New York City

by T Cooper

City Guides

Online Only, posted 8.22.11

T Cooper is the author of three novels: The Beaufort Diaries (Melville House, 2010), which was recently adapted as an animated short film starring David Duchovny; Lipshitz Six, or Two Angry Blondes (Plume, 2007); and Some of the Parts (Akashic Books, 2002). He is also coeditor of an anthology of short stories, A Fictional History of the United States With Huge Chunks Missing (Akashic Books, 2006). His work has appeared in a variety of publications, including the New Yorker, the New York Times, the Believer, One Story, Electric Literature, and several others. His website is www.t-cooper.com.

I always knew I’d land in New York City—even if I wasn’t one of those “I’m destined to be a writer” types right out of the womb. As a kid I assumed I’d end up waterskiing on the backs of bottle-nosed dolphins for a profession, but I did grow up frequently thinking in terms of stories like a writer—watching people, listening in on conversations, keeping notes in my head, taking pictures, both mental and actual. And gradually—sometime during early college—I started thinking I might make an okay journalist or nonfiction writer, and where better to settle than New York, the city of eight and a half million stories a day, and the center of the English-speaking literary world (still true no matter how massive and immensely popular the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books gets).

Shortly after moving to the Lower East Side (well before there were high-as-a-kite supermodels teetering down the streets there nightly), I attended Columbia University’s MFA program in fiction, having decided that I wanted to put my creative, if not professional, efforts into making shit up. I spent hours a day on the F, 1, and 9 trains, commuting to lowly editorial magazine-publishing jobs at the old Time-Life building in midtown and shuttling back and forth between classes and my sixth floor walk up on Orchard and Stanton streets, where my little dog Murray (RIP) would be waiting with his legs crossed for me to take him down for a quick pee. After which I’d quickly drag him back upstairs, then hop on an uptown train to catch evening classes on campus. On the subway I read Pynchon, Nabokov, Chekhov, Roth, Puig, Borges, Munro, James, Woolf, People magazine. I was doing the only thing to be done in MFA programs, that is, simply, reading everything within reach, and writing my little stories that withered in comparison to the giants’—the ones that made me wonder every hour of every day what made me think I should be able to do something like that. And though I was by all appearances living a “writerly life,” it was years before I answered the question, “What do you do?” with “I’m a writer.” In fact, having come of age and published four books in the overwhelming and intimidating literary landscape of New York City, I still find it hard to produce those words when asked the question. “Bottle-nosed dolphin trainer” sounds more reasonable, especially when conjuring up the hundreds of writers associated with New York City: Whitman, Paley, Capote, Cather, Baldwin, Sontag, Albee, Didion, Styron, Mailer, to name only a few of the hundreds among them.

It is impractical to attempt to offer a comprehensive literary tour of New York City. I can, however, provide a comprehensive tour of my own literary New York—which means it is completely self-absorbed and subjective. See? I am a writer.

Reading Series and Events
Since 1993 KGB Bar (85 East Fourth Street), tucked away on the second floor of an ancient East Village tenement building, has hosted the Sunday Night Fiction reading series. Directed by Suzanne Dottino and founded by Ken Foster, it’s the premier literary fiction reading series in New York. Authors from Colson Whitehead to Jonathan Franzen to Grace Paley to David Foster Wallace—to name a few—have read at the former social club and speakeasy for Ukrainian socialists. During the years before I published a book and was lucky enough to have been asked to read there myself (undeniably one of the “if you can make it there, you’ll make it anywhere” moments of one’s literary career), I can remember many a night spent in the tiny, packed room, downing some vodka-based drink while studying real writers like the aforementioned ones either reading or taking in readings themselves. I particularly recall a few early fall nights, summer still hanging on, with everybody drinking and laughing a little too hard, the giant windows flung open, their curtains flapping against the frames, readers pausing every so often while a garbage truck compacts its giant oozing load, or as a car alarm’s hysteria winds down after a crisp double-chirp. The precise placement of Soviet-era propaganda posters and photos plastered all over the bar are seared into my brain (sit through a handful of thirty-five-minutes-plus readings, and you’ll see why), including one particular poster depicting a handsome man (I still don’t know who it actually is and am not particularly interested in investigating further—a young Stalin? Lenin?). Many a night I recall drifting in and out during readings actually wondering whether it was some Soviet revolutionary, or in fact a Beverly Hills, 90210­–era David Silver/Brian Austin Green (decide for yourself; it’s high up in the northeast corner over the bar). In addition to fiction nights at KGB, there are general poetry, nonfiction, and a variety of other themed readings (lit crawls, lesbian erotica, noir, MFA series showcases, and so forth), practically every night of the week—and, with the exception of those readings billed as fund-raisers, they’re almost always free. Additionally, there have been a few pretty solid anthologies edited by former organizers of the reading series, including Foster and Rebecca Donner, featuring work by various authors who have read at the venue over the years.

