Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The Best Bookstores in New York.

I love walking in Manhattan. Ever since I can remember, I loved to get away from it all in search of some peace of mind by walking through the city and wandering into old bookstores, searching through shelves for a mysterious or obscure work that transports me far away from that immersion in drek that is so much a part of many people's lives, especially mine.

There is something about the experience of evil and hatred that makes those qualities, along with persons afflicted with such forms of suffering ("suffering" is exactly what hatred and evil are), intensely unattractive and a source of revulsion. The single quality shared by New Jersey politicians and their minions -- including most judges in that crime-infested state -- is that to know them is to loathe them. And I do loathe them, but only in the nicest way.

It may be that many people these days have trouble believing in God, but few of us doubt the existence of evil. And if evil is real, then logically and necessarily, the concept can only be real or meaningful in relation to its opposite, goodness. So that if there is such a thing as ultimate evil, then rest assured, ultimate or absolute goodness must also exist-- at least conceptually -- rendering our options both poignant and "real." Also, allowing for the ultimate absorption of evils into the greatest good. If there are "good" and "evil" options in this world, then it looks like we'll have to choose. Think of this as the "Coke or Pepsi?" theological dilemma. ("Is this atheism's moment?")

One of my misfortunes has been the presence of terrible evils in my life. I have also enjoyed compensating encounters with persons displaying opposed qualities of goodness and generosity, unwillingness to cause others suffering, which makes my familiar encounters with evil tolerable, evoking both my anger and pity for haters. It is only themselves that they truly hate -- and who can fail to understand their self-hatred? No one. ("What is it like to be tortured?" and "What is it like to be plagiarized?")

Anyway, "the bookstore as Oasis" is an old tradition in literature. Many writers -- Henry Miller, Gustave Flaubert, George Orwell and others -- have shared my obsession with those dusty shelves. What follows is my list of top New York bookstores, starting with the best megastores and ending with college bookstores. This list includes my favorite indie book locales and descriptions of the denizens to be found in such environments. A bonus is offered by way of exceptional sidewalk book vendors and where you can find them.

Megabooks Are Us.

This category is reserved for Borders and Barnes & Noble. My favorite store in this category no longer exists. At the World Trade Center, there was a huge Borders on the first and second floors of (as I recall) Tower II. A coffee shop on the second floor offered a view of the graveyard at Trinity or is it St. Paul's Church? Plush and comfy leather chairs allowed one to curl up with a volume of poetry or philosophical works, enjoying an excellent view of well-dressed women on their way to the office. Many of these women "claimed" to be blondes. Some still do.

There is something about a woman in business attire -- ideally, wearing a headset of some kind, stockings and Nikes -- that is so sexy. Inevitably, no matter how fancy the suits they wore, these women were purchasing fat, glorified "romances" by female novelists with three names, one of which was always Jewish. "Barbara Taylor Cohen" was very popular.

Sometimes I'd wear a nice suit myself and carry a briefcase, ride the elevator with these people, while holding a Tom Clancy novel and explain that "I am in marketing and distribution." It's always a good idea when exiting such an elevator to say: "Things are looking up this quarter!" You'll get a smile from all the women who will assume that you are a CEO or "important" for some reason, which is clearly not visible to the naked eye.

I always frown, knowingly, burdened with the weight of responsibility and a copy of the Wall Street Journal, then I stroll in a very masculine and purposeful way towards the men's room and wave over my shoulder, like Bill Clinton.

The best Barnes & Noble stores are: 1) Union Square, where artists, hipsters and students meet publishing executives; and 2) Lincoln Center, where music lovers and law students congregate to plan adulteries. The drawback with any Barnes & Noble is rude or indifferent and ill-informed staff people. They will have to look up obscure writers, like Gore Vidal and Steven King. "How do you spell that name?" First name: "S-T-E-V-E-N" Last name: "K-I-N-G!" However, the prices are great. The Mocha Frapuccino with whipped cream and syrup, plus one nutrasweet, is awesome. How much is that cupcake? "$5.95?" American money? I'll pass.

The best post-9/11 Borders is 57th Street and Park Avenue. The Time Warner building's Borders is too filled with chi-chi people in search of a new exercise book or "something, like, really spiritual?" I like the DVD section, however, where I have spotted occasional undercover celebrities, many of whom hire persons to read books for them. Some will even pay you to sip hot chocolate in the Cafe and wear dark glasses, while refusing to sign autographs.

Best Used Books Place.

