In 2016, the Lower East Side independent bookstore, St. Mark’s, closed after nearly 40 years. The iconic bookstore featured a lot of photography and art books, as well as a good selection of philosophy titles and other obscure tomes. With its passing, many believed that other indie bookstores in New York and its boroughs would close too because of rising rents. This was like when Barnes and Noble ruled the city and when e-books, which were cheaper in price than a physical book, would force indie bookstores to close down. None of that happened. The e-book revolution failed to catch on and B&N shuttered many of its stores in New York. Instead, indie bookstores remained popular choices because they were located in parts of the city where there was a need for them. In addition, indie bookstores in general now seem to be on the upswing, so much so that two new bookstores opened up in the city, Books are Magic and Codex, in the past year. These bookstores are truly for the community, and people visit them to get recommendations or because their favorite author is reading from his book, a local, literary experience that can’t be replicated. So put down that ipad and close Amazon where you were going to buy a book at a steep 40% off discount. You may be paying more at an indie, but you won’t be able to touch the physical book, check out its beautiful cover and have a latte at a bookstore’s café. How will you decide which book is the one for you? Reviews are not enough, but examining a book at an indie will allow you to decide because you’ll be able to read the first few lines, as well as some paragraphs, and maybe even a whole chapter (if it’s short!). We’ve compiled a list of the best indie bookstores in Manhattan and its boroughs, but note that there are many others out there that are serving the needs of its community every day.
The New York Times bestselling author Emma Straub, whose book The Vacationers became an instant hit, did something impossible. When she learned that the popular BookCourt was closing due to high rents, Straub was devastated, just like many who live in the area and treated the bookstore as a place to find out what’s new in literary fiction. “A neighborhood without a bookstore, Straub has said, “is like a body without a heart.” And so, Emma opened her own bookstore in May last year in the former space of BookCourt in Cobble Hill. Straub fell in love with the space, which included exposed bricks, a second room, windows and curved doorways.
Independent bookstores are great for author readings; without them there would just be a Barnes & Noble that only invites popular and bestselling authors. What about all the other authors? So, like most bookstores on this list, Books Are Magic serves a need with daily events such as discussions, readings and presentations. The only thing wrong with the store is that it only offers 10% off bestsellers. Others offer 20%, but we’re sure the price hike helps pay the bills.
The Corner Bookstore serves a purpose, as the Carnegie Hill neighborhood has no other bookstore around for competition. There’s a huge B&N at 86th Street, and yet the bookshop, located just shy of the Upper East Side, has become a local favorite and a neighborhood staple ever since it opened its doors in 1978. For over three decades, the residents of Carnegie Hill have flocked to this iconic bookstore to buy Zadie Smith’s latest essay book or some other literary bestseller. The staff carefully selects a handful of the newest adult fiction and nonfiction titles, including history, biography, poetry and mystery books. But its bragging rights is that it serves the needs of many children, as the area is centrally located to many private schools. Corner Bookstore stocks children’s books for all ages, up to and including a good share of young-adult books. The store is so child-friendly that it allows special store charges accounts for children, who can act like a savvy adult and say, “Can you put this on my account?”
Older children between 8 to 13 are also allowed to review advance copies of books that have not yet been published. This is another way of empowering children, as their reviews of galleys are published in The Corner Bookstore’s Kids Newsletter. There are also readings and author events at night.
Located in the heart of Greenwich Village, on an eclectic street featuring everything from a pizza place, a record store and a used clothing shop, Bookbook is an independent bookstore known for selling former bestsellers at more than half the price of its original cost and new hardcovers, both fiction and non-fiction, at a competitive 20% discount. The store also sells children’s books, travel, history, drama, art and fashion books, as well as cookbooks. It also proudly sells Moleskine journals and planners at 20% off. Sure, the bookstore is the size of a subway car, but the small space will allow you to quickly locate the book you want, and the knowledgeable staff will assist you with recommendations if you’re looking to find the next book you want to read. But its outside table of discount and remainder books—everything from literary fiction to children’s book–is the main draw. Just note that if you think you’re scoring by finding a first edition of The Namesake, check the bottom of the book and you’ll find the well-known remainder mark, a slash of red, which makes the book lose its value and is useless if you’re into collecting books.
Unnameable Books is in the heart of Prospect Heights, Brooklyn. The bookstore is located in a tight but cozy space with a nicely curated selection of books. The recently opened store specializes in poetry and used books, especially those hard-to-find works made by small independent presses. The motto of the store is “We buy and sell used and new books.” The staff is knowledgeable and friendly, and will gladly find you popular poetry from the likes of Phillip Levine to some more obscure titles from the likes of David Ferry. Also, you won’t be rushed here, although if you’re staying too long taking pictures of different books so that you can buy them on Amazon at a discount, well, maybe you should get the boot. Despite its small footprint, Unnameable Books is able to host author readings, book launch parties, poetry readings and local performances.
