East Village Bookstores in the ’90s: See Hear, Harris Books, Tompkins Square Books

When I was fifteen, I spent most of my time — when I wasn’t babysitting, drinking wine coolers, or making out with acid-heads on rooftops — looking for zines, Philip K. Dick novels, and religious books in bookstores around the East Village.

After Saint Marks Books (then actually on St. Marks Place) turned down the (innovative and important!) zine I was doing in high school, I sort of boycotted them. (I did still go there to pick up copies of the hilarious zine The Eleventh Street Ruse, whose author, R.L.S., aka Sparrow, I became pen pals with. We still have never met, and two decades later we still write each other letters.)

But my favorite bookstores were the cheaper, rattier ones.

Starting around the age of fourteen and continuing until I was nineteen and left NYC for a few years, I trolled a circuit of used booksellers around Astor Place; the zine store See Hear on 7th Street between 1st and 2nd Ave (I just found this video tour); Tompkins Square Books, which was a block closer to the park; and a place that no one else seems to remember and that maybe I dreamed called Harris Books, on the second floor of a building between 7th and 6th St. on the west side of Second Avenue.

The prices were usually written in pencil in on the first page in the upper right hand corner, typically just a dollar or two or three. If you bought a stack, as I usually did, you got a discount. The organization systems were never standardized, and most of the good stuff could be found in stacks by the chairs anyway.

You could sit around on the floor or on the old couches and flip through books forever. (I think Harris — which, again, may never have existed — might have been the first store I was in that actually served coffee and tea to browsers. I think it was also that guy’s apartment.)

I got a better education from those afternoons and weekends at those bookstores than from high school English, which I did crossword puzzles through anyway.

What a generous, if impossible to sustain, business model those stores represented! How lucky I was to have these weird, oddly curated little libraries just blocks from home!

Sometimes I cringe to imagine teenage girls I know spending hours sitting on random floors and getting into awkward conversations with vaguely menacing leftist revolutionaries. (There were a couple of anarchist bookstores around, too, but my only foggy memory of these is one at which I attended a party. Admission price: everyone had to burn a dollar before they’d be let in.)

The guys who ran those places were strange, nerdy, competitive and clannish at the same time. I dated the cutest, youngest of the bunch, someone a dozen years older. His book-laden apartment on Avenue D (in what was then still a decidedly pre-gentrified neighborhood) with the bathtub in the kitchen was my idea of the perfect home.

He would take me to breakfast at my favorite Ukrainian diners, the best being the back garden at K.K.’s (now Neptune), where we could smoke and drink bad coffee and eat challah french toast. They had huge seashell ashtrays.

At the time, going home with random older men didn’t seem dangerous or even scandalous. I trusted my instincts about people. And I was seventeen, so I think it was even legal.

And yet, in retrospect, I wonder what kind of twenty-nine-year-old takes up with someone still in high school. It was more I Am Curious-Yellow than Lolita, but it still sort of sucked. (Taylor Swift’s song about John Mayer is maybe the best thing written about this kind of affair.)

Loneliness, boredom and curiosity were what got me out of bed in the morning back then. Looking for books and for interesting people to fool around with were always connected.

The only one of these stores I mentioned that is still around is Saint Marks Books. Obviously knew what they were doing when they rejected my Xeroxed copies of that zine. East Village Books on St. Marks Place between 1st Avenue and Avenue A is carrying the torch for the rickety old used bookstore, but I don’t have as many associations with it because it opened later.

Luckily, I have an old bookshelf from Tompkins Square Books that I grabbed off the street when they went out of business and were replaced by a vintage clothing store.

It’s my favorite piece of furniture, and it’s still packed with books I got there: Denis Johnson, Kierkegaard, Harry Crews, Oscar Wilde, Veronica Geng, Karen Finley, Tolstoy, Philip Pullman, Lewis Shiner, Joe Coomer… All things I probably never would have found if it hadn’t been for those old bookstores.

Part of me wishes those places were still around so the books I’ve written could be on those tables and shelves, battered and priced at “3-” on the first page so someone could stumble upon them, after a long search, and yet also totally by accident.

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “East Village Bookstores in the ’90s: See Hear, Harris Books, Tompkins Square Books

  1. I remember Harris Books very well. I became friends with the couple who ran it, though briefly. The woman was English. They had a cat who was always in heat. Lovely people. I often think of them when I walk by and wonder where they went.

  2. thisspaceintentionallyleftblank

    Great story! See Hear was a fantastic little shop but zines really were a medium of the mail. They connected people across vast distances and (importantly) you didn’t need to be in a big city to find them or to participate in the culture. I think its also really important that we remember that the 90s zine moment (which gets all the press) was part of a continuum of self-publishing and mail art that stretches back further.

  3. Donald

    Was the guy you dated Paul? He would have been the least revolutionary of the bunch of us. I kind of lost touch with Harris’ whereabouts after he got into the fight at NYU around 2000 with a customer at his book stand. The Ducky Boys was a parody revolutionary group whose main objective was to attract women of the kind you describe. Some of the Ducky Boys were book people. We did individual acts of terrorism in NY and Wash that you couldn’t get away with anymore. Usually involving the release of live chickens in traffic.

  4. Jason

    Thanks for the post. I wondered if anyone else out there remembered this lost slice of EV history. Harris Books definitely existed. I had the pleasure of hanging out there for many hours drinking tea on a weekly basis with Harris’ girlfriend, who was indeed British, and their cat Spongehead. It was kind of a meeting place too for the denizens of the neighborhood who worked in the long gone thrift stores on second avenue (I think). Mostly dancers and performance artists. They’re all bars and restaurants now, sadly. Harris not only ran a bookstore in his apartment, he did also have a stand out front, and another store in Williamsburg. There were always out of print gems on the highly disorganized shelf. But they knew my taste so could always point me to the stuff I wanted. Always left with a stack. This was all in the early 90s. Lost touch with them when I moved to Europe for a while and then returned to college. They were good people, even though Harris was a bit cantankerous. I wonder where they are today.

  5. Pingback: Where to buy zines in the 1980s East Village | Ephemeral New York

  6. Bill Stepp

    Harris Books was between 5th & 6th, not 6th & 7th, if my memory is correct.
    I used to see him outside selling books. These days he is selling near Bobst Library.

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