As a teenager, I spent much of my time hiding in majestic, beautiful, sometimes abandoned libraries in grand old buildings. I pottered around Paris and London, uncovering hidden treasures in weird bookstalls on the banks of the Seine and hunting down dusty antique shops only my dad knew of.
My father, Pierre Le-Tan, first came to New York in July 1968. Though still a teenager, he had sold drawings to The New Yorker that would eventually appear on the magazine’s cover. He spent his days discovering classic Midtown and Uptown addresses like Ursus, Argosy, and Swann, and still today fondly recalls the legendary Gotham Book Mart in the Diamond District—the same place where he held his first New York exhibition, in 1977.
Decades later, I moved to New York and was instinctively drawn to exploring the city’s literary secrets. Even after years of living here, my quest for uncovering everything book-related only grows more rewarding. Here are some of my favorite downtown bookstores.
One of the first bookshops that I became attached to in New York was Mast Books on Avenue A. A friend introduced me to this amazing little shop when I was writing a city guide to New York for a French magazine about a decade ago. I was quickly drawn to its broad selection of secondhand books, which was quite diverse but meticulously curated.
What I love most about Mast is that you always feel like you are discovering some sort of treasure—whether it’s a hidden gem you’ve only ever seen for sale there, or a limited-edition photo book you’ve been in search of for years—and the price is, surprisingly, always right. It feels like the owners (a married couple) don’t believe in ripping off their customers, which I find to be a generous and inviting approach to selling rare and valuable books. Not only do these fair and competitive prices make you feel like you’re getting a great deal; they make a strong case for the future of brick and mortar. (72 Avenue A)
On any given day, right across the street from Tompkins Square Park, you might be lucky enough to encounter what I like to refer to as the “Book Table.” Behind the Book Table stands Jennifer Fisher, a beautiful young woman with dark hair and piercing pale-green eyes, who actually refers to the Table (recently marked as a New York landmark on Google Maps, may I add) as Vortexity Books. Whenever I see Vortexity there, I (probably very offensively) ask her where she’s been and insist on the fact that I have come by and not found her when I needed her.
On these occasions, Jen usually tells me about a poet she has recently discovered, and how he or she reminds her of so-and-so, and where she got this or that. She’s always selling books by great female authors whom I admire—Marguerite Duras, for example, or Virginia Woolf. She only carries books she knows and loves. I got a great copy of Despair from her last time—she always carries Nabokovs with very cool covers. (123 Avenue A)
Emmanuel Perrotin opened his first art gallery in Paris in 1990, and shortly afterward began representing Takashi Murakami and Maurizio Cattelan, a decade before they became world-renowned artists. He’s since worked with Kaws, JR, and other young artists. Perrotin’s latest American endeavor takes place in the gigantic old S. Beckenstein upholstery-and-fabric building, which the art dealer reimagined into one of his spectacular galleries in 2017. As with most good galleries, a bookshop completes this downtown staple.
The Perrotin Bookstore is packed with interesting books (personal favorites include volumes on Sophie Calle, Farhad Moshiri, and Xavier Veilhan) and also sells affordable artist editions as well as unusual and rather amusing goodies one would be delighted to receive as gifts. Then there are the Perrotin editions: catalogues of exhibitions the gallery has hosted for its artists, including Daniel Arsham, Erró, Hans Hartung, Jean-Michel Othoniel, and, of course, Takashi Murakami. (130 Orchard Street)
In a similar vein, Brendan Dugan is a fixture in the contemporary-art scene, known for hosting rather famous artists’ shows and book signings (Rob Pruitt was seen scribbling on volumes of Pattern and Degradation in the nude at a former West Village location), and, recently, for opening a refreshingly modern bookshop called Karma Bookstore, which is directly affiliated with—and only one block behind—Dugan’s gallery of the same name.
The shop sells all sorts of sophisticated and rare art books, as well as the expected selection of exhibition catalogues and artists’ books. The gallery also publishes some of its own books, so it does offer quite a charming medley. (Only two blocks away from the well-respected Mast, you may consider going on a little fashionable arty book tour of the area.) (136 East Third Street)
Bonnie Slotnick Cookbooks
I remember my sister stumbling upon a deliciously decorated cavern full of cookbooks many years ago and being absolutely mesmerized. It was called Bonnie Slotnick. The new shop, which Bonnie, the owner, moved into in 2015, preserves the same qualities of her old West Village place: intimate, unique, cozy, beloved, and deeply cared for.
