There’s no substitute for browsing through a local bookstore—running your fingers along the spines of books, breathing in the distinct papery aroma and finding a new paperback to take home to your TBR pile.
Sure, we can order books online at the tap of a finger to be delivered the next day, but if there’s one silver lining to the pandemic, it seems many realized the value of shopping local instead. A bevy of independent bookstores are popping up around New York City, with a secret bookstore behind a bodega in Greenpoint, a shop in Park Slope spanning the genres, a vintage bookshop with specialty teas in Bed-Stuy, a sustainability focused bookshop in Greenpoint called Leaves, a second Books Are Magic store coming to Brooklyn Heights and a new McNally Jackson location opening in Rockefeller Center.
The trend isn’t just in New York City. More than 300 new independent bookstores have opened across the nation in the past few years, rebounding after struggling early in the pandemic, The New York Times reported this summer. Some 200 more are expected to open in the next couple of years, per The Times.
Amid the pandemic, Jason Mojica and his son began selling graphic novels on the sidewalk as a way to pass the time, and he “discovered the joy of book selling.” He opened Hey Kids Comics! last year, then opened “old-school used bookstore” Burnt Books this summer inside his neighborhood bodega, Green Discount Corp. (1014 Manhattan Ave.). While chatting at the shop’s counter, Mojica realized the Greenpoint bodega had some extra space, and he had some extra books to sell, so they decided to team up.
Burnt Books specializes in vintage paperbacks, sci-fi, mystery, art, and NYC tourism books. Some readers seek out Burnt Books, while others just stumble upon it.
“The joy of a good book store is going in and finding something you didn’t know you were looking for,” Mojica said. “This is kind of that times two. You’re walking into a place not even looking for books. You’re literally looking for a plunger or some ramen and come out with a 100-year-old book on typography,” Mojica said.
At Hey Kids!, which specializes in comics and graphic novels for all ages, customers even come in to special order books and wait patiently for them rather than shopping on Amazon.
Watching places that we loved close down … it makes you treasure those that survive and also want to support those that open anew because you realize you can help keep them there.
“My hunch and also just personal experience is that during the pandemic, those of us who stayed in New York or who lived in cities saw firsthand the direct connection that our spending has to our neighborhood and whether businesses succeed or fail,” Mojica said. “Watching places that we loved close down … it makes you treasure those that survive and also want to support those that open anew because you realize you can help keep them there. Basically things aren’t going to be there if you don’t support them.”
A few miles away in Park Slope, Alex Brooks notices a similar energy at his new bookshop Troubled Sleep (129 6th Ave.), which also grew from a collective of street-side book sellers. Just six weeks in, Brooks said he’s already feeling the positive support and appreciation from the neighborhood. Troubled Sleep focuses on art and leftist books, along with history and philosophy where “we try to keep it radical,” Brooks said. It sells both new and used books with a mix of popular titles along with more obscure authors.
“A lot of people are really surprised to see bookstores. They’re kind and supportive, but they say things to us like, ‘hey good luck’ or ‘this is a tough business.’ It’s a tough business in the sense that it takes a lot of work, but I think people are surprised that it’s a viable business, and it’s not a surprise to me that it is,” Brooks said. “I think the written word is a deep human thing that has persisted through human history for a long time, and I think the written word will always be a part of human history.”
Some shops are redefining what it means to be a bookstore.
At Dear Friend in Bed-Stuy, for example, a bar runs through the space selling hot, iced, and fermented teas, and owner Anna Sergeeva hopes to sell natural wine, beer and sake soon. In addition to the cafe, Dear Friend has hosted open mic nights, poetry readings and meditation in the building’s large backyard since the shop opened this summer at 343A Tompkins Ave.
The bookstore/cafe model has been around for a while, of course, even at larger stores like Barnes & Noble.
“From the practicality of it, books are just a really hard business. People are more likely to get a cup of tea or a glass of wine more frequently than they are to purchase a book,” Sergeeva acknowledges. “From a business lens, it makes a lot of sense.
Those who take the time to browse the shelves at Dear Friend will be rewarded with a curated collection of vintage books ranging from $5 to several thousand dollars. They’re organized thoughtfully in categories based on the seven chakras. The crown section contains poetry books, for example, while the throat section features books about language and communication.
“If any of your chakras are blocked, it manifests in ailments, whether that’s spiritual, physical, emotional, and I think a book in its best form can open a part of you,” she said.
The collection includes a first edition of Joan Didion’s “Play It As It Lays” and a dozen issues of Black Art: An International Quarterly. Some of the books are out of print and not available online. Sergeeva and her team clean and mend each used book to make sure it’s in its best shape.
I see it more as a literary salon type of space where people can come hang out. It’s not just about the transaction of purchasing a book or an item.
“I see it more as a literary salon type of space where people can come hang out. It’s not just about the transaction of purchasing a book or an item,” she said. “To me, the exciting part is a place for people to connect and be together rather than the book necessarily as an object.”
She’s deeply committed to Bed-Stuy and says she notices a desire for people to shop locally, regardless of the category, saying “people are more invested in community in all fronts.”
Mojica, of Burnt Books, echoes that sentiment.
“When a new bookstore opens up, people now with the pandemic economy fresh in their minds, really treasure it and rally around it and want to support it,” he said. “They realize it is part of the fabric of their community and they want it to be there.”
Ex-Brit turned Manhattan resident since 2008.