Sep 29, 2014
A Guide to Independent Bookstores in Brooklyn
If you’ve visited any of Brooklyn’s incredible independent bookstores, you’ll be familiar with the particular charm and community feeling they exude at readings, or on lazy weekend-morning strolls. A bookstore is a calm oasis in the honking, smelly, horrible mess of daily life in this city. If you’re lucky enough to live close to a good indie, or even a few, count your blessings and relish your hometown pride. Wherever you happen to live, this list of awesome Brooklyn independent bookstores may inspire you to journey farther afield.
Presented in alphabetical order, because the booksellers would want it that way.
Bergen Street Comics 470 Bergen St, Park Slope. This five-year-old comics shop, just off Flatbush Avenue in Park Slope, is one of the best in the city. The shop’s atmosphere is subdued, even if its inventory is anything but. The store regularly hosts comics and graphic novel launch parties and author signings, and even has its own publishing outfit, Bergen Street Press. With a dedicated community of comics fans and readers, Bergen Street Comics has created a world of its own, one as engrossing as any graphic novel they sell.
Better Read Than Dead 867 Broadway, Bushwick. One of Bushwick’s best-kept almost-secrets, teensy Better Read Than Dead is a hole-in-the-wall par excellence, of the kind not often seen in today’s New York City: easy to miss, easy to love, and worth rummaging through. Founded by four freelance booksellers (if we can describe them as such) and book-lovers, Better Read Than Dead is a passion project with the community in mind, adding a democratic, D.I.Y. flair to the burgeoning Bushwick lit landscape.
BookCourt 163 Court St, Cobble Hill. BookCourt has been on Court Street in Cobble Hill since 1981 (or about twenty years longer than the mega-chain book retailer across Atlantic Ave, whose name we needn’t utter), making it the third-oldest (extant) indie in the borough. A true mom-and-pop, BookCourt began when Mary Gannett and Henry Zook bought one of the two buildings the store now occupies, at a time when opening anything in Cobble Hill would have earned you sideways looks, much less a bookstore. The doubt has since been more than dispelled, and BookCourt has graduated a number of Brooklyn Writers from behind its counters, including Adam Wilson (What’s Important Is Feeling, Flatscreen) and Emma Straub (Other People We Married, Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures, The Vacationers). BookCourt recently hosted Roxane Gay, during the 2014 Brooklyn Book Festival, as well as David Sedaris earlier in the summer. Additionally, BookCourt was where Julia Roberts shops in the beginning of Eat, Pray, Love, so it’s basically the Carrie Bradshaw brownstone of Brooklyn.
The Bookmark Shoppe 8415 3rd Ave, Bay Ridge. At the southern end of Brooklyn’s indie map is the Bookmark Shoppe, originally opened in Dyker Heights, in 2002, and now a Bay Ridge mainstay. The current rent renaissance at the furthest reaches of the R train may mean the hipsters are coming, but I’d be willing to bet the Bookmark Shoppe could match any of the hip Bushwick indies book-for-book. To that end: Ja Rule held an event there this past July for his book Unruly: The Highs and Lows of Becoming a Man, and Mario Lopez will be there this month to promote his memoir Just Between Us, so don’t even with your weak 90s nostalgia.
Book Thug Nation 100 N 3rd St, Williamsburg. The bookchild of four veteran New York City booksellers, Book Thug Nation is a used bookstore in Williamsburg that boasts the best used fiction section in New York City. (Hear that, Strand?!) The store aims to integrate itself in the community, and uses its space for a range of functions. The store also buys books and records, apparently for a decent price. So, next time you’ve got a stack of novels to unload from your already sagging bookshelf, forget the Strand—hop off the L a few stops sooner and take ’em to Book Thug Nation.
Boulevard Books & Café 7518 13th Ave, Dyker Heights. Though the kids’ section at Boulevard Books & Café is hard to beat, don’t be fooled—they’ve got something for every reader. Store owner Tatiana Nicoli is a former lawyer and a Dyker Heights native, with an ear to what her community wants and needs. Boulevard Books & Café has a verdant, cloistered garden in the back, placing it among an elite sorority of backyard garden bookstores. With a by-Dyker-Heights, for-Dyker-Heights attitude to the entire venture, Nicoli has created a true community space.
