Once upon a time, we read books. We don’t mean the kind you swipe or listen to. We’re talking about those sleek rectangular symbols of obsolescence, with their heavenly, substantive smell of ink on paper. But years ago we moved across the country to a modest space, and it wasn’t long before we felt the draw of technology, with its promise of convenience, constant availability and ease of use. Now, aside from the occasional signed copy or special edition to add to our bookshelf, we don’t buy physical books. But that doesn’t mean we don’t love them. Thankfully, beneath the veneer of New York City’s gotta-go culture lies an avid community of readers. Within the bustling city, you can always find quiet spots where people linger, book in hand. You just have to know where to look. Here’s the ultimate book lover’s guide to New York City.
The New York Public Library’s Stephen A. Schwarzman Building
You can’t talk about libraries in New York City without mentioning the New York Public Library’s Stephen A. Schwarzman building on Fifth Avenue. The Beaux-Arts beauty was built on the site of the Croton Reservoir, and architects Carrère and Hastings pondered every immaculate detail, designing tables, chairs, lamps, chandeliers and even wastebaskets. The Registered National Historic Landmark opened in 1911, and is a must-visit for any book and architecture lover. The library has the most comprehensive collection ever brought together for the free use of the public. Want to peruse a historical atlas covering 400 years of New York City history? You’ll find it here.
Among the highlights are the Rose Main Reading Room, which was lovingly restored in 2016 and received landmark status in 2017. Almost two city blocks long, it’s hard to believe such a luxurious space is available to the public. In between pages, be sure to take a moment to gaze up at the painted sky ceilings and its gilded frames.
Pro Tip: On select Fridays, the Schwarzman building also hosts Library After Hours, a themed happy hour event featuring drinks, fun performances and other activities. It’s a great opportunity to see the space in a completely new light. Just note that the event is popular and lines form far in advance, so plan appropriately.
The Morgan Library & Museum
Located in the heart of Midtown Manhattan, the Morgan Library once belonged to financier John Pierpont Morgan. (His commercial and banking institution was the predecessor to multinational investment bank and financial services company JP Morgan Chase & Co.). Built in the Italian Renaissance style, the structure housed the prolific collector’s numerous literary and historical manuscripts, prints and drawings. After Pierpont Morgan passed away, his son turned it into a public institution.
With the support of its Board of Trustees and dedicated staff, The Morgan Library & Museum now runs numerous programs and exhibits throughout the year to promote learning, creativity and collaboration. And though they are all worthy of your time, the heart and soul of this institution can still be found in the library that lies on its east side, just past the magnificent rotunda. Rows and rows of books fill the towering 30-foot space, and the library also features a large tapestry, stained glass windows and stunning painted ceilings.
Pro Tip: When visiting The Morgan Library & Museum, be sure to request its Augmented Reality tour, which is free with paid admission. The tour allows you to experience the library as it was when it opened in 1907. You’ll be provided a handheld device, and by pointing the screen to areas of the property as directed, you’re able to “see” a hidden staircase, “look into” the vault or “open” the doors to a street scene from the early twentieth century. The accompanying audio guide provides fascinating architectural as well as personal details about the library and its owner.
The Central Branch of the Brooklyn Public Library
Each of the libraries mentioned here are stunning architectural gems, and it would be criminal to exclude the showstopping Art Deco exterior of the Brooklyn Public Library’s Central Branch. The building is designed to resemble an open book, with its spine on Grand Army Plaza and its two wings opening like pages onto Eastern Parkway and Flatbush Avenue. The grand portico features fifteen bronze sculptures of American literary characters and members of its community, such as Herman Melville’s Moby Dick and poet Walt Whitman. These sculptures are framed by grand columns with gold-leaf etchings, which depict the evolution of art and science through the ages.
Inside, the 352,000-square foot space carries the usual art, history, religion and technology resources you would expect to find in a library of this size. But the Brooklyn Public Library also houses a Brooklyn Collection, which documents the rich history of this growing borough from pre-colonial times to the present. It’s the world’s largest public archive for the study of Brooklyn’s social and cultural history in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Book Lover Destinations in New York City
If there was ever a monument erected to books, Library Hotel fits the bill. Boasting 10 guest room floors, each thematically dedicated to a category of the Dewey Decimal Classification System–from Social Sciences to Languages, Literature to History, Philosophy to Religion and more–you’ll undoubtedly find something that will pique your interest. Take in the stunning view on the rooftop bar, escape to nooks and crannies throughout the hotel to curl up with the oeuvre of a favorite author, or, perhaps, take a whimsical walk along Library Way, the series of bronze literary plaques embedded in the sidewalk running along East 41st Street leading to New York Public Library’s Stephen A. Schwarzman building on Fifth Avenue.
Library at NoMad
Imagine yourself loosening your bow tie after a high-society function, retiring for a digestif. Or, perhaps, you’re a millionaire casually taking your morning coffee with a croissant. That’s what it feels like to inhabit the Library at Nomad. It’s an elegantly curated, two-level space, with a dazzling array of books and a gorgeous spiral staircase imported, all-in-one-piece, from the South of France. Hidden in the NoMad Hotel past its popular restaurant and the famous Elephant Bar, the Library feels like a space where you need a secret handshake or password to enter. But you don’t. Whether you’re interested in a light morning breakfast, afternoon cocktails, or late afternoon dessert, there’s no greater space to linger.
Pro Tip: The Library at Nomad offers light fare and finger foods, as well as coffee, tea, wine and cocktails through 4 pm, after which it is reserved exclusively for patrons of the hotel. To make the most of your experience, go early in the morning and you’ll have the space all to yourself.
