Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Westsider Books

A simple green awning poking out on the sunny Sunday sidewalk proclaiming BOOKS.  Sold. That’s all it takes to get me to visit, and that’s all it took to get me to drag a fellow bibliophile to Westsider Books to investigate its wares and its worth.  And what we found was enough to make us return the following Sunday.

Small and unassuming, the store is meant for browsing and for getting lost.  The somewhat dusty air seems to be infused with magical particles that immediately make you forget what you were searching for – which is good, because agendas are obviously discouraged. Like any good used book store (and this one claims to be the last on the Upper West Side), shopping here is an exercise in acceptance: what you will find may surprise you, and you may run across the perfect book or edition that you didn’t even know you were looking for.

It’s the kind of place where great treasures can be found, but only with great commitment.  The rows of books are two-deep and often have books placed horizontally on top of the rows, maximizing space in a small area, as any good New York establishment must. The open layout of the tiny store allows books to soar toward the ceiling, charmingly requiring a ladder and reminding me why I loved Disney’s Beauty and the Beast as a kid – because of the library; say what you want about his temper, Beast had mad reading skills.

Of course, the browsing culture of a used bookstore does not mean that specific books are impossible to find. I asked the gray, frizzled old man working the register (the owner, I would venture to guess) for a specific play, and he replied, “Drama is all the way in the back.  The top rows are theatre criticism, the bottom ones are Shakespeare. What you’re looking for is in the middle, probably the second shelf of that section.”  An invaluable resource, this guy.  Someone who knows his store and his collection in a way that reveals his deep involvement with it; he’s here all the time, and I got the sense that he would be the type of guy to whom you’d like to be known as a “regular.”

Most of the books run $6-$8 (excepting the outside bargain section, where most titles are $1, unless otherwise marked, prompting patrons to load up on armfuls of useless texts that will lie unread until the new owners decide to trade them in–probably to the same store, perpetuating the sad, circular life of the used book).  The main, bottom level of the store amazingly crams most sections you would want or think of in its shelves: New York, philosophy, literary biography, literature, Judaica, drama, philosophy, erotica, sci-fi, travel essays, young adult, and plenty more. The upstairs level (the stairs themselves lined with VHS tapes and books, enough to constitute a floor - or at least a section - on their own) held a worthwhile collection of rare books and editions, as well as some eclectic pieces such as a french horn hanging above an illustrated edition of Alice in Wonderland (fitting).

 How does Westsider Books fare according to my Outstanding Independent Bookstore criteria?  First, a few caveats: the store obviously had to deal with space issues, so my desire for reading nooks needs to be reevaluated in terms of importance and plausibility.  Also, it’s a used bookstore, so the merchandise is largely dependent on what people trade in and what is available; creative displays are difficult to conceive with a limited supply of copies and an uncertain inventory. Admittedly, the store seems to lack circulation of titles. My return to Westsider, however, proves that it left a positive impression.  Although the tight quarters can make for uncomfortably close browsing when even a few strange patrons are in the store, I like the “hiddenness” of it–the books behind books and the necessity to ascend the ladder to even browse it all.  The dustiness of it fits the quiet, settled quality of the Upper West Side, yet it also breaks the mold in the sense that it lacks polish. It has eccentric decor and bookish quotes, which add charm, as well as selections of records and old movies. But any bookstore whose checkout is overlooked by a stuffed raven named Sheryl gets my vote on quirky character alone.

"It's the books you don't buy that break your heart."  So says Sheryl [Nevermore].

New editions...
The King wants you to buy a postcard.

Perhaps the greatest measure of success for any bookstore is whether or not its customers leave with books.  On both occasions I have made purchases.  My most recent visit left me in possession of a copy of José Saramago’s Blindness, primarily because the inside cover cradles an inscription.  The book was given as a gift to “someone who has led me in my blindness.”  Such personalization and personality are the hallmarks of a solid used bookstore (even if it's still no McKay).


  1. Love it! Shall we return next week?

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