*NEW SERIES* World bookshopper: #1 Housing Works Bookstore Cafe, NYC


Late last year, I asked for your help. I was planning a trip to New York City and wanted to know which bookstores you thought I should visit while I was there.

As ever, the response was impressive. Suggestions flooded in for intriguing wordmongers all around the Big Apple.

There were more than I could hope to hit in a month, let alone during the few days I was going to be in town. Nevertheless, despite the blizzard’s best efforts, last week I managed to get to five of the shops you recommended in Manhattan. And I enjoyed the trips so much that I’ve decided to write up my visits in a series of World bookshopper posts on this blog – a kind of mystery bookshopper review, if you will. (See what I did there?)

I’m hoping this will become a regular feature (in fact I’ve already visited three bookstores in another soon-to-be-revealed part of the world and plan to write about those too). So, if you have a favourite bookshop in your neck of the woods –wherever that might be – why not tell me about it below?

Who knows? Perhaps I’ll stop by one day.

In the meantime, let me introduce the subject of my inaugural World bookshopper review: Housing Works Bookstore Cafe at 126 Crosby Street, Manhattan.

This was a recommendation from Grant and, when I looked it up, the store’s premise intrigued me. Established a decade or so ago, the shop deals entirely in donated merchandise. Its profits go to support Housing Works, a charity set up to tackle homelessness and support those living with HIV/AIDS.

What’s more, the place is run almost exclusively by volunteers. As Elisabeth Kerr, my editor at Liveright/Norton, told me when I met her for coffee after my trip to the shop, these unsalaried booksellers come from a huge variety of fields. Now and then, you might even be served by folk from inside New York’s publishing scene, who are eager to get a taste of life on the literary market’s front line.

On the day I went, the shop was busy. Nearly every table around the cafe counter at the far end was taken up with people chatting over coffee, cake and – more often than not – piles of books. Elsewhere, customers milled around the wood-lined space, browsing the shelves, tables and trolleys, and climbing up the curving metal staircases to the galleries above.

The titles were arranged in sections that you might expect to see in any number of bookshops – literary criticism, comics/graphic novels, health and so on. However, there were some more unusual shelves too. I was particularly taken with the ‘Cool & Quirky’ stand, which offered vintage editions of such classics as Edgar Rice Burroughs’ The Chessmen of Mars and Doc Savage’s The Terror in the Navy for the bargain-basement sum of $3 a pop.

Knock-down prices were by no means the rule, however. In glass cabinets near the front of the store, rare editions commanded three-figure price tags. I spied a signed, uncorrected proof of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas for $150 and an early edition of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas for a cool $300.

Curious to see what sort of presence international and translated fiction had in this shop made up of donated, second-hand reads, I made my way to the general fiction section. I searched in vain for many of the usual suspects. No Haruki Murakami or Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie met my gaze here, although I did see a copy of Chilean-American author Isabel Allende’s Portrait in Sepia.

Moving to crime, I found more surprising gaps and inclusions. The great Scandi godfathers of gritty whodunnits, Jo Nesbø and Stieg Larsson, were conspicuous by their absence, but there were several copies of Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind.

And though the work of the most famous Larsson was not represented, a novel by another writer with the same surname stood in its place: Sun Storm by Åsa Larsson (translated from the Swedish by Marlaine Delargy), winner of Sweden’s Best First Crime Novel award.

It was a snip at a little over $6. Intrigued, I hurried it to the counter and handed over my money to the smiling, grey-haired volunteer there. For all I knew, she might have been a publisher, a schoolteacher or an astronaut the rest of the time.

You get the feeling that, at Housing Works, the bookshelves aren’t the only source of fascinating stories…

Picture by Crystal Luxmore on Flickr

22 responses

  1. As a writer, I have an odd relationship with used books shops. I love them, but if I’m in the US (I live in the UK but am published only in the US) I can’t help checking for my own books. If they’re not there, I feel bad that they’re not widely read enough to have turned up. If they are, I feel bad that someone didn’t keep them. And yes, I do know this is a game I can’t win, but that doesn’t stop me playing one more round.

  2. Love this idea! I always try to reserve a morning for bookshops on a trip. You can tell a lot about a place from its attitude to books….

  3. I used to travel map out trips to visit women-owned bookstores and it was a fun way to travel via car. Now it would be much harder to do so. But finding meaningful bookstores such as you did is so enlightening! Well done and thank you for sharing.

  4. I lived in New York City for twenty years – Housing Works was one of my favorite used bookstores – a sanctuary for me! Always something to discover – always. I love its random treasures. I am glad it has survived, as many of them have not.

  5. I’m very excited about this series! I have favorite bookstores from every city I’ve lived in so I’m happy to share my list with you:
    Blackwells in Oxford–I know this is fairly obvious and you’ve probably already been there yourself but this is like my platonic ideal of what a bookstore should be. Multiple buildings! Five storeys! A basement full of textbooks! Used books in the attic! A huge classics section! I spent three years in Oxford and never got tired of stopping into Blackwells.
    I never really had a favorite bookstore in London–I only lived there two years and I was moving around a lot–and I’m sure you’ve got your own anyway, but I was always intrigued by Housman’s Radical Books in Kings Cross.
    In Dublin, I love Hodges Figgis, which is similar to Blackwells on a smaller scale and has a big selection of Irish poetry. Books Upstairs is also great, a jumble of mostly-used books that has recently moved to a location that is not up any stairs (and in fact half of their books are in the basement) but has very friendly staff and a cozy atmosphere.
    I lived on the outskirts of Boston for a while and my favorite bookshop there was Porter Square Books, a small independent bookstore in Somerville that does a lot of readings and signings. The Harvard University Bookstore is also good, as you would probably expect.
    In LA, Skylight Books, which is also small but very beautiful and indefinably cool, with a great assortment of graphic novels, art books, and local zines.
    I’ve just moved to San Francisco and while I haven’t found my favorite local store yet, I will always have a soft spot for City Lights. It’s not exactly a secret; it’s always mobbed with tourists hoping to soak up some beat history, but it’s a lovely cramped little maze, jammed with books at every turn, and it’s worth beating through the crowds for a look. I also quite like Dog Eared Books and Alley Cat Books in the Mission, which are small and a little bit intimidating as I never feel cool enough to be in them.
    Anyway, sorry for my excessive enthusiasm! Bookstores are one of my great weaknesses, and I can’t wait to read the future entries in this series!

    • Wow – what a list. And how wonderful it must have been to get to know so many cities so well. I do know Blackwells, but the others are new to me. I shall certainly bear them in mind. Thanks very much!

      • Yep, I’ve been pretty lucky to have gotten to live in so many amazing places. I hope you get to visit some of the shops I listed–I would love to hear your take on them!

  6. What a great bookstore you found! Here are some thoughts if you visit Chicago:

    The Book Cellar

    Unabridged Book Store

    Women and Children First

    Bookends and Beginnings

    And here is a link to a wonderful list of quirky independent interesting bookstores:

    And now I have to visit some of those I have not yet gotten to. Thank you for the inspiration!

  7. Wow! I love travelling. Read some of your posts, it feels like I’m there! Love your writing. Please do keep writing, I want to travel to places as well!

  8. Pingback: Freshly Seen at Jill’s Scene during February. – Jill's Scene

  9. Great idea to review bookstores. I was just in Spoonbill & Sugartown in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. They feature art, design, and architectural books along with quirky literature. Give it a peek.

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