4-Star Book Stores

4-star book stores

Arguably the literary capital of America, with a rich history of serving as muse to famous writers, a population that includes hundreds of thousands of serious book nerds and casual subway riders, and a claim on the kingmaking bestseller list in The New York Times, New York City doesn’t have any 4-star book stores.

Can that be right?

We came up with a system for identifying the greatest book stores. There are four criteria, and each one potentially merits a star.

— Great selection of new books

— Great selection of used books

— A good space that welcomes browsing

— A strong sense of identity through local events, staff selections, etc.

Scoring a 4-star rating is hard, but not impossible. In our native San Francisco, Green Apple Books and City Lights are both 4-star gems. Boston has Harvard Book Store and the Brookline Booksmith. Those cities are a fraction of New York’s size, so you might expect New York to have at least half a dozen 4-star options.

But nope. Even the best stores we’ve found in NYC (St. Mark’s Bookshop, McNally Jackson, Community Bookstore) fail to earn the second potential star, and tend to feel snooty or unrelaxed. Don’t even get us started on the Strand, which out-of-towners and undergrads seem to love, even though it fails miserably on all four counts. (Hell is a tower of dog-eared remainders, a labyrinth of crowded aisles, and a gaggle of Midwesterners yakking as they line up for the new David Sedaris.)

So what’s wrong with book stores in New York City?

Have we lost our literary soul?

Did we invite the bookpocalypse by letting Gotham Book Mart go belly-up?

Is Barnes & Noble secretly financed up by a shell company run by Kim Jong Il, the Ayatollah Khamenei, and Starbucks?

Do you know any other 4-star book stores?

Should we change the rating system?

Have you ever fallen asleep on a big armchair in a patch of sunlight in the fiction aisle of a 4-star book store, and when you woke up there was a pretty Asian girl standing by the Virginia Woolf section, and she indicated by a discreet swipe of her hand that you had drool running down your chin?

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10 Comments

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10 Responses to 4-Star Book Stores

  1. Dayne

    I can’t think of any 4-star book stores in New York. But, that might change this fall:
    http://abookstoreinbrooklyn.blogspot.com/2009/06/big-announcement-greenlight-is-go.html

  2. Matt

    I have to agree. Book Court is a very good store but lacks the necessary selection of used and remaindered books. None of the stores in NY comes close to touching Harvard Bookstore or the Booksmith.

  3. Andy Lin

    Oh I hate Strand so much, and I hate anyone who carries a Strand bag, especially someone who carries a Strand bag in a city other than NY. It is a complete person deal-breaker for me, and I had to stop being friends with someone because of this.

    I am not being very book-pure here, but a good immediately adjacent cafe is very important to me. The Booksmith has a Peets and Starbucks next door so that sort of counts, and there’s a bunch of stuff in Harvard Square. So that is a fifth criterion for me. A sixth is the interestingness/attractiveness of the other customers; when I need a break from the books, I want good people watching, preferably while having a pastry and coffee.

    All of which is to say, the union square barnes and noble is the best bookstore in new york city, Kim Jong Il be damned. Also, if you’ve never been, you should go check out the Printed Matter (http://printedmatter.org/). It’s really more an art gallery than a bookstore, and you probably won’t buy anything there, but it’s still a very cool place.

    I am tempted to move to Portland just because of Powells. You’d think the fact that it is the biggest bookstore would make it suck somehow, but it is still incredibly great, and probably one of my favorite places of all time.

    Elliot Bay Books here in Seattle is very nice, fits all six of my criteria, and probably the nicest bookstore I consistently go to. But it is no Powells. Not even close.

  4. No love for Housing Works? Publishers and reviewers donate a lot of unread books, so there are a lot of brand new books on the shelves or tables. Great events, great identity. Good space for browsing, though limited on finding a specific book. Staff selections spotty I guess.

    And McNally Jackson? No used books but stars on the other criteria.

  5. I would add a criterion for resisting the over-categorization of books; unless you’re the LoC, I really hate the overcategorization of books. To that end, one of my favorite NYC bookstores is Three Lives, although once again, it lacks in the second star category.

  6. Carrie M

    I agree about Three Lives. Great, though small, selection, even though it does have that NY hoity-toityness.

    Oscar Wilde was great in its own area before it closed. RIP. :(

    I am pleased to have recently found McNally Jackson. It might be my favorite store now, even without a used section.

    There’s also obviously Community Bookstore in Park Slope, which has the same things going for it as the other NY bookstores that have been mentioned.

    And Andy, the Fiction Advocate was once spotted wearing a Strand messenger bag around Boston, but he looked very sheepish about it.

  7. Ben

    Not so much with the used books, but perhaps deserving of 3 stars from discerning bibliophiles: http://www.idlewildbooks.com

  8. fictionadvocate

    Good call, Ben.

    The Globe Corner Bookstore in Cambridge also makes travel books fun again.

  9. Carrie M

    Oh, man good call! I knew there was a Boston bookstore being left out. What’s great about the Globe (especially in its new location) is that it mingles travel guides, armchair travel books, and fiction of a particular place. Brilliant!

  10. Andy Lin

    I was browsing around in Elliot Bay Books yesterday, and I started thinking about Powell’s and what made it so great — other than, or because of, the millions of books, cafe, organizational style of colored rooms, thousands of people…

    And it’s this: Every time I’m at Powell’s, I get the feeling that a new best friend is also there.

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