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Pretty used to being with Gwyneth

Regrets that her mother did not smoke

Frank in all directions

Jean Cocteau and Jean Marais

Simply cannot go back to them

Roll your eyes at Samuel Beckett

John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion

Metaphors with eyes

Life of Mary MacLane

Circle what it is you want

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In Which We Visit The Best Bookstores In Los Angeles

This is the second in a two part series. You can find the first part here.


This Is Not A Book Town


This is not a Book Town, and I’m not surprising you or anyone by saying so. L.A. is not a publishing town either, though there are a few interesting book publishers (semiotexte, Les Figues Press, Heyday, Siglio), more magazines, and plenty of (screen) writers about whom I know less than nothing. In my mother’s words, L.A. is as different from New York as Canada is. Nataurally they read different things here.

Another key difference: it’s hard to get around, hard to motivate anyone to leave their neighborhoods because it takes so much time to do so. However there are small bookstores sprinkled across in L.A., many of them really good. As in other cities, a lot have closed though as I read more and more about layoffs and cutbacks, closings of independent bookstores, I also read about more new booksellers and stores here. Curated sources of books in all their forms, old and new, are in demand here too. It seems like this is the best time in the world for a new bookstore in Los Angeles, the right time for me to come to Los Angeles to think about why and what to do next.

So I drove west on a well-thought-out whim, with faith in my personal literary decentralization. Interesting readers and writers are all over the place and moving and I wanted to see for myself. I had heard that L.A. is one of the best-read towns in the US, and that Los Angelenos buy a lot of books. To ruin any potential for suspense, I still believe this now, having been here for a few months, and only in part because half of everyone I know here is a PhD candidate.

The first task I undertook when I got here was obsessively visit a dozen independent bookstores (actually I just don’t know where the Barnes & Nobles are, though I imagine they exist). I’m new here so the neighborhoods all seem a little strange. I’ve kept it to myself when I am not sure I’m qualified to opine. Also I am sorry that this list doesn’t include much of the west side. Iliad Books, Deyermond, Alias and of course the ones I haven’t heard about yet won’t appear since, fortunately, I have been distracted by a few other things.


Skylight isn’t huge, but it’s light and airy and replete with tagged suggestions, personalized blurbs, a large and pretty helpful staff. Most impressive to me were the special shelf of selected translated books (“World Literature”), the impressively large California poetry section; the fact that such books would occupy the front of one of the city’s most vocal and visible book stores.

I found the smallest and weirdest book at Skylight — Dalkey Archive Press just published an English translation of Edouard Lévy’s Suicide, which is about a suicide. Immediately after delivering the book to the publisher the author killed himself. I didn’t hear about this from Skylight, but they had it in stock so I obviously had to buy it. A rather harrowing a read, very very good.

My second time in, I saw Michael Cera at the register, and he seemed to stay forever, just chatting, and then buying a bunch of novels. The thing about Los Angeles is that it’s almost impossible to hurry here, and most of the time the people are so polite that you just wouldn’t imagine interrupting a conversation just to make your next appointment on time. It’s not just Michael Cera either, it’s a mother looking for a particular Beverly Cleary book, or a tourist looking for the right hiking guide. Wait, browse a little more, be patient. Be more social. This is true all over Los Angeles.

The main store is fifteen years old, and there is a new-ish art book and graphic novel annex, which is great and in keeping with what people here seem to be buying (more on that in a bit). I imagine Skylight is so successful because of how well it understands its customers (interested in stories, in film, in their city) and what they’ll be looking for: something standard, something else really strange or small or graphic-heavy. On the other hand, I have a quiet complaint. The readings are not overwhelmingly impressive as you can’t see or hear or didn’t realize there was something going on at first.

Book Soup

This is quite a big store, offering as much attention to detail but a bigger and more “popular” (in the “L.A. Times best seller” sense of the word) selection than Skylight. Here are the big new books and lots of classics, and books by celebrities. It is, after all, on the Sunset Strip. It’s windy, but wide too, and it keeps going back, is much deeper than I’d have guessed it to be when I walked in. It even has a separate office with a reception desk.

There’s nothing especially new about Book Soup (it opened in 1975) but it’s really quite a role model (you find little flags with descriptions of books and recommendations all over the place here). Good, because it’s well known outside of the city as it is within, for selling books as well as for being the best place in L.A. to celebrate a book release — it attracts a crowd. For now at least it offers more events than any other bookstore in L.A.. If not one for every night, there are some nights of two separate readings. Next week they’ll have a woman who battled cancer and was American Idol judge and I assume it will be packed.


Vroman's is in Pasadena, but it’s the nearest big independent store to my East-side neighborhood. It’s actually ancient (1894), and it’s huge — two stories, replete with a seating area for readings, a café, a children’s zone where I sat on a gigantic mushroom and chatted with a lovely little kid about her doll, which you can also buy at Vroman’s (it was some kind of a kooky stuffed character from a story she liked). It’s famous within its community, all over Southern California, and to the book people of New York. And I think it makes a difference that it is convenient to the great writers of the east side of Los Angeles and the many students of the many local universities.