Book Lover Events in New York City
BookCon is an annual affair that draws book nerds from far and wide. Billed as “an event where storytelling and pop culture collide,” it brings together authors, publishers, celebrities and their fans on a massive scale. Like ComicCon, the 2-day event is held at the Javits Center on the west side of Midtown Manhattan. The literary fan fest debuted in 2014 and features signings, panels, and tons of great swag.
Like all fan conventions, the atmosphere at BookCon is charged with excitement. Some enthusiastic readers even dress up as their favorite literary characters. Attendees can expect to find the hottest authors and the buzziest new releases on the docket, though access to the popular events is limited. Having a strategy ahead of time helps, but be prepared to spend a good amount of time waiting in line.
Brooklyn Book Festival
The Brooklyn Book Festival is New York City’s largest free literary festival with a keen focus on promoting readership through low or no-cost programs. The flagship Festival Day draws thousands of bibliophiles each year, but Children’s Day is also one of its most popular events. Smaller “Bookend events” like salons, launch parties and storytelling nights stretch the festival out to a whole week. These Bookend events take place in different locations throughout the city, and are usually a great introduction to New York City’s many fantastic bookshops.
Festival Day includes selections from the Fiction, Non-Fiction, Young Adult, Food, International, Comics and Poetry genres, so the authors and the conversations are varied. Entrance to individual programs are on a first come first serve basis, so plan accordingly. More than 300 authors participate, and all of them sign their books immediately following their program.
New York City Book Lover Programs
Books on the Subway
When getting around New York City, the subway is a must. That doesn’t mean it’s always an enjoyable experience. It can be crowded, noisy, and when not in peak form–which, let’s face it, is often–very, very slow. Books on the Subway serves two functions: to inspire more people to read and to make one’s commute more enjoyable. The project was launched by Rosy Saliba Kehdi and Hollie Fraser. It is part of the larger, international movement, Books on the Move, which has branches around the globe. The premise is simple: books are left in subway cars and you are encouraged to pick them up, take them with you, read them, share them, and then return them–free of charge.
One Book, One New York
New York City was a fairly late adopter of the One Book, One City reading program, kicking it off only in 2017. (The Library of Congress had record of 404 such programs in communities across the country 10 years prior.) The summer reading program takes the idea of a book club and expands it citywide, thereby fostering a sense of community while promoting literacy. But New York City kicked it off the only way it knows how: with five celebrities selecting the five contenders. Bebe Neuwirth’s pick, Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, was the inaugural One Book, One New York selection.
Every year, the New York City Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment enlists the help of librarians, academics and publishers to select five critically acclaimed books. The contenders are announced in early April, and copies of each title are made available in libraries and bookstores in all five boroughs. About a month later, the winner is announced. You don’t have to be a city resident to read the selections, or to participate in all the readings, discussions and panels that take place across the city.
Fun fact: 2019 book contenders were all penned by female authors hailing from the New York area, and Patti Smith’s Just Kids was crowned the winner. The author once worked at the legendary Strand bookstore in Union Square.
Quintessential New York City Bookstores
How can you narrow down a list of bookstores in New York City, when you have every iteration imaginable? From tiny independent bookstores like Three Lives & Company to multi-generational multi-story behemoths like Argosy, there’s an option for every book lover’s mood. Here are a few New York City gems where you can easily while away a few hours:
The Strand is on every New York City bookstore list worth its salt, and that’s because The Strand is a New York City institution. It’s like shopping at Saks, or getting a Nathan’s Famous hot dog at Coney Island. Family owned and operated, The Strand occupies a corner on 12th St and Broadway in Union Square. Scour through the 2.5 million used, new, and rare books, in the company of all the other New York City book lovers.
Center for Fiction
The Center for Fiction is the only nonprofit literary organization in the U.S. solely dedicated to celebrating fiction, and you can find more than one way to get lost in its new 17,000-square-foot home in downtown Brooklyn. With a cafe, bar (replete with literary-themed cocktails, of course), terrace, auditorium, and 70,000-plus fiction titles, plan to stay a while.
A haven for Francophiles, Albertine is devoted solely to books in French and English. Located in a historic manor on Fifth Avenue just a stone’s throw from the Met, the bookstore carries thousands of titles from 30 French-speaking countries. Its hand-painted ceiling mural of constellations, stars, and planets–modeled after the ceiling of the music room at the Villa Stuck in Munich, Germany–is an Instagram favorite.
The Rizzoli bookstore on Broadway is humble compared to its prior homes, but it still carries the air of an established bookseller. The Fornasetti wallpaper and quirky chandeliers create an incredible backdrop for its eye-catching selection. It’s the perfect place to shop for unique coffee table books.
Books are Magic
When author Emma Straub’s neighborhood bookstore was closing down, she decided she could either move, or open her own. And that’s how Books are Magic was born. It’s a cozy neighborhood independent bookstore in the truest sense of the word. Pop by for the warm and fuzzies, and don’t forget to take a picture under the street art sign.
In the early days of our relationship, sharing our favorite books was an important part of getting to know each other. They reflected what we valued, what moved us, what we dreamed of. We know it sounds nerdy, but sharing the seminal books that laid the foundations for our understanding of the world was an incredible gift we gave to each other. It was a coded communication: “If you really are interested in me–in what I think and what I believe–read this and you may begin to understand me.”
In the many years since, our romance with books has never quite diminished. Sure, the way that the general public consumes the written word has clearly changed over time and many have mused that the written word is dead. But in New York City, where change is constant and the chase for all things new and sparkly becomes an unconscious obsession, some things, thankfully, stay exactly the same.
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