Just north of KGB, up Second Avenue, is the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery (131 East Tenth Street), which has, since the sixties, been a leading forum for literary events, mostly of the poetic persuasion. It was the scene of the only joint public reading by Allen Ginsberg and Robert Lowell, and has over the years hosted John Ashbery, Adrienne Rich, Alice Walker, Sam Shepard, Amiri Baraka, Yoko Ono, Anne Carson, Paul Auster, and Jim Carroll, among others. Staffed by local poets, the project offers not only space to read publicly, but also tangible resources and support for poets, writers, and artists, including a giant annual fund-raiser, the New Year’s Day Marathon Reading, which started in 1974 and nowadays brings “over 140 poets together revealing not just that a better life could exist, but that it already does, sexy and wise, rancorous and sweet, big hearted and mad as hell.” I’ve dipped in and out of the marathon on a couple of frigid New Year’s days over the years, and it is indeed a spectacle, so quintessentially downtown New York, and just the right kind of reminder one needs on the first day of the next year of one’s life.

I’ve never been a huge fan of crossing a bridge from Manhattan into another borough for, well, almost anything besides an airport (I’m one of those assholes), but a couple of pretty exceptional events take place in the borough of Brooklyn, which is in and of itself an undeniable force in New York City’s literary arsenal. The Brooklyn Book Festival, held annually in mid-September, has over the course of five short years emerged as one of the preeminent literary events in the country. Pete’s Candy Store (709 Lorimer Street) in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, has hosted a slew of literary heavyweights from Jonathan Ames to Francine Prose to Rick Moody over the years. In the words of former Pete’s reader Sam Lipsyte: “Pete’s Reading Series is top of the heap, though I have yet to encounter any fucking candy.”

Just because you’re a corporate behemoth squeezing the lifeblood out of small independent bookstores everywhere doesn’t mean you don’t have a generous helping of big-hearted, genuine book lovers working for you who curate really good, free public readings—often including local authors published by independent and big publishers alike. The Barnes & Noble on the Upper East Side (150 East Eighty-Sixth Street) and the one in Union Square (33 East Seventeenth Street) reliably have a few noteworthy readings a week between them.

On the indie front, SoHo’s new(ish) McNally Jackson Books (52 Prince Street) hosts a number of top-notch events and features a sleek, serene café and a hearty magazine rack. My favorite events are those specifically devoted to showcasing writers in conversation with their editors. I participated in one of these with the editor of my second novel, Laurie Chittenden, and we delved into areas that we’d never really plumbed while in the thick of the editing process. It’s a conversation nonwriters aren’t often privy to (even some established writers aren’t having conversations like these with their editors these days), and you can bet that some surprising, revealing moments about the process of making books will emerge.

The 92nd Street Y Unterberg Poetry Center (which has two locations: 1395 Lexington Avenue and 200 Hudson Street) is like the Hollywood Boulevard of reading series—more like the Walk of Fame stars segment, less like the Walk of Shame end of the boulevard with its burnouts and crackheads. I mean, freaking W. H. Auden and Kay Ryan and Woody Allen and Joan Didion and Philip Roth have read there! It ain’t particularly cheap (tickets for the Main Reading Series range from ten dollars for those thirty-five and under to twenty-seven dollars for everyone else), and you often need to reserve tickets in advance. But it’s a venerable nonprofit New York institution steeped in history that gives literary rock stars (Steve Martin not withstanding)—who don't need to hawk their hardcovers alongside Snooki and The Situation at a local strip mall’s Books-A-Million—a dignified place to read.

Back in Brooklyn, BookCourt (163 Court Street) and Greenlight Bookstore (686 Fulton Street) are excellent showplaces for both local authors and those visiting New York on tour with new books. Greenlight hosts a mean book party (with DJs!) in addition to periodic all-star evenings featuring appearances by authors from the stable of one of the best publishers on the planet, Akashic Books (also based in Brooklyn). Another indie located in the borough, Melville House Publishing (145 Plymouth Street), actually has a storefront bookstore on the same premises of its publishing offices, which hosts a unique selection of books and readings by both Melville authors and those from other local indie houses like Akashic, Seven Stories Press, Soft Skull Press, PowerHouse Books, Ugly Duckling Presse, and others.

(Note: The best guide to readings and book parties around all five boroughs can be found in the Books section of Time Out New York magazine, available on any newsstand around town, down on the subway platform, and, sure, it’s available online, but why not nut up and support print journalism by purchasing an actual hard copy to stick in your back pocket for the week?)

Bookstores
My favorite bookstore in New York has got to be St. Mark’s Bookshop (31 Third Avenue). Founded in the seventies, it’s a de facto community center for writers, not to mention a trusty destination to hit after going out for dinner or drinks or music or what have you on the Lower East Side or East Village. Immediately to your left upon entering the store, you’ll find two full shelves devoted to new or otherwise intriguing paperbacks. And a little farther in, down on the left, across from a stool that’s cradled my ass on many a weekend night straight through the midnight closing hour, is the hardcover fiction new release shelf. I don’t get too wrapped up in reviews and other milestones surrounding the release of a new book, but I will admit that when I saw my second novel both in the window and alphabetically situated on the new hardcover fiction shelf, I felt a moment of, Wow, I’ve arrived; it’s embarrassing to admit it now (lord knows I was wrong) but since I’ve seen other established authors clearly thinking the same thing—signing copies and striking up awkward conversation with the random customer who happens to pick up a copy of their book—hopefully I don’t sound like too much of a creep saying it. St. Marks is a smart, living, breathing world of books that’s somehow managed to keep its doors open for thirty-five years. On top of that, they’ve recently—finally—started to host events at the store too. And they showcase one of the most thorough selections of literary magazines and journals anywhere, from the tiniest hand-printed limited edition consignment zines to big guns like McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, One Story, Granta, and the Paris Review. And the staff curates a serious art book collection, too.

