If you’re not looking for Better Read Than Dead, then you probably won’t find it. Botanicas, salons, and Chinese take-out govern the shadowed Myrtle Avenue-Broadway area in Bushwick, but if you happen to find yourself in an otherwise nondescript alleyway on Broadway between Locust and Belvidere streets, you’ll notice that it’s lined with repurposed shipping containers that now serve as a de facto flea market. This is where you’ll find Better Read Than Dead, as the shipping container-cum-bookstore co-exists alongside the more usual Bushwick flea market suspects: a bike shop, a bootleg DVD corner, artist studios, a sports goods table, a record shop, and various 99-cent store tchotchke stands. This might not seem like the place to go to buy new-to-you books, but perusing titles in the 8 foot by 16 foot nook under the thunderous M train is actually a small joy (especially after I was determined to find copies of the The Bell Jar, Tar Baby, and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn—and did, each for under $6).
Run by four guys with a penchant for literature—David Morse, Matty D’Angelo, David Robinson, and Hadley Gitto—the five-month-old Better Read Than Dead is a welcome addition to the Bushwick used community bookstore scene, also hosting informal Sunday Spanish classes, and stocking punk zines by local artists.
Better Read Than Dead carries a richer than expected inventory; everything from campy Philip K. Dick and Ursula K. Le Guin 70s sci-fi to Bukowski to Didion to Frost to George R.R. Martin to Carmichael to Kant can be found at the shop. The outdoor dollar rack houses copies of 1984 and Twilight, while inside, salvaged rarities include the Fire Island-set Queer Spirits: A Gay Men’s Myth Book, and A Crime Called Freedom, a translated collection of radical texts by 60s French delinquents, Os Cangaceiros. If the book you’re looking for isn’t on the shelves, the staff will find it for you. Due to its Lilliputian size, the selection is highly curated.
“We all read different things and that’s one of the reasons our store has good stock,” Morse, 25, says. “Being used, you’re kind of at the mercy of what you can come across. But it’s easy to find books in New York. And there’s a huge tradition of readers here.”
The brick-and-mortar shop spawned out of good old-fashioned street vending: Robinson, 53, an Oklahoma native and a lifetime purveyor of “junk,” met Morse, who hails from Seattle; D’Angelo, a Florida transplant; and Gitto, from Western Mass, a couple years ago while selling books in front of the Morgan L stop. Soon after joining forces, the quartet grew a following. When an affordable space opened up in the 10-year-old flea market, they jumped on it.
“It was always kind of a pipe dream, especially when you began selling books on the street, that one day it would be possible to have a store of your own,” D’Angelo, 39, says.
The guys all have day jobs and outside lives—in food delivery; book dealing; “hustling,” in Robinson’s words; doing construction; and playing in punk bands—but an ethos merges at the shop: one that values community. In the wake of online publishing wars and the demise of the chain book emporium, the local buy-sell-trade model persists.
Richy Rivera Gonzalez, a 51-year-old Bushwick native, who especially favors the store’s graffiti art books, stops by almost every day.
“I’m gonna keep it real, since they opened this bookstore, I don’t go anywhere but here,” he says. “The only thing I ever bought at Barnes & Noble was the WWE Encyclopedia with John Cena. But they got classic books here. That’s why I come to this store.”
An early article about Better Read Than Dead was damning. The Brooklyn Paper seemed to frame the bookshop and its record store neighbor, Rebel Rouser, using gentrification; the writer questioned whether Better Read Than Dead’s current viability can be solely credited to the changing neighborhood. Apparently, even used bookstores can’t escape being branded as part of a hipster takeover.
“It’s unfortunate to assume we’re very successful, that this is our primary means of supporting ourselves, and that it’s not altruistic,” D’Angelo says. “It’s assuming our customer base is a certain group of people, and that we don’t live in a city where people spend on average an hour out of their day in transit. What do you do with that time? People read.”
Better Read Than Dead’s name is not a nod to Cold War-era propaganda like it’s often jokingly mistaken for, but the moniker is a political promise to uphold the centuries-old New York culture of used bookselling, implemented everywhere from The Strand to tables on Bedford Avenue to the legendary street sellers on 72nd Street and Broadway.
“We didn’t come here because the neighborhood is growing,” Robinson says. “This is where our friends are. We didn’t come here to sell some mind-blowing pot of gold. It was just the thing to do for us.”
Better Read Than Dead: 867 Broadway, Bushwick; Monday through Sunday, noon to 9 pm