Community Bookstore 143 Seventh Ave, Park Slope. A backyard is a rare thing, and Community Bookstore has one, making it one of the few Brooklyn indies that offer outdoor space. Even more impressively (maybe), with 43 years under its belt, Community Bookstore is the oldest indie in the borough. Tucked in a busy block of Seventh Avenue in Park Slope, Community Bookstore is a cozy, dark-wood hideaway. It’s changed hands a few times over the years, but the store remains a beloved fixture of the neighborhood, and a local favorite of at least a handful of Brooklyn’s now-famous literati, including lit couples Siri Hustvedt and Paul Auster and Nicole Kraus and Jonathan Safran Foer. Community Bookstore may look small, but its shelves contain multitudes.
Desert Island Comics 540 Metropolitan Ave, Williamsburg. A little, eclectic store with a big, eclectic stock, Desert Island Comics is all visual, both in stock and in décor. (Serious wallpaper envy, for starters) From graphic novels to children’s books, to vintage comics, to handmade volumes by all manner of artists, this is a bookstore in constant, fascinating flux. Anyone can sell their own graphic work at Desert Island Comics, and the store publishes its own (FREE!) anthology of comics, Smoke Signal.
Freebird Books & Goods 123 Columbia St, Columbia Street Waterfront. Freebird (not the song) opened on Columbia Street in 2004, a storefront on the coast of Brooklyn. Founded by Samantha Citrin and Rachel London, the small used bookstore was sold in 2007 to Peter Miller, who has kept the store and its community very much alive. Though the store specializes in books about New York City and its history, Freebird is home to a broad range of subjects and titles. Open Saturdays and Sundays only, from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., this cozy spot is a wonderful weekend destination, whether for an hour or an entire afternoon.
Greenlight Bookstore 686 Fulton St, Fort Greene. Just a single pane of glass removed from the bustle of Fulton Street (well, the bustle of Habana Outpost in the summer), in the shadow of the Biggie mural, Greenlight Bookstore is deceptively wee (that’s “wee” not “twee,”). The bright, triangular shop is home to an expansive kids’ section, heaping tables of new fiction and nonfiction, a cookbook selection with some coffee table–worthy deep cuts, and one of the more carefully curated selection of lit mags in the borough. Greenlight also has some truly sweet totes, so show your Fort Greene love!
Here’s a Book Store 1964 Coney Island Ave, Sheepshead Bay. The second-oldest of Brooklyn’s independent bookstores, Here’s a Book Store was founded in 1975 by Sylvia Levy. The store has seen a lot of change in the past few years, and has outlived a handful of other independents in the area that have put down roots. With shelves reaching to the ceiling all the way around the selling floor, Here’s a Book Store’s inventory is anything but skim. And with very nearly 40 years in the business, it’s a rare book that will stump booksellers in Sheepshead Bay.
Human Relations 1067 Flushing Ave, Bushwick. As their website has it, Human Relations is “a joint venture of some hopeful, fresh-faced youth and the jaded, scowling he-crones of Williamsburg’s Book Thug Nation.” Whether that’s snark or an earnest compliment to scowling he-crones, Human Relations comes of a short but earnest tradition of north Brooklyn bookselling. Opening not long after Molasses Books, Human Relations is a used bookstore that has built a close following of its own in just two years. It’s hardly a surprise, though—jaded, scowling he-crones really know books.
Idlewild Books 249 Warren St, Cobble Hill. Named after the airport currently known to citizens and cab drivers alike as JFK, Idlewild on Warren Street is the Brooklyn outpost of the Manhattan store of the same title. Tucked away on a leafy side street in quiet Cobble Hill, Idlewild specializes in foreign-language books in French, Spanish, and Italian. It’s a rare treat in a city where even used and independent bookstores can be a little thin on other language families. (One exception is McNally Jackson, which makes an impressive effort in both French and German.) This one’s smaller than the Manhattan store, and not so Flatiron-chic, but still offers an impressive stock and a full range of language classes. Parfait!
Molasses Books 770 Hart St, Bushwick. The only bookstore in the borough with a happy hour (6–8 p.m.), Molasses Books turned two this year, making it one of the youngest stores on our list. The used bookstore’s business may be buoyed somewhat by its café and its bar, but don’t sleep on its paper offerings. Just this month, Molasses announced it would begin publishing books of its own. For now (and maybe forever), founder and owner Matt Winn is more interested in small editions. The store has nestled itself into being a true neighborhood fixture in the past two years, and has pulled at least a portion of the Bushwick lit set into its orbit. Even as more and more bookstores sprout up on neighboring blocks, Molasses Books will stay the cozy little living room of Hart Street—the living room with a bar in it.
