Shopping Brooklyn bookstores

December 6, 2011

Oh that every city had indie bookstores like those in Brooklyn. I visited five in the New York City borough this past weekend and was reminded what we miss out here in the other-land that sells books via food markets, big-box “I can sell you everything” stores and, of course, Barnes & Noble. The browsing was extraordinary, tables covered not with the typical and predictable, rather the unusual and hard to find in novels, art books, travel memoirs, classics and literary non-fiction. Here I found shelves devoted to the New York Review Book Classics Series and Melville House Art of the Novella Series. I found signed books in paperback and hard-cover, including The Day Before Happiness by Italian author Erri de Luca at Book Court in Cobble Hill.  A very nice store with a wide space for author readings. This independent has been around since 1981.

The Community Bookstore in the Park Slope area of Brooklyn is a small, comfortable shop filled with literary discoveries. A cat snoozed beside a bookcase and a lizard chirped in the back of the store. This is the kind of shop we all think about when imagining an independent bookstore, crowded with books but easily navigated and smartly organized, cozy in lighting and exuding a sensory feel of profound riches. One shelf provided the personal recommendations of authors who reside in Brooklyn, including Paul Auster, Mary Morris and Jonathan Safran Foer. 

I came away with one of those Melville House novellas, Henry James’ The Lesson of the Master, and also Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward, which recently won the National Book Award for fiction – a choice copy because it’s a first edition without the NBA award sticker. Also, Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust, which somewhere in my reading this year someone said must be read, and also The Conference of the Birds by Peter Sis.

Greenlight Books is nearby in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, a bright modern space offering a plethora of signed books, many of them paperbacks stacked among the unsigned, the signature within signified by a sticker. Here I purchased a signed copy of my all-time favorite Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem and also a debut novel by Justin Torres, We the Animals, which I’ve been meaning to read since it came out this year. A glance at their literature shelf, and there I saw not only Hans Fallada’s popular Everyman Dies Alone, but also his lesser-known books.  It’s just that which is so lacking in literary mega-store retail and depriving us of possibility and exposure – the lesser-known books kept in stock to be discovered.

Most impressive for its distinctive selections is Spoonbill & Sugartown Booksellers (“I’ve been to Sugartown, I shook the sugar down”*) in the  Williamsburg area of Brooklyn. I couldn’t figure out its focus at first, seeing eclectic art, philosophy and design books among recently released novels on its large center table in the small space. The bookseller told me “it’s not a literary bookstore,” and then added the owners don’t like it when she says that, but it’s true. 

There’s something very different about Spoonbill & Sugartown, as if the selections come from someone’s vision for the store, which has been around since 1999. The store’s website says, “We also hand pick thousands of good books every month for our voracious clientele.” The bookseller told me the owners are descended from a former gallery owner in New York City and that the bookstore opened with books from his personal library. I wish I could’ve spent more time asking questions about the store’s history, but it was time to move on. I came away with a copy of Rudolph Wurlitzer’s Hard Travel to Sacred Places.

Also in the Williamsburg area, selling used books and specializing in literary fiction, both classic and contemporary, is bookthugnation. I didn’t spend much time here, but I came away with a vintage paperback, Aldous Huxley’s After the Fireworks and Other Stories. It was originally published as Brief Candles by Harper & Bros. and likely one of those paperback editions bestowed with a passionate,romantic illustration to sell more copies.

Across the street, not a bookshop but the Brooklyn Art Library where the Sketchbook Project is underway, a collaborative series of art books created by 5,000 artists. Anyone can participate. The Brooklyn Art Library sells vintage notebooks, art supplies and stationary inspired by the past.

If you go to Brooklyn, here’s where you’ll find the bookstores:

  • BookCourt 163 Court Street, Cobble Hill
  • Community Bookstore 143 7th Avenue, Park Slope
  • Greenlight Bookstore 686 Fulton Street, Fort Greene
  • Spoonbill & Sugartown Booksellers 218 Bedford Avenue, Williamsburg
  • Bookthugnation 100 N. 3rd Street, Williamsburg

*Quoted on the Spoonbill & Sugartown bookmark, this line is from a Bob Dylan song, Tryin’ to Get to Heaven.

