• The Carts –  Located in the center of the store are $1 & 50-cent carts.  That’s right, for $1 or less you can pick-up some good books.  Here’s how it works.  People all over NYC donate books to the Housing Works.  Some of these books are new-er releases, some are rare, or out-of-print, or  valuable,  OR some have been… let’s just say they’ve been “well-loved”.  The latter, if they’re an interesting title (and a little worse for wear), go on the carts.  It’s where I discovered Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban and Peter Alexeyevich Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid:  A Factor of Evolution – two books I’d never have read otherwise (but am glad I did).
  • Rare Books – Rare Books don’t always equal $$$.  It could just be a book of no great value that’s hard to find or out of print.  Either way, I’ve always found the prices at the Housing Works Bookshop to be reasonable and the books out of the ordinary.  So be sure to check out the glass cases and the large format books behind the register.
  • The 2nd Floor Balcony – Not only is it a great place to sit and wait for a friend (providing a strategic vantage point of everyone exiting and entering the store), the balcony is also where they keep the non-fiction.  Go explore a section you wouldn’t normally think of.  My personal favorite is religion:  where books on Judaism, Buddhism, Islam and Christianity sit spine-to-spine without conflict.
  • Selection – All the books in this shop are donated.  So, whereas most bookshops give staff recommendations, the Housing Works gets its recommendations from the residents of the city.   The result is an eclectic and slightly eccentric collection of books which is constantly changing.  (I’m not exaggerating, volunteers restock the shelves hourly).  For my money, this is the best bookshop in the city for browsing – I never leave empty-handed.  And, more often than not, the books I buy are by authors or in subjects I wasn’t even thinking about when I walked in.
  • Café – I know, I know… every bookstore has a café now.  But I still have a soft-spot for this one.  It’s located in the back of the store right next to the fiction shelves (granted this probably wouldn’t be my first choice. It does get a little crowded back there).  The tables and chairs are pretty beat up.  Still it has a certain charm.  Seating is limited and it helps to be open to sharing.  If there’s an open chair at an otherwise occupied table – ask.  You’ll usually get a seat, and maybe a decent conversation.
  • “FIGHTING AIDS, ONE BOOK AT A TIME” – I love that slogan!  The Housing Works operates the used book shop and multiple thrift shops all over Manhattan for a remarkably good cause.  In their own words:

    Housing Works is renowned for addressing the needs of people living with AIDS that other organizations deem “too challenging to serve.” By offering a comprehensive array of health, housing, AIDS prevention, legal and case management services, we help our clients to empower themselves and actively manage their HIV.

Money from every book you buy goes to help the people who desperately need it.  It’s a unique opportunity to give back to the city you’re visiting – by indulging in something you love.   It just doesn’t get any better than that.

The Housing Works Used Bookshop is located at 126 Crosby Street, right off of Houston Street.

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Every so often I take a trip into NYC to visit friends.  Ostensibly.  My friends would probably tell you that every so often I take a trip into NYC to drag them from one indie bookshop to another.   (No one complains, but I have detected some good-natured eye rolling. I’m always the first to say that I’m VERY fortunate in my friends).

In honor of the upcoming BookExpo America and the affiliated Book Bloggers Convention (see the sidebar) I’ll be highlighting some  of my favorite NYC Indie Bookshops during the month of May… the first of which is McNally Jackson on Prince Street.

I was over-the-moon excited to discover this new bookshop only 2 weeks ago on one of those aforementioned visits.  How did I find it?  Thank you for asking!  You see, I needed a raincoat.  My BGF and I headed for Soho to do some thrift shopping – and on the way we dropped into the RRL Ralph Lauren Men’s  Store (just because it’s awesome).   I asked a sales person  where the nearest bookshop was located.  He told us to stay on Prince and we’d find one a few blocks down on our left… which is exactly what happened!  (Lesson:  NEVER hesitate to ask locals for recommendations or directions.  New Yorker’s love their city, and love to share it).

