Housed in SoHo among the trendy shops and upscale retail, the cast-iron architecture and the bricked streets, the people who have much more money than I have and...the people who have even more money than they have – there lies a bookstore.
You can only overprice books so much; thus, McNally Jackson is a great attraction for me in this neighborhood, because it's affordable but mostly because of its books (obviously).
Perks:Great displays, often on wonderful display pieces (such as old desks, antiquated typewriters, and vintage bicycles).
Plenty of stationery (one of my loves/great vices). I almost bought the $20 elephant notecards because...who doesn’t love elephants? Seriously. And receiving a handwritten letter on crafted elephant stationery? You know you want it.
Engaging events. The store seems very pro-active about local Manhattan writers, sponsoring talks and hosting events with authors and panels. Their books clubs are also specific and tailored (International Literature, Essay Book Club, etc.).
While no warehouse, the selection here is pretty impressive, and it achieves a nice balance between fiction and non-fiction, books and periodicals. I walked out with an (overpriced) artsy periodical called Kinfolk, which is a magazine dedicated to entertaining, produced in a simplistic layout with beautiful photography dedicated to my favorite thing – community. It feeds my love of dinner parties with friends despite my lack of space, money, and, well, enough friends interested in that sort of thing. (I also purchased a tote. You really can’t have enough totes in the city.)
Perhaps the most unique feature is the Espresso Book Machine, which allows you to self-publish books or print from the public domain. This is dedication to the written word, old and new.
The next most notable feature of McNally Jackson is its organization. The fiction section is organized by nation. Honestly, I’m not sure how I feel about this. On one hand, I appreciate that such organization is a statement and a stand against a certain canonization, against subsuming books as radically different and dependent on their geographical and sociocultural histories as, say, Pride & Prejudice and Midnight’s Children under one lump, overgeneralized category of “Literature.” On the other hand, separating them might also imply a more nationalistic imperative that ignores the connections and interplay between literary styles and histories that I find most intriguing. On that same hand, some people might not know better and look for Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go in Japanese fiction. (To this statement, I imagine some of my more elitist friends (read: a part of me) to remark that if said people don't know that Ishiguro is British (Remains of the Day is about the fall of the British aristocratic system, for Pete's sake), they don't deserve to read his books...).
Of course, that’s where the staff comes into play. Plenty of staff members were stationed throughout the store. Though I didn’t interact with them, judging by their inviting (and plenteous) staff picks, I assume that they’re helpful, at least in terms of content knowledge.
A café thankfully invites you to join coffee (and/or tea) with book reading because, clearly, it’s a necessary relationship in our culture. Or really, the relationship is between the coffee shop and reading because it has become the (admittedly cliché) locale of discussions about ideas (admittedly not a cliché that I mind much).
Detriments:BUSY, busy, busy. Granted, I was there on a Sunday afternoon, so the situation may be different during the week. But the mass of people makes me anxious, especially in a bookstore. If I feel as though I am in everyone’s way, I am going to feel uncomfortable browsing – which, by definition, is a leisurely activity not to be rushed.
The business adds to the atmosphere of “trendy” that is inherent in SoHo; for an independent bookstore, wherein we often seek universal ideas and classic thought, this is not a positive association.
Although using one customer as a representative of the clientele is a gross exaggeration and obviously a poor measure of a business...you can’t help but associate the patron with the store when you overhear a conversation (well, monologue) of an “intellectual” guy trying to impress a girl with his profundity. He leaned on the wooden wall announcing some national literary section, his arm at the level of the girl’s head as he tried to adopt a casual manner and spoke:
“I can never be greater than New York. One can be great but not greater than the town he comes from because is only one...New York is such a fucking panopticon.”
Yeah. That happened.
While I loved the selection and would have browsed more if I had the time, the bustle of the store (and that guy) were off-putting, though not enough for me to give it another try sometime soon (?).