About a month ago, I had a few hours to kill on my own in New York. I’d had a sleepless week and a 5 A.M. flight so, admittedly, most of my agenda involved napping in my closet-sized-but-adorable Airbnb.
But I also knew a trip to New York would be wasted without a visit to one of its many independent bookstores, and I knew it was a rare opportunity to visit a bookstore in another city all by myself. I wouldn’t have to worry about boring my travel buddies with incessant browsing. I could take my time combing every shelf, if that’s what I wanted to do.
So I consulted with Google Maps to find a nearby option, and was excited to find McNally Jackson — a bookshop near the top of my indies to visit list — was just a few blocks away.
Founded in 2004, McNally Jackson thrived during the economic downturn that shuttered so many independents by using books as the centerpiece of several revenue streams, including a café, events, and printing and self-publishing services. I was eager to check out the store that had been used as an example in so many studies and projections of the bookselling landscape.
Here’s my key takeaway: McNally Jackson is crowded.
It’s not the bookstore’s fault — everywhere in New York is crowded, including the grocery store and the Houston Street CVS where a greeter in a suit asked if I needed help finding anything. A greeter. In a suit. At a CVS.
But that’s beside the point. The point is, McNally Jackson is a much smaller space than I had imagined (though no smaller than I should have expected, given its location) and, even at 2:00 on a Friday afternoon, it was hopping. There was a line a dozen deep at the café, and a steady flow of bibliophiles browsing every corner of the store. And that’s an important note. The shop wasn’t packed with tourists clamoring for souvenirs. Everyone in there seemed truly engrossed in the books.
In terms of selection, McNally Jackson leans toward the serious.
There are shelves upon shelves of literary fiction, prestigious lit mags, and high-brow or avant garde zines on the first floor, and sections on art, history, architecture, and other nonfiction in the basement. There are bestseller tables upfront but, like at Harvard Bookstore, those looking for genre fiction — romance, sci-fi, etc. — had better look elsewhere.
Also like Harvard Bookstore, McNally Jackson boasts an espresso book machine for those looking to print their own masterpieces, personalized editions of classic literature, or print-on-demand titles. Once upon a time, these machines were major players in the debate over the future of print, as they could eventually allow publishers to spend less on print runs and bookstores to limit the stock they had to pay for and store. However, with just a couple dozen around the country — and many of those at University Libraries where they are used primarily for dissertations and the like — the espresso book machine has yet to replace traditional inventory models.
The line at the register, along with the thought of adding anything else to my already-bursting carryon luggage deterred me from making any purchases, and my browsing experience really was a little dampened by the close quarters in the store.
Nonetheless, I’m so glad I had the opportunity to visit another institution on the bookselling landscape, and I can’t wait to keep crossing these independent gems off my bookstore bucket list.