It’s hard to image that someone might roam the sprawling stacks of Barnes and Nobel, or The Strand, or BookCourt and think, “Nope, nothing to read here.” But for diehard mystery fans looking for the latest Scandinavian detective novels, or sci-fi buffs on the hunt for vintage pulps, large, general interest bookshops don’t always do the trick. Enter the niche bookstore: small, indie shops that cater to the very specific interests of very specific subsets of the literary community. There are plenty of these little guys sprinkled throughout the city; here are five of the best that New York has to offer.
SINGULARITY & CO.
The Scoop: Like any nerd bookstore worth its salt, Singularity & Co. stocks staples like Dune, The Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter. But the shop’s main focus is vintage and out-of-print sci-fi, fantasy, and pulp. Stacked neatly between steampunk-y tchotches and light-saber-wielding Mr. Potato heads are second-hand paperbacks from decades past, written by the likes of A.B. Guthrie and Henry Kuttner. Singularity & Co. also boasts an impressive selection of yellow-spine DAW Books and an entire section devoted to sci-fi smut (which, in case you were wondering, consists of books with epic titles like
Moorcock and The King of the Sword).
Typical customer: “Everyone from hipster kids from Williamsburg to a family from the Upper West Side,” says Ashley Marie,one of the shop’s sales clerks. “They’re looking for rare stuff that’s out of print, something that they read in their childhood.”
Staff pick: Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer. Marie says that after reading this novel, which is set in a highly stratified, highly technologized society of the future, she realized that not all sci-fi is “nerdy robot shit.”
THE MYSTERIOUS BOOKSHOP
The Scoop: The Mysterious Bookshop is a paradise for lovers of detective fiction, but the store’s lush interior would make any bibliophile drool. Three walls of the shop are lined top to bottom with beautiful mahogany bookcases, which customers can
navigate with the help of a rolling ladder. Said bookcases are packed with mysteries, crime fiction, and noir by both mainstream American authors (Grisham, Patterson, Evanovich) and lesser-known writers from around the globe (think Henning Mankell and Arnaldur Indridason). The entire back wall of the shop is dedicated to Sherlockiana, which ranges in scope from a 19th century edition of A Study in Scarlet to more, erm, contemporary titles, such as Benedict Cumberbatch in Transition. The crown jewel of the shop’s merchandise is a $10,000, first edition copy of The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett.
Typical customer: “Very well-read in the field,” says Steven Viola, the shop’s bookseller. “They’re looking for more serious writers, stuff you’re not going to find in the average bookstore or airport.”
Staff pick: Voices by Arnaldur Indridason, in which an Icelandic detective investigates the unfortunate demise of a hotel Santa.
JUMEL TERRACE BOOKS
The Scoop: Jumel Terrace Books is located across from the Morris-Jumel Mansion, in the heart of a neighborhood that was once a central hub of the Harlem Renaissance. The shop is housed in the basement of a creaky, three-story brownstone owned by Kurt Thometz, a private librarian and fashion retailer with a keen interest in local African American history. Thometz curates the shop’s books himself, which are organized according to subject: African folklore, colonialism, slavery, civil rights, jazz, dance, blaxploitation, street literature, and so on. So while the bookstore takes up just one tiny room of Thometz’s basement, its shelves contain everything from first-hand slave narratives to a bibliography on pimping. Select visitors to Jumel Terrace Books are graced with the affections of the shop’s resident cat, His Orangeness.
Typical customer: “There’s hardly a customer that comes in here,” Thometz says. “The store is for the community that I live in. They have no local history collection.”
Staff pick: Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, which, according to Thometz, is “arguably the most important novel by anyone in the second half of the 20th century.”
BERL’S BROOKLYN POETRY SHOP
The Scoop: Since Berl’s Brooklyn Poetry Shop opened its doors in September, the store has played host to dozens of poetry readings and several art exhibits. With its large, sun-kissed storefront, Berl’s makes for a perfect event space and gallery, but the space was actually designed to showcase the small-press, poetry chapbooks that make up the bulk of Berl’s inventory. These vibrantly colored and intricately designed chapbooks are displayed in rows on long tables, and arranged neatly on sparse, wooden shelves. Most of the shop’s books are by American poets, and much of their work is experimental; among Berl’s collection are poetry comic books by Bianca Stone, and a “visual translation” of the Odyssey by Polly Duff Bresnik.
Typical customer: Poets. “They’ll be the ones who will stay for a while, pulling out boxes, and finding the most obscure things that we have,” says Jared White, who co-founded Berl’s with his wife, Farrah. Neighborhood locals stop by the shop pretty frequently too, as do European tourists. “They’re always really tuned into poetry,” White says of customers from abroad. “It’s exciting”
Staff pick: Heather Tone’s Gestures, a chapbook that contains a series of onelet lines exploring human movement and expression.
DRAMA BOOKSHOP INC.
The Scoop: The Drama Bookshop Inc. is an oasis of calm amidst the loud, flashy rush of the city’s Theatre District. Plush chairs are crammed into little nooks throughout the low-ceilinged shop, so customers can kick up their feet and read through Hamlet, or A Doll’s House, or whatever it is that suits their dramatic sensibilities. The Drama Bookshop is packed with more plays and monologues than any other bookstore in the city, selling just about everything from Sophocles to Stoppard, Beaumarchais to Beckett. The shop also boasts a large selection of works by lesser-known, contemporary playwrights (such as Completeness by Itamar Moses, and the much goofier William Shakespeare’s Star Wars by Ian Doescher), along with a slew of guides on acting, directing, scene writing, and set and costume design.
Typical customer: “Acting students or theatre students,” says Stu Brynien, who has worked at the shop for fifteen years. “And lots of professionals—teachers, who are looking for stuff for their students.”
Staff pick: The Pavillion by Craig Wright, which, according to Brynien, is a contemporary drama “about first love and second chances.”