Also Vroman’s looks exactly like a Borders I knew in Bryn Mawr, PA (the man on the phone was like DUH we’re still in business). But it’s decidedly more local — bookstores in Southern California almost always feature sections that are new to me, Californiana and Screenplays.

The Battery

Also outside the city limits, The Battery in South Pasadena seems to me to qualify as much as Vroman's does. It's closer, for one thing, and full of more intriguing books, for another. It was scattered enough that browsing was really fun, and I really enjoyed chatting with the owner.

I bought an old Culpepper's Herbal that offers me a few different options for "abortion cure," recipes for flea repellents, and cartoonish illustrations of the plants that hold the key ingredients. This is to say that the store has a cool collection of diet and nutrition books to go along with the fiction and nonfiction. If this is true, you can guess everything else will be extremely awesome.

Brand Bookshop

Brand Bookshop is an old one. It's also just outside of L.A. in Glendale, and is full of beautiful and well-preserved books, the kind you won't be able to choose between (except that you will choose). Brand is an institution here and it doesn't even have a website. Absolutely not to miss.


Stories is a small and local bookstore that also reminds me of neighborhood-y New York bookstores, though it is very much of Echo Park. I'm not going to go so far as to say it has a really solid collection of books, but it does offer reasonable used books and peculiar new ones from small presses or by local authors, perhaps those with whom a buyer has a friendly connection. Honestly, I don't completely get it. Under the front counter is a curiously good selection of titles from independent publishers and in nice old editions that seems to change just once over the course of a couple of months, including formerly the excellent As a Friend by Forrest Gander.

Stories is next door to the 826LA tutoring center, so it's an easy meeting place for people who are interested in literary things, or else that's because it also houses a little café. They describe themselves as "Books n Coffee n Stuff." I'm going out on a limb here, but still guessing it's a good place to pick someone up. Especially if you are working on a screenplay, have only one dreadlock, or a need a place with a terrible Internet connection because you're on deadline and trying not to shop for bathing suits online instead. Lots of making out over coffee. In a place where coffee shops are far more popular than bars, this is quite important.

The Last Bookstore

I ventured to the newly renovated area of downtown L.A. to visit Metropolis Books, which looked so impressive online. I accidently walked into The Last Bookstore, which opened on the same block of Main Street as its older, better-known neighbor, about a year ago. Again with the friendliness. It is a wonderful store… can I say it gives off a good vibe? It will soon be moving over a block or so to a bigger space where they'll hold more events, I just learned, and I think this is very good news for the city.

There's a poetry chapbook section and the store hosts a poetry book club. The selection of used books (it's again mostly used, except for a smallish collection of new books and poetry chapbooks) is really refined — you have the feeling that everything was purposefully chosen as you browse the vintage-y stacks. And something that's not terribly common: they sell on eBay too.

Metropolis Books

This was actually a disappointing place, by comparison. I regret having to say so, I feel badly about it, and yet I doubt many would really disagree. Metropolis, don't get me wrong, has the things you'd expect from a little bookstore in a neglected downtown of a big city. But unless you have a crush on the owner, why would you buy a new bestseller from her store? I'm going to go out on a limb and guess, based on the store's own best-seller list, that it's a place for wandering tourists and convention attendees, but it's also a local place, with a small and diligent crew of fans who surely support it through the sadder times.

Family Books

There is a particular trend here, and Skylight's annex is really just a participant. Family Books, I think, was the original L.A. bookstore-as-gallery. It would be more intimidating if it weren't called "Family" and if the people behind the counter were less friendly, or if they didn't seem to encourage people to visit their store for events so enthusiastically. Here is a place where the art of curation is not just exercised as good business practice, it's the whole point. Family offers books, graphic novels, art books (for lack of a better term), music — as well as zines and magazines. A lot of its success I think comes from events created to promote their merchandise, a lot of which is produced by the cool artists of Los Angeles.

I am tempted to identify places in New York that are comparable, but I think it's most helpful to point out that there are now more and more stores like this particularly out here. Ooga Booga in Chinatown is an example, a place one might find zines, small run and local as well as international publications. Also other art, objects that one might endearingly label bibelots. These aren't exactly the non-book stores that sell books, but they further the importance of the physical and personal nature of books. They demonstrate the desire on the part of a bunch of interesting and highly literate people to encourage the proximity of books to art.

Alias East

Along these lines is an even younger bookstore, and I am probably not alone in saying Alias East is my favorite in the city. The selection of books, not just the contents, but the actual physical specimens are so delicately chosen and, for the most part, very good (if not a little boys clubby). "Erotica" is a bunch of old Evergreen and Grove titles. I bought a signed blue paperback copy of On Being Blue by William Gass my first time in, and I couldn't have made a better decision. Trust me, I know it was a choice I made with help.

A store like Alias serves primarily to make you want to own its beautiful things; it reminds you that they're valuable for complex reasons and that you don't need to buy everything you want to read, or at least that you don't need to keep it all. It demonstrates that you owe a good deal of respect to someone who is able to find the 100 books out of ten thousand that will matter to his customers for social or cultural or personal reasons. I don't even remember ever having stolen something before, but at Alias I feel like I need someone to follow me around and watch me and save me from myself.

