New York is indeed book country, if you can get past the stone lions. Here’s a selection of what you can find, armed with only that flimsiest of passports, a library card.
ANDREW HEISKELL BRAILLE AND TALKING BOOK LIBRARY 40 West 20th Street, 212-206-5400 No pushing and shoving here. Architecturally barrier-free, the Heiskell has wide aisles and low, neatly maintained shelves. Although only qualifying individuals can check out the chunky green “talking books” and the library’s braille titles, any visitor with a New York Public Library card can borrow materials from the large-print and “descriptive video” collections. Or, audition to record your favorite book in the fully equipped recording studio. The children’s room is charming, with books in multiple formats, including touch-and-feel, and a snowy owl hand puppet.
BROOKLYN PUBLIC LIBRARY, CENTRAL LIBRARY Grand Army Plaza, 718-230-2100 The outside suggests a gleaming Egyptian tomb, but with anachronistic cross-cultural references (pictographs of dinosaurs, Tom Sawyer, and a Roman soldier). Inside is a virtual terrarium of self-sufficiency, as you might guess from the ATM in the entrance lobby. There are millions of books, but also gallery space, an auditorium, a multilingual center, and a multimedia center that looks like a miniature Blockbuster, with framed movie posters made from blown-up video box covers. The third-floor café serves up weekday breakfast and lunch—get a burger from the grill or choose from daily menu offerings (Tex-Mex with onion rings, BBQ ribs with sweet potato fries).
DONNELL LIBRARY CENTER 20 West 53rd Street, 212-621-0618 Since 1987, the Central Children’s Room has been home to the original Pooh, Piglet, Eeyore, Tigger, and Kanga, the stuffed toys that inspired the books by A.A. Milne. Even grown-ups will enjoy seeing the well-loved animals, as well as making use of the Donnell’s other resources. Among them: a vast world language collection and a media center with extensive film, video, and audio holdings. There’s something to feed every addiction or exploration, from tapes of The Avengers (sparse episodes of ’63 blooming to a full season of ’67) to reference books on noir and pre-code Hollywood.
MERCANTILE LIBRARY OF NEW YORK 17 East 47th Street, 212-755-6710 This midtown establishment has a mission to promote the reading, writing, study, and enjoyment of literature. But, like the Society Library, the Merc is membership only, which is a true shame: Here, you’ll find generous leather armchairs, shelves of journals old and new, and one of the best fiction, mystery, and detective novel collections in the nation. The Merc also rents out low-cost work space to writers, who must apply bearing such evidence of “writer” status as published work, contracts, or even rejection slips. Nonmember researchers can request access for use on-site only ($75 individual yearly membership).
NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY FOR THE PERFORMING ARTS 40 Lincoln Center Plaza, 212-870-1630 Located in the vast sprawl of the Lincoln Center complex, the Performing Arts Library has over 9 million items, and less than a third of them are books. Expect to find multiple drafts of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, pre-glasnost underground videos of Russian rock groups, dialect tapes to master your cockney accent—and expect to use them in style. This library must have tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of Aeron chairs alone, not to mention black pod-like listening stations and a copy machine area that looks nicer than most.
NEW YORK SOCIETY LIBRARY 53 East 79th Street, 212-288-6900 The oldest in the city, the New York Society Library was founded in 1754 for the purpose of being “useful as well as ornamental” and has slowly changed its quarters, moving ever further uptown. A quarter-millennium later, the library contains nearly 200,000 volumes, representing the tastes of its members over the years (Melville and Auden are among past frequenters). It’s a subscription library, which means you have to pay to find out what’s upstairs (reading and study rooms, nine floors of open stacks). Nonmembers, though, have use of the first-floor reference room, a warm spot to read the Cyclopedia of Literary Characters or Sargent’s Handbook of Private Schools ($175 yearly per household).
WILLIAMSBURG BRANCH BOOKMOBILE Brooklyn Public Library, Division and Marcy Avenues, 917-502-9977 While the classic brick-and-mortar version is being renovated, take a trip back to the past, when bookmobiles served neighborhoods either too out of the way or too poor to have public libraries. Painted a sunny blue with white clouds, this bookmobile gives you that happy feeling of nostalgia. Inside, you’ll find two walls of books and particularly strong collections of popular and juvenile fiction that go long on bulk (e.g., eight copies of The Rats of NIMH).