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.