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A Tour of Literary New York City

Rosie J Spinks By Rosie J Spinks Published on November 7, 2016

Groucho Marx once said “Practically everybody in New York has half a mind to write a book — and does.” Indeed, there’s a reason why naive 20 year olds throughout the decades have boldly declared they’re moving to New York to become a writer. There’s hardly another place that matches the city’s blend of bravado, creativity, and sheer grit—an ideal set of conditions for any aspiring literary ingénue. For wordsmiths, writers, and book-lovers alike, New York is studded with word-related gems and places where anti-social literary behavior is not only acceptable, but highly encouraged. 

When you’re done pounding the avenues pretending to be Joan Didion or gathering material for your next short story, you’ll want some quiet time. Literary New York has no shortage of options for reading material, bookish vibes, and places to settle in and write the next great American novel. 

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Image: Flickr CC user Eunice

The Strand: When it comes to New York City’s independent bookstores, the Strand Book Store is the “undisputed king,” according to the city’s paper of record itself, the New York Times. Once an employer of Patti Smith and a frequent host to the day’s most relevant authors and thinkers, Strand employees are subjected to a famously rigorous literary quiz before they get the gig (the format? “10 book titles, 10 authors, one trick question”). But don’t let haughty intellectual booksellers put you off—they’re actually all very helpful. Though it famously boasts “18 miles of books,” inside the Strand maintains a neighborhood feel, where long bouts of browsing are welcome and you’ll be as tempted by the famous tote bags and witty literary swag as the endless book selection. There’s also a Strand kiosk in Central Park, should you find yourself in need of a new read mid-walk. 

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Image: Flickr CC user Travis Wise 

New York Public Library: With branches all over the city and the majestic 5th Avenue flagship branch, the NYPL is a literary refuge from the city’s madness. With 53 million items, only the Library of Congress and the British Library surpass the magnitude of its collection. The rather labyrinthine interior means it’s easy to find a secluded place to read or think (and, with free public wifi, to work if needed) or settle into the cavernous Rose Reading Room. With 85 branches all over the city—which are a mix of circulation libraries and research libraries—the NYPL is as much a public resource as cultural institution, and it has an everyone-is-welcome-here feel that other similar institutions can lack. 

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Image: Flickr CC user Martin Hearn

Housing Works: Located on Crosby Street in the heart of hipper than thou SoHo, Housing Works feels like a welcome anomaly. A volunteer-run non-profit that donates its proceeds to HIV/AIDS advocacy and services, the bookstore also is home to a friendly café where you’re as likely to find laptop-toting millennials as elderly patrons meeting up with neighborhood friends. The second hand book selection is top notch, and the inviting, cozy space regularly hosts literary events, including the The Moth StorySlam, the popular storytelling series-turned-podcast.  

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Image: Flickr CC user Alice Cai

McNally Jackson: Tucked away on Prince Street in NoLita, McNally Jackson has a distinctly sophisticated air. Also a café and publisher, the shop boasts an Espresso Book Machine in-store, which prints public domain titles as well as self-published work. The shop’s three-pronged business model of café, shop, and publisher feels like a sensibly modern response to the decline of independent bookstores in the city—and it certainly seems to be working. The carefully-curated collection is the work of the shop's founder, a former book editor, and the evening readings and events are a hit with the city’s literary crowd. 

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Image: Flickr CC user John Wisniewski

The Algonquin Hotel: Rest your head or get a martini at one of the city’s most storied literary hotels, the Algonquin. Once upon a time this hotel was host to the Algonquin Roundtable, a daily lunchtime meeting of writers, actors, critics, and thinkers including Harold Ross, Dorothy Parker, George Kaufman, and Marc Connelly. The group thrived in the 1920s and had an outsized influence on the American journalism landscape. Today, you can mingle with these literary ghosts and the resident cat, who graces guests who drop in for a visit. 

The Library Hotel: Should you want to spend your New York nights in a hotel built for book lovers, this is your spot. Conveniently located a stone’s throw from the New York Public Library, the Library Hotel includes charming details like floors named after the Dewey Decimal System and themed book collections in each room. The second floor boasts a reading room, home to some of the hotel’s 6,000 books. 


    Rosie Spinks is a freelance journalist loosely based in London. Her writing appears in the Guardian, Quartz, Lucky Peach, Fusion, WSJ Expat, Sierra, and elsewhere. Follow her on Twitter: @rojospinks.


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