A Book Lover’s Guide to Literary New York

literary new york

No matter where I travel around the world, no city can begin to compare with New York.

Manhattan is magnificent, a dream destination for just about anyone on the planet. The city that never sleeps is constantly humming with life and energy, with an endless list of things to do, see, and eat; you could live there for a year and never experience everything. That being said, planning a trip to this urban jungle can be daunting, to say the least. Where to begin?

If you don’t want to get completely overwhelmed by the bright neon lights and hustle and bustle of the big city, it’s a good idea to tackle New York with a plan, or better yet a theme. And you’d be hard pressed to find a better theme than books, am I right or am I right?

literary new york

While New York is many things, I’ve never really considered it a “literary” city, compared with the likes of Oxford or Paris. Boy was I wrong!

Bibliophiles rejoice! The gaping dearth of online information about the bookish side of Manhattan has now been filled by yours truly. For those of you who have a deep, insatiable passion for the written word, for those who buy books faster than they can finish them, for those who get book hangovers after finishing a great story, look no further. This article is dedicated to you.

Here are my 5 picks for the best literary spots in New York City!

Are you a book lover? Have you been to any of these places? What’s your favorite book spot around the world?

literary new york

1. The Library Hotel

As soon as I learned that there was a book-themed hotel in New York, not only did I make it my mission to visit, but also to find a way to check in and never leave. The Library Hotel calls a beautiful, tall and narrow brick building home, nestled in between the New York Public Library and Grand Central in midtown Manhattan. Harkening back to what must have been “Old New York,” its style is very much tradition meets innovation.

The rooms are inspired by the Dewey Decimal System, with each of the 10 floors corresponding to the categories of the Dew Decimal System; each room features a unique topic within those categories and features books and art to go along with it. You can imagine my happiness when I was placed in the Geography and Travel room. Perfect.

literary new york

literary new york

With more than 6,000 books to chose from, provided by the Strand bookstore, I was in heaven. Lounging in a big chair in my room across from a beautiful antique map, I curled up with one of the books from my room and read while watching the yellow taxis zoom by outside. My room was filled with little literary quirks hidden here and there, from pillow chocolates with famous quotes to a boyfriend pillow embroidered with “Book lovers never go to bed alone” – perfect for the perpetual solo female traveler!

After my long flight to the US from Jordan, walking into my room was a welcome respite from a full day of travel. Very confused about the time difference, after a much-needed hot shower, I decided to do some exploring. Like most great libraries, the Library Hotel possesses a fabulous reading room, overlooking Madison Ave and Library Way. With a unique touch, they serve wine and cheese every afternoon to guests, something I think more libraries should try to incorporate around the world – it would certainly encourage more people to read, right? Winding down with a glass of red and a good book, I was in literary heaven. What a welcome!

Would you like to stay at the Library Hotel?

literary new york

literary new york

2. The New York Public Library

As soon as you walk outside the lobby of the Library Hotel, you begin to notice that the pavement along East 41st street that runs 2 blocks down to the New York Public Library has its own tale to tell. Inset in the sidewalk are bronze plaques every few feet, each depicting a famous literary quote and illustration, earning this stretch of street the nickname “Library Way.” Following these metallic breadcrumbs, I made my way to the infamous New York Public Library, where I had never actually been before.

Recognizable to many girls as the place where Carrie was supposed to marry Big in Sex in the City, the NYPL is the third biggest library in the world. As I stepped inside the lobby for the very first time, I knew this would be a visit to remember. Overwhelmed by the grandiose architecture, I made my way up the giant staircases towards the well-known Rose Reading Room, where I was greeted by a surly docent and a small display case containing a Gutenberg Bible (first printed book in the west, very rare, only 48 copies survive).

As I wandered along the rows of beautiful wood desks in the reading room, I tried to soak it all in. Running my fingers along a collection of books, I picked one up and flipped it open. As many of you I’m sure can relate, I closed my eyes and lifted the open book to my nose, taking in a deep breath as if I were sniffing a glass of vintage red wine and not some dusty tome about medieval Europe. As I opened my eyes, I caught the gloomy docent staring at me. How embarrassing! Making eye contact, she nodded, and continued walking. Appearances can be deceiving – nice to know I’m not alone in my affinity for “old book smell.”

Have you ever been to this iconic New York City spot?

literary new york

literary new york

literary new york

3. The Strand Bookstore

As someone who used to frequent NYC a lot, whenever I was in town, I tried to make a stop to make favorite bookstore in quite possibly in the entire world, the Strand. An enormous independent bookstore in the East Village opened in 1927, I can literally spend hours and hours wandering among the towering aisles of new, used and rare books. With the tagline “18 miles of books,” for book lovers, it’s almost a right of passage coming to New York; you can’t come here and miss the Strand if you’re a big reader.

I have great memories ducking inside during summer thunderstorms and picking up some of my favorite relaxing reads, like Game of Thrones. The Strand is living proof that real books are still thriving and going strong in the war against e-books. To keep my memory of the Strand with me wherever I go, I always travel with one of their famous little tote bags, the perfect fit for my laptop and a hardcover, just what a girl like me needs when traveling around the world.

