When buying a dictionary, Frederick Exley (A Fan’s Notes) “gauge[s] its breadth” by looking up thurible and gorp. Unfortunately, the book lover has no such recourse: Sure, you found the Sverre Lyngstad translation of Hunger; now good luck with that elusive Goodis debut. Still, with minor perambulatory efforts, one can often satisfy that peculiar yen—the search itself bound in Quixotean subjectivity—for evidence of the literary life.
ARGOSY (Used) 116 East 59th Street, 212-753-4455 Elegant and expensive, Argosy invites you to regard books as pure objects. Check out the 16th- and 17th-century collection for Latin breviaries small as piano keys.
COLISEUM (New) 11 West 42nd Street, 212-803-5890 Name recognition belied by fallow stock and book-fair ambience.
EAST VILLAGE (Used) 101 St. Mark’s Place, 212-477-8647 Not as “East Village” as you’d think, this basement store features “small press/anti-establishment” and “religion/mysticism” sections, and also offers a respectable selection of literary fiction, plus $2 trade editions outside.
GOTHAM BOOK MART (New and Used) 41 West 47th Street, 212-719-4448 A mecca for literati, Gotham is mostly deserving of its reputation—for literary fiction and criticism, it’s tough to beat. It’s non-elitist and inspiring, and a visit may get you to pick up that unbreached copy of Finnegans Wake. (Don’t go it alone: The Wake Watchers reading group meets here once a month.)
LABYRINTH (New) 536 West 112th Street, 212-865-1588 A paragon of functionality, with a (cement) ground floor that features well-spaced displays of new books, including theory and translations. Upstairs, a stark, warehouse atmosphere is the trade-off for carrying nearly every book of literary fiction, poetry, and social science you ever wanted.
LENOX HILL (New) 1018 Lexington Avenue, 212-472-7170 Small and borderline generic, but randomly brilliant (e.g., most of Brian Evenson’s oeuvre), Lenox Hill is worth a look for new and obscure literature you can’t find elsewhere.
MURDER INK/IVY’S (New) 2486 Broadway, 212-362-8905 Great for general mysteries (try Shakespeare for classic noir) and new-trad lit (Bellow, Murdoch).
REVOLUTION (New) 9 West 19th Street, 212-691-3345 No-bullshit (well, some) take on the margins, with cutting-edge and erudite books on third-world crises, Communism, women’s lib, and more, as well as special sections devoted to various “world” literatures.
SHAKESPEARE AND CO. (New) 716 Broadway, 212-529-1330 This indie chain is strong in new literary fiction, hard-boiled crime, and play scripts.
SKYLINE (Used) 13 West 18th Street, 212-SKY-LINE First editions of post-1960s literary fiction for reasonable prices, plus monographs, cult fixtures, and an American West section.
ST. MARK’S (New) 31 Third Avenue, 212-260-7853 Not as in-the-know as its reputation suggests, St. Mark’s nevertheless has forged a truly independent personality without sacrificing democratic appeal. It boasts wide and insightful selections in most every category and is nearly comprehensive for lit journals and poetry. The remainders are diverse and often newish (e.g., DeLillo’s Cosmopolis for $7.98).
STRAND (Used and New) 828 Broadway, 212-473-1452 Now “16 miles of books,” but who cares? Overcrowded and unorganized (a single “social sciences” section?!), the Strand is a browser’s nightmare. Good for literary bios, little else.
THREE LIVES(New) 154 West 10th Street, 212-741-2069 Aesthetically, a near-perfect bookstore (featured on the cover of Jonathan Franzen’s How to Be Alone), Three Lives offers a relatively small but well-chosen selection of literary fiction and local interest.
12TH STREET (Used) 11 East 12th Street, 212-645-4340 Bypass the Strand and try here. Mostly wide aisles make for comfortable browsing with extensive art, theater, and (Freud-heavy) psychology sections. The hit-or-miss fiction is reasonably priced ($4 to $10), plus there’s a strong lit-crit area for pre-deconstructionists.
WESTSIDER (Used) 2246 Broadway, 212-362-0706 Reminiscent of London and Dublin shops, with ceiling-high shelves and browsing stair; the uncorrected proof for a recent Dickey bio was priced at $10.