Read Up! The Best Indie Bookstores in New York City

housing works bookstore
A book wonderland at Housing Works. Photo: Tommy Weir.

September always puts me in a bookish state of mind. It’s something about the back-to-school buzz and the first crisp edges of fall that make me want to cozy up with a good book. Or duck into a good bookstore.

In the age of Amazon, a good bookstore is hard to find. Mom-and-pop and big-box alike have been on a shuttering spree, as the e-book claims dominance. But thankfully not in New York, land of Algonquin’s round table, Harlem’s Renaissance, and Gatsby’s greatness. Sure, there have been some troubles here too, but there have also been some wins, and so far New York’s indie bookstores still shine like a beacon in the storm. Here, some favorite spots to hit the stacks.

Related: 5 independent bookstores in Brooklyn worth checking out.

Best all-around:
Housing Works Bookstore Café

126 Crosby Street, Soho

Bookstore, café, event space, charity… This New York literary fixture functions as a book lover’s, well, everything. You can scrounge up great used books on the floor-to-ceiling shelves, and then enjoy them in the cozy café. Reading and music events are regular occurrences, and sometimes happy hours sweeten things even further.

Best place to feel the love:
Greenlight Bookstore

686 Fulton Street, Fort Greene Brooklyn

The folks behind this cheery gem love their people as much as they do their books. In fact, the store was created after a survey by the Fort Greene Association found that many thought the neighborhood was lacking a local bookstore (talk about giving back!). Now, Fort Greene has a brainy place that not only showcases local authors but holds many an event where the community can, well, commune with them.

Best place to plan a revolution (or read about one):
Bluestockings

172 Allen Street, Lower East Side

Feminism, anarchism and a host of other “-isms” all hold court at this free-thinking “activist center.” You’ll also find queer studies, Zapatistas and even “alternative menstrual products” (no joke). The café features an array of fair trade items, and nightly events bolster the communal spirit.

east village books

Geek out at East Village Books. Photo: Indofunk Satish.

“Bookiest” smell:
East Village Books

99 St. Mark’s Place, East Village

What do bookworms dream of when they dream about books? The tiny, friendly East Village Books, which seems to specialize in worn, well-loved volumes. It’s the sort of place where you walk in to sell five books and walk out with 10, plus that special hard-to-find gem.

Best place to attend events:
BookCourt

163 Court Street, Cobble Hill Brooklyn

Okay, I am admittedly a little biased on this one. I run literary pub crawl, Lit Crawl NYC, and BookCourt is always a favorite spot on our springtime Lit Crawl Brooklyn. That being said, it’s for good reason. First, the family-run store is a beautiful, bright space with warm wooden shelves and well-curated tables of the latest and greatest book picks. But more importantly, the store hosts fabulous events, often with big-name local authors (Jonathan Franzen, Jennifer Egan and Jonathan Ames have made appearances).

Book nerd-vana:
Alabaster Bookshop

122 4th Avenue

I’m not sure whether it’s the book nerd in me, or the little girl who loved Beauty and the Beast, or a combination of the two but there is something about a bookstore with ladders that opens my proverbial heaven’s gates (insert “aaaahhhhh….” sound here). In addition to ladders, this sweet spot ticks another bibliophile box—nooks and crannies, all packed with used books, from plastic-wrapped first editions to tattered copies of Little House on the Prairie.

Most resilient neighborhood icon:
St. Mark’s Bookshop

31 Third Avenue

I have a soft spot for this nerdy gem, and not only because I passed (and lingered at its windows) daily in my first days of living in New York. You see, St. Mark’s Bookshop is both an East Village icon and a steadfast survivor. Having first opened its doors to artists and academics in Manhattan’s gritty ’70s, the bookstore has weathered some hard times. It almost shuttered in these days of gentrification, only to be saved by a healthy dose of tenacity and the rallying efforts of a supportive community. Today, I’m pleased to report that many more will have the pleasure of enjoying the shop’s volumes of critical theory and impressive selection of lit mags.

bookcourt

Attending a reading at BookCourt in Brooklyn’s Cobble Hill neighborhood.

Best children’s bookshop:
Books of Wonder

18 W 18th Street

Even the name of this sweet establishment captures the magic that takes hold when one is first discovering books. Beyond that, the selection of old, new and rare gems is magnificent, and a variety of readings are appealing to kids both big and small.

Hippest literary salon:
Molasses Books

770 Hart Street, Bushwick Brooklyn

In the infinite hipness that is the gritty, up-and-coming Brooklyn neighborhood of Bushwick, bookstores with an edge are cropping up. For brevity’s sake, we’ll focus on the first, Molasses Books, which opened in 2012 and set the bar high. With its shelves of used books (most $10 and under), plus comfy seating and coffee, beer and wine selections, this airy spot begs lingering. Bonus points for a daily happy hour and Tuesday evening DJ parties (plus other events). Block out some time to wander the area to check out the other book shops in this uber-literary area.

Best place for wanderlust:
Idlewild

12 W. 19th Street

Whether you’re planning a trip or just dreaming about one, this second-floor shop is for you. Its name comes from the JFK Airport’s pre-1963 moniker, and its décor (vinyl chairs and a slab of stained glass) come from the old American Airlines terminal, so you feel just ready to jet set as you browse the inspirational tomes, which are divided by destination. Headed to Spain? You can find everything from guidebooks to cookbooks to Don Quixote all in one place. The story also stocks some travel gear, and offers language classes. (There is also a second shop at 249 Warren Street, in Cobble Hill Brooklyn.)

About the author

Suzanne Russo
About the author: Suzanne Russo thinks of herself as equal parts California Girl and New Yorker. She moved from San Francisco to New York four years ago to pursue her MA in English, and her obsession with all things New York life and history hasn’t dwindled yet. She is a freelance writer, director of the San Francisco-sponsored, New York literary pub crawl, Lit Crawl, and constant wanderer.
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