Libros Schmibros

Libros Schmibros is a bookstore that's completely different from all the rest. Or maybe not. Founded by the former head of The Big Read program, David Kipen, and now run by him and a former college professor and Joyce specialist, Colleen Jaurretche, it opened last July on the first Monday the local branch of the public library was forced by budget cuts to close. Now the library is open Mondays again, and the lending library/bookstore carries on. It's only open four days a week from noon to six, but it is worth planning around.

Libros offers a rich mix of classic literature in well-thumbed paperbacks, contemporary and forgotten crowd pleasers, and solid literary fiction and non-fiction. No schlock. You will not find cookbooks here, but you'll find a decent selection of Spanish-language books, poetry and theater, and young adult material. It consistently evolves to reflect the needs and taste of its neighborhood. And it is tremendously affordable — a true non-profit.

The first time I visited was in February, a few days after I arrived in L.A., I was delighted to find a talkative crowd of two high school teachers, a screenwriter, volunteers and a couple of teenagers. Kipen appeared to be in deep conversation with every person there. He had time to talk to me, too. So now I volunteer at Libros, and I love it. I sit at the desk, chat with teenagers who might just be coming in for a piece of candy or to say hello; I shelve books and make sure they're entered in the catalog. I realize I don't just love suggestions, I love to make them.

There's something terribly scary and motivating that happens when you realize the culture we know and think so highly of, hold so dear, is so tenuously encouraged and protected. Our libraries are closing and our librarians are out of work. As it is, aside from universities, which are largely more and more horrifying, and a few concerned institutions (not enough), we have to rely on a few self-taught or self-motivated scholars that take on this task in commercial or social contexts. They open bookstores or blog to uphold what has become our Rome.

Read Eagle Rock

Read Eagle Rock constitutes what looks to me like another labor of love, perhaps on its way to approximating Freebird in terms of its offerings. Read isn't a place I'd necessarily get in the car to visit (OK I hate to drive and you have to get on the highway to get there), but it's an important bookstore in that general area north of downtown L.A., ranging from Eagle Rock and Highland Park to Lincoln Heights, which I mentioned before is home to some really awesome writers.

There's a moment a bookseller can choose: to do what he or she wants regardless of the consequences, or to do what a community needs him or her to do. This is where I think Read is now. And I think long-term success demands it, as long as people continue to drive.

Small World Books

Today I went to the beach because it is May and a million degrees out, and I'm not used to this. I went swimming and got sunburned. I was walking down the weird Venice strip on my way home, avoiding eye contact, and I noticed a sign for a bookstore. Oh my god. I guess I read there was a great bookstore nearby. Small World Books is amazing.

Happily, and I assume successfully, right in the midst of head shops and tourists and sunburn victims and vendors selling eyewear that will make you look like you have boobs on your face, is a fantastic bookstore. Really excellent books from Archipelago and Europa, and Wave and Dalkey Archive, Harper Perennial and Penguin Classics and Modern Library. New Directions. I mean to say, a lot of books that I admire, recognize, want to read, that I definitely believe in. I bought There Is No Year because it seemed like the right place for it. I brought my parents who loved it as much as me. I realized I have a lot to look forward to.

L.A. is not my home, and I mean no offense at all to anyone when I say I don't want it to be. This isn't a place where the surface gives you much to go on, which is really hard to get used to if not challenging, rewarding. I believe I could live here all my life and still not have visited all of the neighborhoods squeezed between Pasadena and the Pacific. I could visit each neighborhood a dozen times and remain completely unaware of what's behind that one terrible bar, consistently miss the block with the bookstore. It would take me years to really understand the interactions of people and groups and movements. And anyway I'm going to graduate school in Texas before I can form too close a bond. I finally decided on the narrative I want to participate in. Can't you guess I'm going to study libraries and archives?

Real cities are so nearly invisible cities, they are not necessarily different from mythical Rome or Babel or even the internet: they aren't any more or less obvious, readily observable, or well-organized. But they are all concrete, necessarily limited.

Barbara Galletly is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Los Angeles. She twitters here and tumbls here. You can find the first part of this post, examining New York bookstores, here.

Photographs of the author by Trent Wolbe.

"Down by the Water" - The Decemberists (mp3)

"All Arise" - The Decemberists (mp3)

"This Is Why We Fight" - The Decemberists (mp3)


In Which We Visit The Best Bookstores In New York

This is the first part of a two part series. You can find the second part here.

Off the Shelf


All I ever really wanted was to read books and make more. So I came to New York in the fall of 2005, fresh out of college, to work in publishing. It took me some experience, time, work, therapy, and exploration to understand where I fit in. Also, shopping. My story, in bookstores:

Book Culture

I lived for six months on the Upper West Side, four blocks from Labyrinth, where I used to stand in the stacks and feel the weight of the knowledge I lacked. College had not gotten me where it seemed to have gotten everyone else — nobody appeared nearly as bewildered as I was. And I felt tremendously small, uninformed about life, not to mention sad and lonely. This place did not help. Every course offered at Columbia was neatly packed within — it didn't just seem that way.

I bought a bag despite the fact that I really had nothing to do with the place. I was not devastated when it changed ownership and its name to Book Culture. I had also moved on. This is a good place to go for anything that could be of academic interest. Also, if you want to find someone studying humanities at Columbia to date. Neither was quite compelling to me at the time.

