a century old.
Unoppressive Non-Imperialist Bargain Books
34 Carmine St. between Bleecker and Bedford Sts.
Of course, you can buy books at this West Village spot, which opened in 1992. But as you may gather from the name printed across its faded green awning, it does a lot more than sell paperbacks. In 2011, owner Jim Drougas offered his space free of charge to organizers of the Occupy Wall Street protests that swept through the city. In 2016, he did the same for Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign. For years, a psychic held court in the front window. And most recently, in a sign of the times, Jim installed a no-fee Bitcoin ATM in the back of the store. Despite these quirks, the variety of books on offer—which range from the latest in Eastern philosophy to a wide assortment of comics—is what keeps customers coming back.
Drama Book Shop
266 W. 39th St. between 7th and 8th Aves.
This beloved bookstore in the Theater District, founded in 1917, has long been the go-to place to purchase publications about acting, scripts, songbooks, and other showbiz paraphernalia. Since that time, it has managed to withstand a flood, a fire, multiple moves (including a stint on West Fortieth Street, depicted in this illustration)—and even Amazon. But in 2018, the store announced it had finally met its match, a familiar villain in the world of New York real estate: the dreaded rent increase. However, just as the curtains were about to fall on this century-old business, there was a dramatic plot twist in the form of a new protagonist. Broadway legend Lin-Manuel Miranda (of Hamilton and In the Heights fame) stepped in and became the store’s savior, buying it with the help of three colleagues. After a brief intermission for renovations (that included an art installation involving 2,400 books that spiral and crawl throughout the space), the store reopened in summer 2021, and its story continued anew.
72 Ave. A at E. 5th St.
Opened in 2010, Mast Books has found a niche in the New York literary and arts scene by curating rare and out-of-print titles from around the world.
Three Lives & Company
154 W. 10th St. at Waverly Pl.
This tiny West Village bookshop seems to have many more lives than just three. While hundreds of similar bookstores have shuttered their doors over the past several decades, Three Lives & Company has been going strong since 1968. According to its website, the independently owned shop attributes this longevity to its “living room” vibe: customers often linger for hours to discuss their last favorite read (and maybe just a bit of neighborhood gossip) with staff and fellow patrons long after their purchase has been made.
Kitchen Arts & Letters
1435 Lexington Ave. between E. 93rd and 94th
This Upper East Side shop has over twelve thousand books on cooking, food history, and more in stock from all over the world. Opened in 1983, it has counted food legends such as James Beard, Julia Child, and Laurie Colwin among its regulars. Nach Waxman, who founded the store and was its main proprietor until his death in August 2021, worked to ensure that Kitchen Arts & Letters be known for much more than books of recipes—a reputation he earned handily. A 1995 profile in the New York Times referred to him as the “most sought-after expert on food history and publishing in New York.”
Mercer St Books
206 Mercer St. between W. Houston and Bleecker Sts.
Since the 1990s, this literary institution in Greenwich Village has been a go-to spot for hard-to-find and out-of-print books—and the perfect place to kill time before the start of an indie flick at the Angelika Film Center, located just down the street.
NYC Storefronts: Illustrations of the Big Apple’s Best-Loved Spots by David Dodge (text), Joel Holland (illustrations), and Nicolas Heller (foreword) is available via Prestel Publishing.