The selection—everything from brand-new cookbooks from the trendiest restaurants to obscure 19th-century epicurean volumes—is as exquisite as the little decorative trinkets that line the shelves, and the resulting ambiance is reminiscent of a comforting country kitchen you would want to snuggle up in, whilst surrounded by the smell of freshly baked cakes. (28 East Second Street)
My brother, Alexis, has very specific taste, and the one thing he is most specific about is books. When I told him about this book-lover’s guide, his only and immediate comment was: “Well, I hope you’re putting Dashwood Books in there. It’s the best bookshop in the world.”
Dashwood is the pre-eminent destination for the culturally and artistically trendy. It’s a masterfully curated piece of modern history for fans of aesthetically distinct and niche photography books. If you had to (really, only if you had to) find something to compare it to, Dashwood Books would be a mixture of one of Tokyo’s specialized underground scene-ster secrets and a downtown hub where you might just run into the person with the most street cred you’ll ever encounter. (33 Bond Street)
The 2018 opening of Codex (Latin for a handwritten manuscript in book form) restored my faith in the bookselling industry. Discreetly connected to Think Coffee, Codex is a cute, corridor-like shop right off the Bowery, at the very beginning of Bleecker Street. I like its physical connection to Think very much, not only because the coffee shop is somewhat dear to me (a daily local stop of mine, where cups are compostable and staff is friendly) but because that vibe of a laid-back, secondhand bookshop attached to a coffee shop is something I find quite special. (1 Bleecker Street)
McNally Jackson Books
McNally Jackson is a bookstore’s bookstore, a shop with its own literary family history. It’s owned by Sarah McNally, whose parents founded the successful major Canadian bookstore chain McNally Robinson, and manages to bring together serious literary chops with trendy downtown cool.
Very centrally located on the ever-so-slightly quieter side of Prince Street (east of Broadway), its Nolita location features a café and two airy floors of well-presented shelves of books, with fiction unusually organized by the nationality of the author. A downstairs space houses kids’ books, history titles, and a newly installed bargain section. To top it all off, a vast selection of international magazines, notebooks, and pens from all over the world (including these awesome Japanese versions of old-school French journals and notebooks—you’ll understand when you see them) makes it difficult to leave the shop without buying something. (52 Prince Street and 76 North Fourth Street, Brooklyn)
Alabaster Bookshop is a neighborhood landmark. Situated just north of the East Village and south of Union Square, it’s the last of the crowd of secondhand-book shops that once lined Book Row (right around the corner from the Strand’s current East 12th Street location). Like the Strand, Alabaster has the bargain carriages outside—who doesn’t love a bargain?
Inside there’s a nicely sized selection of art and photography books, and some lovely older editions of fiction. I always prefer that, both aesthetically—I like the idea of owning something that’s gone around visiting all different types of homes—and ecologically. There’s an old-school feel to the place—not unlike those studious little shops near the Pantheon in Paris—which makes me feel at home. (122 Fourth Avenue)
Three Lives & Company
Established in 1978 (it was in another West Village location for five years before moving to its current one in 1983), this quaint corner shop was baptized “one of the greatest bookstores on the face of the Earth” by Pulitzer Prize–winning author Michael Cunningham. With its divine location and look, Three Lives & Company is a neighborhood staple where you can find new releases—in classic fiction, nonfiction, art, and photography books—all perfectly displayed along its neatly organized shelves. Three Lives is a pleasant local hangout and a testament to the West Village’s lovely and loving atmosphere. (154 West 10th Street)
After a recent move from the Flatiron District to a much nicer West Village street corner—the ground floor of an amusing-looking building at the intersection of Perry Street and Seventh Avenue—Idlewild is one of the last existing travel bookstores in the country. Though the shop is focused on travel, Idlewild also stocks novels and travelogues in an airy and pleasant atmosphere. The staff is more than friendly and offer French, Spanish, Italian, and German lessons in a space attached to the shop. Fun fact: “Idlewild” was the original name of New York’s international airport, renamed J.F.K. in 1963. (170 Seventh Avenue South)
Cleo Le-Tan is a writer living in New York City