So why, on such a short acquaintance, am I singing the praises of McNally Jackson?  Is it the cafe? The comfy chairs conveniently located everywhere?  The blog or the list of author events that has me envious of the locals able to attend on a whim?  What about the nifty bookmark that conveniently has space on the back for notes? (I am a complete bookmark snob, by the way, and McNally Jackson’s is in my Top 10).

Actually, it’s all those things.  Added to that, McNally Jackson has a fantastic selection of International Literature.  International Lit seems to be their niche, with the shelves in fiction organized by authors’ home country.  If you can’t find what you’re looking for their staff is incredibly knowledgeable and friendly.  They patiently helped me track down a copy of Ismail’s Kadare’s Three Arched Bridge (shelved in European Fiction).  I was also looking for Censoring An Iranian Love Story by Shahriar Mandanipour.  They looked it up on their computer and found out it was between hardcover and paperback printings – the paperback is due out in June, which they offered to pre-order for me. (I managed to score a used copy at the Housing Works before catching my bus home).  I rounded out my purchases with Hilary Mantel’s Eight Months on Ghazzah Street which I was able to find all by myself in British Fiction.

McNally Jackson now forms the third part of what I have dubbed the “Bookshop Triumvirate” – along with The Housing Works Used Bookshop on Crosby Street and The Strand on Broadway.

And remember that raincoat?  Well, my BGF refused to let me leave the city without one.  She found me a short, military style jacket in a trench material that fit perfectly.  I wasn’t kidding, I really am lucky when it comes to friends.

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Caliban Book Shop – Pittsburgh, PA

Pittsburgh is one of my favorite places to visit.  There is just something romantic about a city where three rivers meet and old stone homes are being restored.  To me, Pittsburgh radiates the energy & excitement of a city “becoming”.  So much urban revitalization is happening that I could spend days walking around the residential neighborhoods and taking it all in (which is what we usually end up doing!).

Another thing in Pittsburgh’s favor – it has great independent book shops.  One standout is the Caliban Book Shop located at 410 South Craig Street in the Shadyside neighborhood.  The shop is clean, tidy and has a wonderful selection of used books.  Their card states that they specialize in Rare & Scholarly books – which they do.  I spotted some fabulous 20th century first editions and signed copies.  Some were out of the ordinary, like the signed copy of Journal of a Solitude by May Sarton that had me mentally budgeting for the next month in a desperate attempt to justify buying it.  (Alas, it was not to be).  I’m sure it wasn’t the most valuable book in the shop, but it’s one I don’t come across every day.

What really sets Caliban apart in my eyes is the quality of the inventory not housed in a glass case, which is made up of the inexpensive and rare finds that are the stuff of a bibliophile’s dreams.  They carry books, all in amazingly good condition, that are out of print or by authors that are off radar for the majority of the public.  Of course you can find books by Michael Chabon, John Gardner, Italo Calvino and Stephen Millhauser –all standard stock in the “better” used bookstores.  But Caliban also has a surprisingly nice section on Urban Planning.  I came across several books by less well known publishing houses and by international authors.  The New Arrivals shelves, directly across from the front desk, were a pleasure to browse through.  It’s obvious that the owners, John Schulman & Emily Hetzel, are buyers with discriminating tastes.

Below is what I left with:

  • Colour Schemes for the Flower Garden by Gertrude Jekyll (hardcover with protected dust jacket)
  • 3 Jack Vance Paperbacks (Caliban has a nice 1950’s sci-fi pulp collection – which is a don’t miss housed in a basement room. It also seems to be where they keep their less expensive trade paperbacks).
  • The Dead Girls by Jorge Ibarguengoitia (paperback)
  • Sunset at Dawn: A novel of the Biafran war by Chukwuemeka Ike (paperback)

Any criticisms?  I found their Art section a little weak.  Not bad, but nothing to write home about.  And a few small tables with chairs would have been convenient to sort through my selections before heading to the check out.  Then again, they may be on to something.  If they provided tables and chairs, I’d probably still be there.

Caliban Storefront