Housing Works

I interviewed for many jobs I did not get, most memorably with a prodigy editor who had started as an event planner at the Housing Works bookstore in Soho. They mostly hosted big parties at the time, weddings of editors (who usually marry one another) and private book parties thrown by publishers, when they still did that kind of thing frequently. Anyway, that was how Prodigy Editor got started and when he suggested more books, The Best of Everything by Rona Jaffe and Michael Korda's famed memoir of his life as an editor I made the trip to his old employer, where I found the titles easily. As I was wont to do, I soon fell in love with the world these books conjured, a phantom New York that has always been ten or fifty years old.

Housing Works is a beautiful space to read and to look for books donated famously by the famous writers of downtown Manhattan — a dwindling breed. An excellent selection of titles, beautiful editions of particularly special books, a copy of a book you're interested in reading. It is old school in a charming number of ways. If you have to go to SoHo for a coffee, meet at Housing Works because there's probably a place to sit. Also go there if you want to contribute to their program for homeless people fighting HIV.

Not long after my little love affair began I orated my way into a job assisting one of the most experienced and awesome book agents still standing. It was a dream to be working with real literature that I had studied in college, professional writers and translators, and to have my own office full of windows overlooking 57th Street, shelves of books I wanted to read. I was a book girl, going to be a really successful and ethical agent because I just loved books the most, literature over money. On the other hand, I got to wear blouses and answer the phone with someone else's name. Suffered lots of hangovers.

The Strand

I sometimes tell people that I refuse to go to the Strand Bookstore. I never find what I am looking for, and I hate to check my bag almost as much as I hate being chased by a security guard when I "forget" to check my bag. And it's crowded. But still, it fills a niche. It just has so many cheap books — it's like the Strand will sell literally anything. I think this works okay because the books stay cheap, the store is convenient, and it has tourist devotees still clamoring for The Catcher in the Rye.

It was also my gateway drug. I started going when I worked, briefly, at a textbook publisher nearby, just to see what was up. Of course I continued to go. The Strand might have anything and it's fun to check on what they do have, what is out of stock.

The Strand's discounted new books still always strike me as a little off but they provoke me enough that I remember I'm a person with convictions, opinions. For example, I love to read epic poems, so when I saw Margaret Atwood's The Penelopiad at a discount on a table up front I went for it. So dull and unfortunate, it is the only book I can remember returning. On the upside, I didn't mind asking for my money back from the Strand.

Barnes & Noble, Union Square

This is the place I've seen Claire Messud, T.C. Boyle, and Jonathan Franzen give readings to tightly packed crowds. These are like going to concerts you'd otherwise pay for, for free. The catch is that you have to stand in the back in very high heels. It's uncomfortable and worth it.

All other times it is a nice place to be anonymous, since you won't see anyone you know there. Good for a cry before you get on the subway, where you would feel slightly less anonymous. Also, a youth hostel.

Walk into Borders or Barnes & Noble, and you can figure out what the majority of people in this country are reading. They will have some good and some uninformed staff and a ton of books, but they also offer a bunch of options that appear to many to be redundant or stale. They simply aren't big enough to compete with the internet and make everyone happy, thanks to the infinite long tail legacy of book publishing. Their fault is that they tried. It worked for a while but the failure of "big box" bookstores is now logical. If you don't like Amazon you can now go to Walmart or Sam's Club for a similar, cheaper experience, or to a small local store. I don't think this is really a huge deal in the long run because let's face it: of course.

A more important issue, one of many problems with the big and sluggish book publishers that still flood Barnes & Noble with inventory, is that they are looking for ways to keep making money on books without thinking very hard about what books can really do for us or why, how to make them more important and to remind us that we invest in our own good when we invest in them. Instead they tend to think about how the manuscript they're offered is more or less like Three Cups of Tea meets Dewey the Library Cat — the important trends to pursue.

Yes, books still make money. But barring Harry Potter, figures don't grow from year-to-year like they used to and the enormous corporations that own publishers are not okay with the trend. So, as people do, publishers throw money at the problem and escalate the Crap Situation. Even Billy Joel knows his (expensively purchased) manuscript just shouldn't be published, while on the other hand it seems there have been discussions and panels about the death of the book at every publishing conference I've attended.

This exacerbates major publishers' inabilities to maintain identifiable identities (they're called The Big Six and really, their offerings are indistinguishable); causes a certain amount of difficulty in navigating their output, even if it's all you do; highlights the fact that even if you do find someone whose opinions you can trust (there are multitudes you may rely on) they may suggest something that is not easily at hand. I'm talking about the unmitigated flood of shit into our communal cultural archive, if I can even use those words, and the failure, on many levels, of publishers to act as cultural curators and to help readers sift through the morass of crap they produce.

Such a loss of identity and purpose, or the broadening of such things until their boundaries disappear, means publishers fail to offer helpful hints about what you might want, or what you might need based on your previous experiences. One publisher (okay, a smaller independent one, which makes it more sad) is known for Sudoku books and translations of literary fiction from Russian, but you might not be interested in both. The differences can be less superficially obvious too, trust me. And yes, there are exceptions (for example, FSG most of the time, an imprint like Twelve).