In a climate where indie bookstores don’t have the chance to survive due to high rents, where even Barnes and Noble has shuttered its many locations around Manhattan, it’s a surprise that a new bookstore has just opened up in January 2018. Codex, just like the Strand, sells a mix of new books but they mostly stock gently-used hardcover books with an emphasis on literary fiction and art. The store is small, but it’s located right next to Think Coffee and in a prime location in the trendy Bowery section of New York. You can shop or drop, as Codex will buy gently-used books, so if you have a few tomes you no longer want, Codex is a good way to get rid of them. There is enough room for Codex to act as neighborhood event space, and since its opening it has had live music and poetry readings.
Housing Works Used Bookstore is a great place for those who want to buy used books in good condition at a discounted price. While the store doesn’t carry current titles, we’ve found a mint first edition of All the Pretty Horses in one of the bins. HW also has a café where you can order a latte or a sandwich and sit on one of the many chairs and tables. It provides a space to do your work with the free WiFi and the best thing is that the staff doesn’t rush you, allowing you plenty of time to write the opening chapter of your novel (again). In recent years the bookstore became the go-to event space for writers and it still remains a popular location..
HW looks like a library with wood paneling, floor-to-ceiling bookshelves spread over two floors, and two dramatic curling staircases. It’s no surprise that many Hollywood films choose to shoot here because of the library “feel,” and the bookstore had a meaty role in the movie Serendipity. You’ll also be doing a good deed since all proceeds from the café go to providing support services for homeless people living with HIV/AIDS.
This two-story SoHo bookstore is home to countless books, from popular fiction to literary novels, from the newest nonfiction titles to a good amount of obscure literature. McNally Jackson hosts events almost every night on the lower level, from book talks to author discussions and signings. An attached café features sandwiches, soups, salads and coffee and teas that are fair trade and organic. The daily selection of fresh pastries and bagels come from the most notable eateries, from the Upper East Side preppy staple Sarabeth to the bakery ordering window of Balthazar, the famed restaurant owned by Keith McNally, the highly-regarded NYC restauranteur whom the New York Times called “The Restaurateur Who Invented Downtown.” It seems as if McNally Jackson is doing fine and doesn’t seem to be threatened by closing because of high rents. It opened in 2004 and was an instant hit. To this day, it remains that way. Cool tip: McNally Jackson makes home deliveries in Manhattan daily using a bicycle to make sure you get the book you want fast and without having to leave your home.
The company opened another location in Williamsburg in January 2018 at 76 N. 4th St.
The iconic corner Three Lives in the heart of the West Village is much-beloved by New York book lovers. The store features a well-curated list of the latest hardcover fiction and nonfiction books, as well as literary paperbacks and a good amount of poetry crammed in a bookshelf to the side of the register. Founded in 1978, Three Lives has been in this location since 1983, and serves a purpose for those who live in the area because there are no other bookstores in the West Village. A nearby Barnes & Noble used to compete with Three Lives, but the behemoth store closed, which means more business for Three Lives. The bookstore is a popular destination spot because of its literary pedigree and its knowledgeable staff who can hand-sell books to customers in a world of information-overload. Perhaps this is why Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Cunningham called Three Lives “[O]ne of the greatest bookstores on the face of the Earth.”
Like most independent bookstores, Three Lives has had its share of scares of closing its door for good due to high rent. But as of 2016, it’s been confirmed by New York magazine that the bookstore “will stay put indefinitely, under conditions that both landlord and tenant confirm are sustainable for the long term.”
This is one of Queen’s only independent bookstores, so it can’t be closed! Where would neighbors in the area shop or listen to authors reading from their books? The climate hasn’t changed, and renting a building in New York and its boroughs is prohibitively expensive. Through it all, Astoria Bookshop has thrived, not only due to the lack of competition, but also because they’ve fostered a close relationship with readers who live in Queens. In fact, that’s the goal of independent bookstores. They’ve become a community literary center with author readings, book clubs, and storytelling sessions for kids. You can always go here to get a bestseller book, or some mainstream fiction and nonfiction. The curation of new books is the highlight, and there is also a writing workshop and a site online for special orders or shipping.
The Strand is the undisputed king of the city’s independent bookstores, able to sell 2.5 million books a year with the help of 200 employers. It has survived under the worst real estate conditions and is now iconic because the shop is the most popular bookstore in NYC. It’s even a destination spot for tourists, who come here to buy Strand paraphernalia like tote bags, T-shirts and baseball caps all emblazoned with the Strand logo.
The store’s claim to fame is that it has 18 miles of books and more, and there are so many books here that the renovation a few years back in 2005 added a floor so that it could be tri-level to fit a children’s section and an art book and art biography collection. The Strand sells a handful of new books, but what it specializes in is gently-used hardcovers that are lower than the price of an e-book. This is the place to come to find forgotten tiles and out-of-print books. The store sells a few new paperbacks, but note that this is not the place for used paperbacks. If you have the money, you can go to the rare book room, which looks like a library. There are some deals here too, as we’ve been able to purchase a first edition of George Saunder’s first book of short stories for only $25.00. That’s cheap considering that online bookstores would sell such a title for a very high price. The Strand also hosts frequent author nights, children’s events and even literary speed dating. It’s so literary that applicants who want to work here and start at the bottom as an entry-level employee, have to pass a book quiz You have to match the author to his or her book. While some are easy (Who wrote Moby-Dick?), many are obscure or are tricky if you don’t have a literary background. This is the reason why employees know exactly what book you want, and in what section it’s in.