Have you ever heard of the Strand?

literary new york

literary new york

4. The Morgan Library and Museum

Every time I am in New York, I try to make it my mission to visit the Pierpont Morgan Library, one of my favorite libraries. Founded as the private library of industrial tycoon J.P. Morgan, upon his death it was turned into a museum for the public. Talk about a gesture of good faith. Nowadays you can explore his collection and studies, and also check out the great exhibits. I was lucky enough to catch a very interesting one about Edgar Degas and the 19th century Parisian circus.

While New York might be a “young” city compared to the great European universities and capitals, this library has no shortage of extremely rare books, manuscripts and works of art. If you have any interest in art, history or literature, this is the place to be. Possessing not one, but three Gutenberg Bibles, the library also has an incredible collection of illuminated manuscripts, Old Master sketches, original manuscripts of works by Charles Dickens and Lord Byron, among many others, the library even houses the scrap of paper on which Bob Dylan penned “Blowin’ in the wind.”

Even though this museum is small compared to some of the other greats in Manhattan, I can spend hours and hours wandering around here, gazing at the historic volumes lining the walls, and exploring all the different rooms. I can’t wait for the day when I can return as a famous historian and researcher, and get to touch these precious tomes myself. One can dream right?

 Would you like to visit the Morgan? 

literary new york

literary new york

 Source: Beyond My Ken

literary new york

5. Housing Works Bookstore Cafe

Once again, thanks are due to the marvelous C’est Christine for tipping me off about Housing Works Bookstore Cafe, which has now grown to be one of my new favorite spots in the city. One of my favorite leisure activities are relaxing in cafe-bookshops, where I can go drink good coffee and read or write for hours on end. Downton in Soho, with beautiful open spaces with high ceilings, spiral staircases and beautiful balconies, Housing Works is a book lovers paradise. It’s no surprise that this place is a popular spot for weddings and events; even my girl-crush Anne Hathaway had her engagement party here!

What makes Housing Works unique from so many other bookstores and cafes in Manhattan is that it is a nonprofit charity bookshop and cafe that is run entirely by volunteers and all the books for sale have been donated. All proceeds go towards benefiting homeless people living with HIV/AIDS.

Housing Works is a healing community of people living with and affected by HIV/AIDS. Our mission is to end the dual crises of homelessness and AIDS through relentless advocacy, the provision of lifesaving services, and entrepreneurial businesses that sustain our efforts.

A bookshop with a mission; now that’s something I can get behind.

literary new york

literary new york

The afternoon I spent hanging out at the Housing Works Bookstore was probably my favorite of my time in New York. Getting to know the place, after I finished a few chapters of my book and my iced latte, I was able to get a little tour of the space. I had no idea what a big project Housing Works really was!

Exploring several floors below, where donated books are stored and sorted, along with meeting a handful of the hundreds of volunteers who dedicate their time to Housing Works, my faith in people was restored, if it ever was in question. Nothing put a smile on my face like seeing thousands and thousands of books donated by people to this bookstore, not to mention the fact that in this day in age that so many people care about the mission and books, that they willing dedicate several hours a week to helping out. In fact, so many people want to be a part of Housing Works, that you really have to commit in order to become a volunteer.

Housing Works is a huge operation run by people who truly care about making a difference in the community, not to mention people who love books. It was a great experience, and I know if called New York home, I would be in here all the time.

Would you like to visit Housing Works? Have you ever gone to a similar bookstore?

literary new york

literary new york

The specifics:

A. New York Public Library – 455 5th Ave and E. 41st Street
B. The Library Hotel – 299 Madison Ave and E. 41st Street
C. The Morgan Library and Museum – 29 E 36th Street and Madison Ave
D. The Strand – 828 Broadway and E. 12th Street
E. Housing Works Bookstore and Cafe – 126 Crosby St and E. Houston Street

literary new york

literary new york

Library Way

literary new york

The Library Hotel

literary new york

literary new york

Housing Works

literary new york

The Library Hotel

literary new york

The Strand

literary new york

The Morgan Library

literary new york

The Library Hotel

literary new york

The Rose Reading Room at the NYPL, Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0

literary new york

All the rooms at the Library Hotel, organized by the Dewey Decimal System

literary new york

Many thanks to the Library Hotel for hosting my stay in New York. Like always, all opinions are my own, like you’d expect anything less from me!

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48 Comments on “A Book Lover’s Guide to Literary New York

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  1. Your anecdote about getting caught smelling an old book—and it not being a big deal—was one of my favorite things I’ve read this month 🙂 Also, I really liked that you took a focused yet unique angle on this most-visited of cities. Nerds unite!!!! 😀

  2. I’ve been wanting to go to New York for years now, but this post has brought me closer to buying a ticket than anything else! I really loved this, Liz! And — if there were an “old book smell”-perfume, I’d be the first to buy it!

  3. In the age of the e-book and all things digital it is great to see that we still have some amazing repositories dedicated to the good old book. You can’t beat the joy of just trawling shelves exploring the wonders that are there or the simple pleasure of just curling up with a good book…plus it keeps me in a job which is always helpful. Will need to try the Libray Hotel if we ever make it to NY.

  4. What!! I grew up an hour outside of New York and have never even heard of the Library Hotel – so cool!! I love Strand and the NY Public Library. Bryant Park in the library’s “backyard” is probably my favorite spot in the city, especially for reading. I actually did all of my GRE studying there… not so fun, but it’s still a nice spot 🙂

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