People travel to New York for the bookstores. Or rather, readers and writers travel to New York for the bookstores. There is The Strand, of course, at 14th and Broadway — 18 miles of books where the likes of Lou Reed, David Sedaris and Patti Smith have ventured for readings and for pleasure. There is bookbook, the West Village emblem of independent booksellers successful mainly for its location on Bleecker Street, which is a narrow home for both the classics and The New York Times' best sellers list. There was once St. Mark’s bookstore, on the corner of East 3rd and Avenue A, where the East Village folk and NYU kids gathered after hours until the rising rent prices led to its demise (RIP). But if you really want to read the city like a New Yorker and feel its literary charm, your destination lies at 52 Prince Street, the home of McNally Jackson.
McNally Jackson is downtown’s bookstore, the place people use as a reference point to meet their partners, or where they linger in anticipation of an 8PM dinner reservation with friends. My uncle, for example, always stops in to buy a new book prior to our weeknight catch-ups at Balthazar or Café Select.
McNally Jackson is a place where the shopkeeper relax into themselves and a visitor can find anything they need within the contemporary lit world. Sandwiched between the Mac and Cheese shop and shoe store, McNally passersby are seduced by something as small and familiar as a store window of colorful book covers. And while it might not be the largest shop nor promise the most diverse book collection, it has long been a city staple for thousands of people who enter through its doors every month. It was Bowie’s local. It has housed Zadie Smith for readings. It is quintessential—a landmark—brimming with new and old authors. Magazines and cookbooks. Whispers and conversations. Secrets and inspiration.
Walking in its front door off of the chaotic streets of Soho, one is greeted immediately by the calm meditation that a bookstore induces. The short walkway between the front door and the bookstore itself houses the neighborhood flyers, a corkboard filled with local newspapers, meditation and yoga classes, and book readings. An aura of ease permeates. The front two tables are decorated in the season’s best sellers for any type of reader. There are collections of essays, fiction and non-fiction, short stories, long stories, poems, novels. The bookstore for all.
Upstairs, one can wander through shelves of travel literature, cookbooks, classics. Downstairs lends itself to the genres of self-help, children’s literature and business planning. My favorite spot is the long, communal table to sit and digest pages before making a decision to purchase or not to purchase. It’s where multiple times a week the bookstore provides newly published authors with an intimate audience of 30 book lovers.
The staff never hesitate to help you find the perfect read, wading from behind the front counter to locate their favorite book off of the shelf when asked for a recommendation. Or listen patiently as a customer describes their reading mood (non-fiction, with a strong plot and memorable characters, something I can’t put down, you know), and prescribe a book to the customer’s exact feeling. But they also encourage an exploration on one’s own: search the shelves, explore the offerings, and perhaps you will discover something all the more satisfying.
Like most bookstores, it is a place that gives me hope that one day I could be a writer. It is hope that being surrounded by shelves of the Greats — Gabriel, Virginia, Haruki — might somehow seep under my skin and fill me with a new knowledge of words and ideas. That is the profoundness of a good bookstore: that simply by existing, a writer in its presence can grow into a better writer herself.
I worked in Nolita for two years, and nearly everyday I would take my lunch break at McNally Jackson. I rarely sat down to eat in the café, but instead spent time flipping through the pages to collect ideas from some of the teachers I admire most—authors who have dedicated their careers to their imagination. To me, an author is one of the great professions that withstands time and cultures. What a glorious life, I would think, to write all the stories you want to read and share them with others. To be the source of relaxation, or comfort, or therapy for a reader who stumbles upon your words.
Many bookworms have dreamed of working in a bookstore — a place built out of ideas and filled with the world’s greatest sentences. A place that is renowned for being quiet and congenial. A shop filled with rows of books you are meant to read in your lifetime, tempting you to pick them up and finger through the pages. To rearrange the spines so that they look more ‘readable’, if there were a thing. McNally Jackson is one of those lovely places where I could work, where sometimes I consider quitting my corporate job with my generous salary and fancy title for something more soul-satisfying. Where I could look back five years past and think to myself: this has been meaningful work.
But for now, I’ll keep doing my best to get the word out about that bookstore in New York City you just can’t miss on your visit. That bold line on my “Recommendations when visiting the city” email, to which I'll write you and say: The restaurants are world-class, the West Village is full of charm and character, but there's nothing quite like arriving to the city and bunkering down in McNally's cafe with a stack full of magazines, and feeling instantly, delightfully at home.