P.S. Bookshop 76 Front St, Dumbo. P.S. Bookshop is a used book store to rival the best. Both arrived in the neighborhood in 2006, and have turned Dumbo into a book-lover’s neighborhood. With high, high ceilings and a storefront on cobblestoned Front Street, P.S. Bookshop is a gem of a store. As far as the atmosphere goes, set into a sloping sidewalk on one side, walking in feels like entering a cozy reading cave, where every shelf contains something never before seen. P.S. is not to be missed in any foray down under the bridges.
powerHouse Arena 37 Main St, Dumbo. Equal parts industrial events space and neighborhood bookshop, powerHouse Arena is the place to see and be seen at readings, dahling. Around the corner from P.S. Bookshop and just a galley’s throw from Brooklyn Bridge Park, with big, gorgeous views in two directions (and 24-foot ceilings!), and despite looking like the sort of place that would sell coffee table books exclusively, powerHouse’s stock is as deep as it is pretty to look at. A section of curvy, steeply raked cement risers (kinda) occupy much of the back wall, and rows of salvaged pews present an appropriately reverent vantage for the many readings that take place there. The store also incorporates an independent publishing house, powerHouse Books, which publishes gorgeous coffee table–worthy books that are not exclusive coffee tabley in nature. PowerHouse also operates a second, smaller store in Park Slope called powerHouse on 8th (1111 Eighth Avenue, Park Slope).
Singularity & Co. 18 Bridge St, Dumbo. Singularity & Co. describes itself as “a team of time traveling archivists longing for futures past.” The dreamers behind the store have a deep and abiding love for all things science fiction, as well as fantasy and pulp fiction. And true to its time-traveling passions, Singularity & Co. is also a publisher, on a noble quest to rescue futuristic works from the grip of the past: Each month, fans of the store have the chance to vote on an out-of-print title to revive in the form of an ebook, which they say, dramatically but not inaccurately, “may not have made it to the future” otherwise. Could there be a nobler sci-fi cause? Singularity & Co.’s neat-and-tidy storefront on Bridge Street also sells a range of tees, totes, and general sci-fi fan merch, including the Emo Stormtrooper Tee, now available in magenta—”Because it takes a real soldier of the Galactic Empire to wear pink.”
Spoonbill & Sugartown, Booksellers 218 Bedford Ave, Williamsburg. Specializing in the rare, unusual, and hard to find, Spoonbill & Sugartown carries both new and used books in a carefully curated stock for its bright and varied clientele. They’ve been in business since 1999, back when “Williamsburg” might have drawn a blank for even the hippest of hipsters. The store was a prominent setting in the season-two premiere of Girls, where Hannah and Sandy (Donald Glover) play a little grab-ass in the stacks, despite his troubling thoughts on Ayn Rand. But, hey, the bookstore doesn’t judge. It gets you. And besides, maybe you’re reading The Fountainhead ironically.
Terrace Books 242 Prospect Park West, Windsor Terrace. On the former site of Babbo’s Books, which closed its doors (willingly) after six years last spring, Terrace Books is an outpost of Community Bookstore, further up the slope. Although considerably younger and less well-known (for now) than its parent bookstore, Terrace Books has a wit and personality all its own in a neighborhood that’s seen many recent additions, from restaurants to pie shops (OK, one pie shop).
Unnameable Books 600 Vanderbilt Ave, Prospect Heights. Maybe the only bookstore in Brooklyn that goes to 11 (p.m.). Unnameable Books sells both new and used books, always to a fantastic soundtrack. It’s the sort of store where you might say to yourself, “I wonder if they have…” and then find that they do have it, in two editions. And while that may not be the norm, Unnameable Books is the sort of place where it feels like it could happen, where your new favorite book is just one shelf higher (and they are very high here), or you find a book you never knew you were looking for. The store also sells new books, with a particularly good selection of art titles.
WORD 126 Franklin St, Greenpoint. The northernmost of Brooklyn’s indies, WORD has been a splash of quirky culture to its quiet stretch of far-north Franklin Ave since 2007, when it opened its doors to the borough. At just about 1,000 square feet, WORD is itsy-bitsy by bookstore standards, but still probably bigger than your apartment. Their stock is heavy on fiction (welcome to Brooklyn), but smartly chosen. WORD’s events calendar would keep even the casual reader booked up. WORD opened a second storefront last December, in Jersey City, complete with café in the sort of big, open space that only the ex-urbs can provide (unless you’re powerHouse). If you didn’t before, you now have at least one reason to get on the PATH train.
Follow John Sherman on Twitter @_john_sherman.
CORRECTION: In a previous version of this post, BookCourt was described as the second-oldest independent bookstore in the borough. It is the third-oldest, after Community Bookstore and Here’s A Book Store.
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