Academy on (I think) 18th Street was O.K., Skylight was all right, but the boss, the all-time daddy of used bookstore heavens is -- Strand Books, 14th Street and Broadway. Yes, they're on-line. Employees at this establishment have achieved the right balance of insouciance and nonchalance. You, the customer, are an insect and a worm. We are sensitive and poetic, writerly, post-grad grads, residing in the West Village, leading fascinating lives. We wear nose rings. We will answer your ignorant questions and be helpful, even to such sub-humans as you, because that's just the sort of good persons that we are. Once a year -- perhaps at Christmas, if you're lucky, we will smile at you -- especially if you spend more than $100.

Wearing a Strand t-shirt will get you a nod -- even as CIA agents who spot each other across the room at a black tie occasion, smile, knowingly, then nod at one another and proceed to save the Western World -- without committing crimes that may result in indictments with the arrival of a new Administration. "Blackford Oakes is the name; intelligence is the game."

The philosophy section at Strand is excellent. Poetry and fiction are superb. Ambience is awesome. Book lovers of previous eras have left an indelible imprint. Ghosts seem to hover at your elbow. One almost hears a whispered question ... "Where is the mystery section?"

College and/or Academic Book Stores.

NYU and Columbia still have the best bookstores. Students named "Jennifer" (from Connecticut) or "Baxter" (from Washington state) will jostle you on line as you wait to make your purchase at either place. They will write checks on an account in their parents' name, even as they use a credit card that is always tossed at the cashier with an enviable casualness.

"Dad" is an investment banker. They like to go "winter sporting." Europe is "nice," whereas Broadway at 110th Street is "O.K." It is always best to end your casual conversations with males of the elite school species with the remark: "later, man."

Labyrinth Books (now called something else) is the best store for academic titles. Great prices on "Derrida, Foucault and Butler on Gender Theory and Success With Sexually Ambiguous but Politically Aware Women in Search of Your Signifier" -- a work published by Verso, in 2009 -- is assured. I have a Labyrinth card which allows me to get a discount every time I spend $100. Oh, boy. Incidentally, this book will be published every year by Verso, except that it will have a different title with each new edition.

The cashier downstairs is usually named "Kimberly" or "Martha." Your best bet if you have a question is to try the upstairs people. Do not, under any circumstances, admit to being any kind of Republican when visiting this establishment.

Most Hallowed Literary Bookstore.

This category is won, hands-down, by The Gotham Bookmart. Great writers have walked those aisles at the old location, mysteriously transported to wherever the store is now. I once saw former New York Governor Hugh Carey and (I am pretty sure) Katherine Hepburn in the store.

First editions and signed copies are secret treasures of this establishment, which -- like many great writers -- is always burdened with genteel poverty, while displaying undiminished aristocratic or aesthetic refinements. This is a bookstore invented by Tenneesee Williams, or F. Scott Fitzgerald. "Seventeen gentlemen callers! ..."

Mr. Brown, the proprietor of this establishment, loves tormenting book lovers with his latest acquisitions. "I have a signed report card for Gore Vidal, while he was at Los Alamos school. It may be the one original left of Vidal's first report card, when he signed his mother's name."

I will always take the bait: "How much?"

With sadistic glee and undisguised relish, Mr. Brown will whisper: "I sold it to a Norwegian collector for $6,000."

Sometimes, I manage to top him: "I would have paid $7,000. Pity."

Mr. Brown may be depressed for as long as a week or so after one of our chats.

Sidewalk Book Characters.

The guy on seventy-second street has lots of good titles. He pretends to be comatose so as not to be bothered with the riff-raff. The best way to wake him up is to act like you're walking away with one of his books. There is absolute chaos on his tables. On the other hand, there is no telling what you'll find. This is similar to life.

The well-read character sporting a ponytail, safely esconsed by NYU -- who is permanently mellow -- also has good books. "Oh, yeah ... I have the Ronald Hayman biography of Nietzsche. It'll take me a few days to get it." That means he'll charge you twenty bucks and he's got it in his trunk, but wants you to suffer for it.

Up by my neck of the woods ("Inwood"), is a newcomer to the book biz. He's always chipper, has losts of titles, offering a strange combination of classics and ... well, the works of "Barbara Taylor Cohen." Still, I recently purchased some novels by Dickens and the plays of Richard Sheridan, which I'll read over the holidays. I plan to solve, once and for all, the "mystery of Edwin Drood."

Enjoy your literary experiences and remember: "New York is Book Country!"

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