An author also proves unreliable: he moves from imprint to imprint, publisher to publisher, according to his sales figures or where his editor finds new work. Maybe the same author falls into decline in terms of quality as he becomes more popular (Salman Rushdie? Gasp!). You love Gary Shteyngart and would trust his advice, but you don't know why he has blurbed 8,000 books since you can't possibly read that many. You might not notice right away, or have good luck, but you will eventually become frustrated.

Lisa Pearson of Siglo Press pointed out that this leaves some space in the market for quality small independent publishers to curate purposeful and interesting lists of books, and thankfully there are a few potential Barney Rossets and people like the Borchardts out there now. But as William Gass puts it in "Culture, Self, and Society" (thank you Mr. Gass): "A culture morally and functionally fails which does not let its crazies, its artists and its saints, its scientists and politicians, claim, on occasion, a higher law than its own congresses can pass, traditions permit, or conscience conceive." Siglio and Other Press and Graywolf and Ugly Duckling are working hard, but we aren't exactly all doing our parts quite yet.

At the time I wasn't totally aware of the ways I was affected by my little world. The excellence of the work surrounding me, the boring routines it necessitated: I had begun to blur my boring daily work with its significance, at once expecting all books to be fantastic literature and thrummed down by requests for checks that were overdue, options clauses and e-book clauses, overlapping contracts and delivery dates. Publication of Beckett and Yourcenar and their forbears and philosophy and poetry became peripheral, abstract motivations, which was tremendously disillusioning.

But I also did things I loved to do: I read and read, but can't tell you what or why. I edited, learned names and roles. Reading Publishers Weekly to see who came up where was like reading a written description of Pop-a-Mole. Then it was really hard to sell anything, really even to find something I wanted to sell. I felt myself to be so small a cog. Worse, I was out of touch with what was going to happen. Declining sales plummeted. The oversized publishers became more gigantic, merging into even bigger companies that competed to lose millions of dollars on Keith Richards. Books about disabled pets living in libraries or saving their owners took over. Not that this was new, but it was newly killing my passion.

At a loss as to how to wage and win my own battle, I tried hard to refocus my reading, on submissions, or selling challenging books. The millions of them. I didn't read anything that had actually been published yet for months and months, and read a lot of terrible and wonderful things I could never sell. In really low moments of desperation I bought stacks of literary journals, and though I pored over them I retained nothing, thought too often about something from the Talk of the Town or who wrote it , and primarily read Jezebel while I was at my desk. I interviewed for editorial jobs worse than my own, and felt angry that I couldn't find something more effective to do, to feel more important or do more exciting work. And then I came back to the bookstore for inspiration — thank god it was expecting me.

St. Marks Bookshop

St. Marks Bookshop is the place to go if you have to be in the East Village, also a place to learn about something to teach yourself if you haven't been to graduate school in the humanities. The fairly small collection at St. Marks seems designed to draw a browser to essays, to French philosophers and criticism of literature or art. Very nice. I can't say I ever noticed any narrative-based work in there unless it's Sebald. They have a wonderful, tidy collection of journals and magazines that aren't always easy to find, even in New York. I don't know if you'd agree with me, but this store reminds me of like the last video store. A bunch of intellectual fellows with smart but very particular taste. Which is, after all, probably the most important thing to acknowledge.

McNally Jackson

Soho happens also to be home to another fantastic bookstore. McNally Jackson is a destination in itself, and since opening in 2004 has become, more and more, an exciting place for books. It's not just a beautiful space, or a warm one (it is both). It demonstrates an uncannily good sense of what's good. Amazingly, you can also now print books on demand at the store. In a recent interview Sarah McNally gave to Poets & Writers, she said, "It's a constant act of regeneration. If you stop, you're dead."

McNally Jackson hosts readings or talks and conversations between editors and writers almost every day of the week, which means that all walks of (good) writing have a voice here. One of the best things the store does is to bring in authors that are not terribly famous, not best sellers, and demonstrate the urgency and significance of their work. This is particularly true of poets they host: Forrest Gander, Maggie Nelson, Dorothea Lasky. I have learned about or gained an entirely new appreciation for several writers through McNally Jackson. And bought more than a few beautiful books.

McNally Jackson is probably the most successful, but it is demonstrative of the fact that quite a few little bookstores are succeeding. They offer books that appeal to the citizens of their neighborhoods, or to promote their neighbors (don't we all probably write sometime?), or take advantage of the fact that people want to read to learn, read new stories or influential stories. Their owners are cool, because they have the time and flexibility necessary to engage publishers of different sizes, and editors and neighbors, and their tastes develop with the writing that comes to them, and with the response to their offerings. They build your trust and prove their value to you, as curators of their own libraries, slowly over time, in presenting relevant options and encouraging you to think about why something just may be worth your energies. They expose you to what they, probably also your neighbors, are interested in, and maybe introduce you to one another. And they demonstrate that it still makes sense to ask someone you trust for help with a personal problem.

