My Favorite Bookstores – By “A Hopeless Book Addict”

A friend asked me recently if I have a favorite bookstore.  As is the case with most of my passions, I have too many favorites to name.  Upon further reflection, however, I managed to compile the not-so-unwieldy list and musings below.  The best part of the list?  It’s got plenty of room to grow.  

Shakespeare & Company Paris

Nestled within the Left Bank of Paris, opposite Notre Dame and a bustling row of booksellers, art vendors, lovers, poets, and tourists strolling along the Seine, sits Shakespeare & Company.  Sylvia Beach opened the bookstore in 1919, and it soon became a favored hangout of some of my most-worshipped writers, including Gertrude Stein, Henry Miller, Ezra Pound, Anaïs Nin, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and James Joyce (Beach was the woman gutsy enough to publish Joyce’s scandalous Ulysses).   The store closed during WWII but was then reopened by Beach’s friend George Whitman in 1956.  (Read more of this fascinating story in Jeremy Mercer’s memoir Time was Soft There or in the recently released The Letters of Sylvia Beach).  On my visit to Paris in 2008, I could hardly wait to visit this literary landmark and immediately relished the refreshingly quiet reverence of my fellow bibliophiles.  I had only about an hour or two to browse, though I could have easily spent days reading through the well organized selection of fiction, poetry, literary analysis, etc.  Of course the Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe, Musée du Louvre, Champs-Elysées were  just lovely, but it was the time I spent in Shakespeare & Company that made the price of my  flight entirely worth it.

Three Lives & Company New York, NY

Though I have not lived in New York for several years now, I still escape to that magical place often, whether by train, bus, car, or in my mind’s musings.  For close to two of my years living in the West Village, I buried myself—and my tiny room on Bleecker Street—in literature as I pursued my graduate degree in English.  Day after day my eyes would blur from early morning to the wee hours of the next morning as I lay curled up on my futon reading the endless books required.  Every so often, when the city air and sidewalks would call for me, I would venture out and wander—like any book addict—toward my favorite bookstore and refuge: Three Lives & Company. 

I recall one late night, in particular, when a fierce winter blizzard had begun to buffet the city.  I bundled up and raced outside to trudge through the swirling snow toward Three Lives, suddenly wanting nothing more than to purchase Zola’s Nana, a book I would later reference in my thesis.  A couple of cars spiraled up 6th Avenue.  Here and there I  bumped against other adventurers enjoying the quiet hush of the storm or hustling into one of the diners or coffee shops along my path.  It is one of those simple moments of life that, for whatever reason, often floats back into memory to embrace me.  Perhaps because there on the corner of West 10th, in the midst of one of the greatest snow blizzards I have ever witnessed, let alone walked through, stood my favorite little bookstore, warmly lit, cozy and well-stocked as ever, open for whomever the night might bring.

Strand Bookstore New York, NY

Out of all my blissful New York memories, not many beat the joy of waking up on a Saturday morning in my apartment on Jane Street, enjoying a bagel and The New York Times (what else?), then hiking across town to 4th Avenue in anxious anticipation of browsing the endless maze of books at the Strand (literally miles worth of used, new, and rare books).  Perhaps the only thing better was sprinting back home with a bag of new purchases, wondering which treasure I would crack open first.

Wolfgang Books Phoenixville, PA

This bookstore is a relatively new discovery credited to my sister, Emily, who lives in a nearby Pennsylvania town.  Two years ago on my regular autumn visit, we opted to visit Phoenixville instead of setting out on our usual quest for the perfect pumpkin.  After enjoying a mouth-watering lunch at Molly Maguire’s Irish Restaurant and Pub that transported me back to my time spent in Dublin, we strolled down the quaint main drag of the town. (Side note: Phoenixville is perhaps most famous for being terrorized by alien creatures in the 1950s flick The Blob.)

Emily mentioned a bookstore up ahead, which of course prompted me to put some spright in my step.  Did I say step?  Indeed.  After climbing a staircase of 26 steps, I caught my breath, entered Wolfgang Books and, quite unexpectedly, fell in love.  A sun porch reading room in the back, cozy chairs nestled about, rows and rows of carefully selected new, used, and rare books.  Nifty original covers on many of the used books.  You won’t find such treasures at your local Barnes & Noble, that’s for sure.  (My favorite Wolfgang purchase is an old copy of Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca in a clear plastic dust jacket.)   They say love happens when you least expect it.  Well, in the case of my love for this charming bookstore at the top of the stairs, I am so glad it did.  When’s our next visit, Em?

City Lights San Francisco, CA

I would imagine that few people visiting San Francisco for the first time check in to their hotel room, freshen up from the long flight, then quickly map out and find their way to a bookstore.  This, however, is exactly what I did upon my arrival to the city two weeks ago.  Perched on a tiny slope on Columbus Avenue, City Lights greeted me like an old pen pal one has cherished for years but never met.  For decades I have devoured anything having to do with the Beats, scribbled my own poetry and jottings in their giant shadows, and often wished I could have experienced even just an hour in the company of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and the rest of their gang. Stepping inside City Lights (opened by their friend and fellow Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti), I felt as though just a bit of that wish came true.  Their cool faces floated  above me in old photographs and posters as I browsed through an exceptionally intelligent selection of literature.  Downstairs, I enjoyed scanning the genre headings posted on the shelves more than the actual book titles—even when their meanings escaped me.  “Commodity Aesthetics” was particularly perplexing until I flipped through a few of the titles in that section.  And where else might you find an entire bookshelf devoted to “Green Politics”?  The true gem of this bookstore, however, is the top floor, which is devoted entirely to poetry and Beat Literature.  Here I slowly flipped through Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems (one of the poets I’ve always held most dear), occasionally peeking around, staring out the window he also might have peered out of long ago, sensing I might just be hanging out with my City Lights muses after all.         

Bookateria Two Ocean City, NJ

Since I was a tiny little bookworm inching my way through page after page, I have often daydreamed of one day owning a bookstore by the sea.  Mine would be tight and cozy, crammed full of literary delights, new, used, and rare, well organized with at least a few nooks and crannies complete with comfortable, though well worn, seating of some sort.  Each day I would awaken, peek out at my sliver of ocean, then take a few steps down a block or two, or perhaps just downstairs, and open the door of my pride and joy for another day of business.   One can dream….

In the meantime, there is Bookateria Two in Ocean City, NJ.  The bookstore is as bare and simple as it gets, with four walls of tattered, leaning wooden bookshelves, a couple of rows in between for Fiction, Literature, Drama, Nonfiction, and a section of Young Adult fiction tucked around the corner in back.  No seating, no air conditioning, no faces of literary ghosts framed on its walls.  No smell of cappuccino wafting through its space nor wannabe writers hunched over laptops.  Bookateria Two doesn’t bother with the latest hard covers or any rare editions, simply offering rows and stacks of used/traded paperbacks instead.  Yet it is always packed with kneeling, crouching, leaning avid readers searching the ever-changing selection. 

Perhaps I love this bookstore because the Atlantic pounds the shore a mere couple of blocks away.  Maybe it’s because the barefoot, Bermuda short-ed proprietor leaves me to my browsing but knows his inventory (and literature) inside and out if I ask him a question.  I suppose I could deeply love Bookateria because I typically escape with a pile of paperbacks for the price of one or two at Borders.  Now that I think of it, I’m pretty sure it has more to do with the fact that my daydream always feels a little closer here on the corner of Asbury Avenue.  Not a bad way to spend an afternoon.