The title of this post was changed 12.13.11. It formerly was “I’ve been to Sugartown.”

I’ve recommended Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem as one of the funniest detective stories I’ve ever read.  When I learned Lethem wrote the introduction for this year’s reissue of L. J. Davis’s Brooklyn novel A Meaningful Life (originally published in 1971), I took note and bought it. Reading Davis’s story, I laughed like I laughed with Motherless Brooklyn.

The plot summary: The novel’s protagonist Lowell Lake wakes one morning not long after his 30th birthday to a panic attack. He realizes his New York life isn’t going to get any better, or worse. The managing editor of a second-rate plumbing trade weekly, he sits in a cubicle slightly larger than a toilet stall. His marriage is equally small in affection. Everything is all wrong about his life, including, Lowell realizes, how little of it he’s spent thinking. To break free, he buys a fixer-upper on a crime-ridden Brooklyn street. All of this is fodder upon which Davis hangs his smartly dark and breezy comedy. Here and there it’s un-PC in an Archie Bunker sort of way, probably more so now than it was 38 years ago.

Davis’s humor deeply darkens when Lowell gets over his head with the Brooklyn project and commits a murder. That crime feels forced and over-imagined, and the book ends lacking much of its original punch. Davis delivers one of the most depressing last lines ever to be written. But we must keep in mind that Lowell’s fate is to live a life in which success eludes him. In that light, the final verdict about this hapless New Yorker settles into its context of dark comedy, and A Meaningful Life remains a funny book. Right up there with Motherless Brooklyn.

The pony problem

June 8, 2009

A friend of mine recently took a short business trip. Before leaving town, she confessed worries about “the mess we would leave behind” should she and her roommate die in a plane crash. The worry often comes up in e-mails, prior to her trips. This time, trying to lighten things up, I mentioned Sloane Crosley’s pony problem. It’s the topic of Crosley’s first essay in the hilarious 2008 collection I Was Told There’d Be Cake

Leaving her New York City apartment, should Crosley die in some tragic accident (Say someone pushes me onto the subway tracks.”), her loved ones will find an embarrassing mess of clothes and dust balls in her apartment. Worse, in the drawer beneath the kitchen sink, her mother will find her stash of plastic toy ponies.  

“…there is that flash of my mother dressed in black, staring aghast into the open kitchen drawer. In a city that provides so many strange options to be immortalized by the local tabloids, it is just as important to avoid humiliation in death as it is in life. … ‘Look!’ my mother would howl, picking up Ranch Princess Pony (with matching bridle and real horseshoe charm necklace!) by her fax flaxen mane. Just before she passed out.”

Crosley posted a YouTube video about the pony problem. She takes us on a tour of a diorama she created to illustrate it. I Was Told There’d Be Cake is not a new release but, having come off two dark books let alone my friend’s doom and gloom e-mail, I’ve been thinking about books that made me laugh. Crosley’s hits the top of the list, as do these two all-time favorites:

My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell
This classic memoir about the famous, literary Durrell family relocating to Corfu is told through the 10-year-old eyes of Gerry, who brings his animal friends into the house. The craziness that ensues is very funny. The book originally was published in 1956. The New York Times wrote (as the quote appears on the back of my Pengin Books paperback), “A lot of frolic, fun, and charming ribaldry, as well as the warm feeling of having been transported to a lovely spot where worry is unknown and anything is believable.”

Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem
I was reading the first two pages of this detective novel to a friend but was laughing so hard I couldn’t get the words out. The detective Lionel Essrog, working in Brooklyn, suffers from Tourette’s syndrome, and it’s his uncontrolled barking and shouting at the wrong time that make for twisted, smart humor.  Note: I recommended this National Book Critic’s Circle winner to one friend who loved it and a few times kept saying “Recommend another book like Motherless Brooklyn.” But another friend didn’t like it at all – he went on to read the much more serious Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, which he loved.

Update: Sloane Crosley’s YouTube video was added 4/6/2011 as were better book photos.

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