As McNally Jackson attests, the well-curated bookstore is no longer a thing of the past, objectively doomed to failure. It returns from near extinction (if you're to trust trade publications) to fill a more and more essential role, returning culture to books. Booksellers are proving consistently that a customer will seek out a reliable personal experience in the form of their advice, which is entirely related to a sentiment of community, mutual interest of neighbors, a desire to know more but also to connect. Conversations about books return, their contents, the communities we form based on common opinions or arguments.

Don't get me wrong, I know the sales numbers are down overall, at least from time to time. But at the same time, small bookstores are still opening, and they aren't all closing. They probably offer used books, and e-books on their websites. But they limit their offerings. They provide a counterbalance to the unbounded void of too-much-to-handle. And they are quick to adapt to new technologies, to come up with new ways to reach customers.


From the Upper West Side, I had moved to Crown Heights. No bookstores nearby in 2006, and I don't know of any now either. But anyway, soon after (the hot water didn't work and feral cats kept me from sleeping) I moved to Brooklyn Heights, which was almost like moving back to Manhattan but more suburban of me. There was a used bookstore on Montague Street, and a Barnes & Noble on Court. The former closed in the three-year period I lived nearby, the latter remains as it was then.

The best place to go was BookCourt. It was small, with fiction and local books and essay collections upstairs and a little section of travel books and something else (sports?) down a little dark staircase. I went often, to check out the selection, snobbed around and judged it a little Jonathan Lethem-y for me, and often left to buy what I wanted at Barnes & Noble, which felt kind of awful. Since then Bookcourt has grown into the adjacent storefront and its offerings have expanded. I started to trust the store more — a good decision, since it clued me in to some of what I was missing in midtown Manhattan.

It is special inside — I think there's something of a gallery in its neat organization and ample floor space; and it is very current. Bookcourt has an excellent range of important new books, but most interesting is the small section of the store's own monthly best sellers, and they are sold at a discount. These are normally great books or provocative ones; a lot of Brooklyn editors and writers live nearby or visit, or otherwise participate in the community here. Still lots of literature from Brooklyn, its writers and small presses, but I appreciate that more now. Paula Fox! Archipelago, Ugly Duckling!

BookCourt now hosts very popular readings and literary journal release parties (lol, this is a huge deal). Some of the booksellers are now themselves full-blown literary personalities, though they might leave it to colleagues to try to sell you their books. Or not. Lacking a better metaphor, I think of it still as the tip of the iceberg, if the iceberg is the interesting stuff going on in Brooklyn.

Adam's/Unnameable Books

Around the time BookCourt started seeming more important to me, Adam's Books opened and then became Unnameable Books. Adam was a friend of my college boyfriend who painted the ceiling and helped build bookshelves, so I felt personally estranged and also connected. I had seen The Idiot's Guide to Owning a Small Business (or something like that) in Adam's hands a few months before, and I was awed by the store's quick success. What a book. A couple of years ago Adam moved across Flatbush to Vanderbilt, just with the help of volunteers (he reimbursed them with pizza). He tapped into the literary community of Park Slope (much of which had relocated from Fort Greene, and which has now become in some cases the literary community of Prospect Heights) unless it actually tapped into him. He is a poet, and friend to many poets, and he has produced some excellent and popular readings especially when it's warm out in the pebbly backyard of his store. He writes about these in a truly excellent newsletter.

He sells old and new books, and his is the only place I've asked to order me something that wasn't in stock anywhere else. How weird to have done that, especially since I think it was just a few months ago. I definitely recommend The Owl by Sedegh Hedayat, which I think they now stock.


On the way to Red Hook, probably to get the best chocolate cake or plants or vintage jewelry, but still in Carroll Gardens on Columbia Street, Freebird lies in wait. The store sells some excellent used books. It has been run since 2007 by Peter Miller, who is also a book publicist and can probably be credited with the store's reputation for a cool collection of New York-themed books (it sounds cheesy but it's more fun and strange than that) and a post apocalyptic literature book club.

The store isn't always open, you're supposed to call before you go, but I think most people just sort of wander by and pop in if they see a light on or a door ajar; and though it only opened for the first time in 2004 (under different ownership) it is ancient, dark and narrow inside. But it's a treat to browse, creaking as you go, and to stop and watch the container ships unloaded on the East River or the ceaseless construction that may one day yield a park across the street. It has a charming yard, and hosted one of the most pleasant book parties I've attended—for Pierre Bayard's How to Talk about Books You've Never Read… It was a popular event. The book is worth your time if you haven't read it yet.

Spoonbill & Sugartown

I am pretty thrilled by buses and liked to take the B61 from Atlantic Avenue to Williamsburg for haircuts, etc., and to visit Spoonbill & Sugartown, Booksellers. A place to wait for the bus and buy some Barthes or to browse books about art or by artists. Actually it is quite small, and full of customers who are talking loudly about things you'd like to correct them on, but they have wonderful table displays. Before the rest of the new kind of stores, they mixed art and theory books with more standard fiction and non-fiction, used and new. Their selections are always relevant, and organized into displays that are quite attractive. Dense enough to be engrossing but small enough to be manageable. A microcosm of Williamsburg, or at least the part of Williamsburg that I know (because I don't hang out with bands).

Idlewild Books

Translation has always been my favorite literary concern, so I was very excited when Idlewild Books opened a couple of years ago. The store sells international and travel literature, and it also feels sort of like a vacation from Union Square. It offers language classes, globes, and it is gorgeous and old worldly inside. The other people in the store are almost always really attractive, and I rarely failed to attend book and journal events there because of that. The translated book award ceremonies are held there, they are delightful and I highly recommend you attend. Or at least buy your travel guide there and not at fucking Barnes & Noble.


Weirdly, one of the newest bookstores finally arrived in 2009 to fill the void in Fort Greene, which is usually called the most writer-centric neighborhood in the entire city. Actually, its tardy appearance probably allowed more literary diversity in the little neighborhoods nearby, or at least more little bookstores. Greenlight had a big pre-established customer base since hundreds of writers and editors and book people populate the immediate area.

The store is pretty big, especially compared to most of the above-mentioned Brooklyn stores, and it is open late enough that it helps you fill time around dinner (I mean, encourages boozy book-buying, if you didn't eat before you went out). It also engaged almost immediately with the small local publishers that are delighted to increase their recognition with local readers. Book parties! Catalogue parties! Journal parties!

Kitchen Arts & Letters

Kitchen Arts & Letters is not a new bookstore, but a specialty. For sale are cookbooks, old (if out of print) and new. Memoirs about cooking. Food-themed postcards. I visited Thursday evenings after therapy and always left feeling comforted, relieved. It made me want to move to the Upper East Side. And have babies with a nanny. And cook. My therapist told me it's so popular that people travel from outer boroughs just to shop there. She also told me she thought I was smart and brave to leave New York; that I really should go if I wanted to figure out whether and how much I need the city, and why. I wanted to remind myself there's more. I know it was better to go but I miss this bookstore, though I miss Lucy most of all.


I began to leave a couple of years ago when I moved to Greenpoint, the New England of New York City (except let's say City Island is Maine), from Brooklyn Heights. Even though it was the only English-language place in sight (the rest are Polish), and was just a couple of blocks away, I didn't think much of the store at first. It was small, and it had nothing of interest to me aside from some letterpress cards. I didn't want to buy any of the books they stocked. But in the last year I spent in Brooklyn, up north, far from my friends, it became a place I loved. The tiny collection came to hold what I wanted, and to demonstrate what I should be looking for.

Word's basement readings were so conducive to community, and the readers there were bound to become the store's bestsellers. The best reading I saw last year in New York was at Word. Rachel Glaser wrote the weirdest stories, published in Pee on Water, which I was not excited to hear about until I did — she read after Blake Butler, who was just really weird. When she read "The Magic Umbrella." Well. It changed things, I felt like a teenager understanding for the first time that books are cool. You should really read it, preferably aloud.

There I bought the Lewis Hyde book Common as Air, which argues for a radical expansion of the public domain even though I could have gotten it free (it was available in its entirety on Google Books for a little while). I also purchased all of my Christmas presents and gifts to myself, had them wrapped, at Word. Most memorable, is the copy of Notes from The Underground I bought on the way to the airport to visit my grandmother just before she died. I don't know why I did it. I passionately hate Dostoevsky and his Catholicism, a family thing, and maybe that's why I chose it and can't read it, or go anywhere for long without it. I think I'll keep carrying it around with me until I muster up the nerve to get it over with. Sometimes a book is an object, but nevertheless it's still a book. Unfortunately it means everything and nothing at all.

Of course I realize it's not just Word that changed — it has actually grown, and has hired an adept events planner — it had an impact on my interests and choices. I had worked at the agency for five years, and at each anniversary I felt I knew much more and that the world I was chasing had morphed proportionally. Though Random House underwent so many restructurings we had to keep charts of submissions that began to look like complicated mathematical spreadsheets, more and more and more fabulous publishers began to issue good and interesting literary fiction. I think at a certain point it came to me that the narrative of the book industry, and how it would remain important or interesting, was just as interesting to me as the books being published. I saw that I had more to learn if I wanted to continue to participate.

Barbara Galletly is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Los Angeles. She twitters here and tumbls here. Tune in for the second part of this post, examining L.A. bookstores, here. She last wrote in these pages about hysteria.

Photographs of the author by Trent Wolbe.

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In Which Molls Advises No Martinis, Manicures Or Pillow Fights

Plz Advise


Plz Advise is an advice column. You can e-mail me questions about almost anything, but don’t like, take out a loan against your 401k or murder anyone based on anything I say. I'm not a doctor, duh. E-mail your questions to plzadviseme@gmail.com and keep them under 150 words.


I'm a freshman in college and right off the bat I became good friends with one of my profs who is in her 30s. She doesn't fit the stereotype of the typical Christian College professor, which is what made me want to be her friend. At first, was really interesting and fun to hangout with her, but lately it’s turned more into her trying to "mommy" me and its annoying for 2 reasons.

1. I feel like she acts like that only because she knows I lost my mom a couple years ago and so she thinks she can be the replacement of my dead mommy. (Uhh no thanks.) and

2. She calls me names like "missy" and "kiddo."

Basically, how do I get her to stop playing the mommy card?


Not to alienate you, but everything you’ve just explained to me is seriously bizarre.

I went to a pretty conservative (Catholic!) university myself, and while I was friendly with several of my professors, I would have never called them my friends. You can grab a beer (one beer) with them after class, you can go to their house for dinner or you can chat with them in the quad about what a pain your roommate is or how much you miss your friends back home. That’s about it. No pet names, no martinis and manicures, no pillow fights.

You need to take ownership of the fact that you started an inappropriate relationship with someone who is supposed to be your superior. Even with the coolest, most laid-back and non-authoritative types, you need to respect the fact that you’re paying a lot of money to have this person teach and grade you. Maybe when the class is over you can strike up some sort of more personal relationship, but while someone’s in control of your grades, there is no friendship.

Not all of this is your fault. This woman sounds like she has no sense of boundaries herself. Just because someone is certified to teach does not mean they are a good/safe person and it definitely doesn’t mean that they’re rational. However, she has control over a part of your life that I’d guess you care a lot about, so you need to suck it up and deal.

Once her class is over, treat her like a dude you don’t want to hook up with anymore. Answer every third e-mail or phone call and be short and sweet in your tone, while also making it clear that you’re not suffering without her. She’ll figure out that you don’t need to be saved and that her efforts to do so were not appreciated.

If that makes her dislike you, whatever. I’m sure there are plenty of other professors at your school and if there’s not, then transfer the hell out of that crazy-ass place.

Also, talk to the other students, girl. Statistically, several of your classmates have also lost a parent, so you’re not as alone as you may think.


My girlfriend went traveling and met someone. Apparently they connected. To which I am very jealous. She is going back to see this other chick in June, also she wants a polygamous relationship, but I don't think I feel comfortable with it. I really love her and want us to be together. What should I do?


If it were me, I would put a lit cigarette out on my girlfriend’s face and say, “Do you like the way that feels, you fucking whore? That’s what you’re doing to my heart, but multiplied by ten. Have fun living your new faux-Mormon lifestyle, you insane bitch.”

I’m single.

I know that we’re all supposed to be down with polyamorous relationships because everyone’s cynical about love and mad fluid these days, but I’m an old-fashioned girl. Thinking about someone that I love being sexual (or even emotional) with someone else makes me experience every negative emotion at once. It sounds like you might be that way too.

Just like she can’t make you be comfortable with the idea of her getting with multiple people and keeping you on the side like Eva Mendes in Training Day, you can’t teach someone the kind of physical and emotional loyalty that you’re looking for. Seems to me that your relationship as you once knew it is already over.

From what I’m told, there are other people out there who still really believe in the idea of monogamy, so maybe cut this chick loose regardless of how difficult it feels and take some time for yourself before seeking out a partner who’s a better fit.

Time to dust off the Fiona Apple CDs, lady.


A friend from college really wants to keep in touch, but every time we end up talking on the phone she criticizes the choices I've made since leaving school and expresses doubt that I'm doing my best to get where I want to be in life. I know she doesn't mean to hurt my feelings, but it's becoming a real pain in the ass to talk to her. Should I make her happy by continuing to talk to her, or slowly eradicate her from my life?


Are you making poor decisions with your life? Do you complain about your life to her and then she goes into concerned friend mode? If that’s how it is, you need to either not complain to her or get your shit together. Otherwise, the girl needs to fuck off and I’ll tell you how to get that process started.

Placate her. When she starts up with the “Here’s what you need to do to get your life in order,” stuff, just be like, “Great, awesome. Thank you,” and then after five more minutes of polite conversation say, “Well, I’ve got some stuff to do, so I’m going to let you go.”

When she calls you again, do the same thing, but be even shorter with her. Keep this up until she’s under the impression that you’re just too busy for any of her bullshit and then eventually she’ll stop calling. If she ever tries to guilt trip you, just send a one line e-mail like, “Sorry, girl! Guess all that talk about me being the best version of myself paid off! Just been busy! Hope you’re well!”

Sure, this is a two-faced way of dealing with a person, but it sounds like this girl has five faces, so feel free to try and catch up. Plus, unleashing the whole, “listen, you need to back off because I’m doing me”-thing on an unstable person who feels the need to micromanage your life is a really great way to get them to never go away.

You should never feel the need to keep someone in your life who brings you down, regardless of how you think it will make them feel. The world is full of soul-sucking assholes who have nothing better to do than meddle in other people’s so-called problems, but it’s also full of kind, proactive and generous types. Cut through that human rainforest with your machete, girl. This chick is a pebble you step upon, and if she ever comes to you asking for a sip of water, offer to spit in her mouth.

Molly McAleer is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Los Angeles. She twitters here. You can find her website here. She is the co-founder of Hello Giggles.

Photographs by Jennifer Nies.

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Experience the Short But Vital History of Plz Advise

Plz Advise #1: Guidelines for Twitter Romance

Plz Advise #2: Everytime You Go Away

Plz Advise #3: How to Make Friends And Influence Bloggers

Plz Advise #4: More Of A Bro Than You Thought

Plz Advise #5: Martini Time

Plz Advise #6: A General Lack of Self-Awareness

Plz Advise #7: Dump Your Boyfriends

Plz Advise #8: Advice To Keep Close At Hand

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