Tied with St. Marks for the best late-night literary destination in New York is, of course, Strand Book Store (828 Broadway), hands down my favorite used-book store in the country, much less the city. Though I don’t know why it made me so happy to find stacks of my books there on sale even before their release dates; it really shouldn’t bring such joy, since it meant some reviewer made a buck off of my baby instead of giving it the love and attention it deserved. But likely half of the books on my shelves come from the Strand, and it is a true place of wonder—a literary amusement park on par with Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon. The newly renovated store just south of Union Square boasts an elevator, two functional restrooms (in lieu of the old one which had no less than an inch of urine on the floor at any given time), and a whole floor dedicated to a world-class rare books collection. Okay, a confession: Having worked glossy magazine-publishing jobs over the years, I did, usually on Fridays, troll the hallways of magazines like People, Time, Sports Illustrated, and Entertainment Weekly, and collect tons of review copies that the editors had placed in the “free areas,” and then turn a few bucks by selling those new books for credit (or cash, depending on the week) at the Strand. That glut of unauthorized bios about the Backstreet Boys on the shelves? You know who to blame.

Bluestockings (172 Allen Street), bookstore, café, and activist center started out in 1999, improbably, as a collective women’s bookstore (men allowed!), just before gentrification really took hold on the Lower East Side. I volunteered as events coordinator there for about a year just after completing my MFA class work. In those early months and years, Bluestockings (then a woefully under air-conditioned one-room space with everything, even the paint on the walls, having been donated) used to pack it in, audiences spilling out onto the sidewalk for events featuring folks like Miranda July, Gloria Steinem, June Jordan, Amy Ray, Elizabeth Wurtzel, Barbara Kingsolver, Le Tigre, and many more. It’s still a decidedly feminist space now, just not with an exclusive focus on women’s titles, and it’s still run by a functional collective, one of the few remaining in this country. Having expanded into a fortune teller’s former storefront next door, Bluestockings 2.0 offers a one-of-a-kind, diverse selection of books alongside a fair-trade organic café, plus an eclectic array of popular events, from Women’s/Transgender open-mike poetry jams, movie premieres, book parties, standard-fare literary readings, live music, and even a “dyke knitting circle”—plus a workshop on “Finding G and P spots” (the latter, I’m hoping, stands for “prostate”).

Housing Works (126 Crosby Street) is the bookstore/café arm of a vital New York City nonprofit that emerged in 1990 to address the twin crises of AIDS and homelessness. The bookstore’s stock of new and used books and music is donated, the staff comprises volunteers, and all proceeds support the efforts of the mothership, which is the largest community-based AIDS organization in the United States. Housing Works also hosts book- and music-related events—parties go on there year-round—and it’s a quiet, refreshing oasis when you’re stuck among the shopping hoards of SoHo and need to remember what a book feels like in your hand.

Some other book institutions (or institutions in the making) not to be overlooked: 192 Books (192 Tenth Avenue) in Chelsea, Shakespeare & Co. (716 Broadway in Greenwich Village, 137 East Twenty-Third Street in Gramercy, 939 Lexington Avenue on the Upper East Side, and 150 Campus Road in Brooklyn), Posman Books (the Grand Central Station and Chelsea Market locations), and East Village Books & Records (99 Saint Mark’s Place), which features a scruffy but excellent, quirky used selection, a prodigious two-dollar book rack, and late hours. (Another happy personal moment occurred when I spotted a dog-eared copy of my first novel sitting comfortably on East Village Book’s "Anti-This-Establishment" shelf.)

Places to Write and Spot Other Writers
Since it opened in 2005, I’ve tried to schedule most if not all of my meetings/lunches/coffee dates at Mud (307 East Ninth Street), aka “the office.” I put the place in my most recent novel; the polar bear hero, a recovering addict named Beaufort, gets both sober and his life back on track when he lands a job slinging coffee on the Mud Truck, which is the bright-orange mobile version of the bricks and mortar restaurant/coffee shop. It has the best coffee beans around and is a great spot to plug in a laptop (during off-dining hours). I know many downtown writers are as fond of it as I am. Of course, I take credit for introducing many of them to the place. Before Mud, the perennial hangout was the old-school Ukrainian East Village restaurant Veselka (144 Second Avenue), directly across the street, which some writer, I can’t remember who, introduced me to when I first moved to the neighborhood in the mid-1990s. Veselka’s been given a major overhaul from its old dingy dark days, but it’s still open twenty-four hours and has the best boiled potato pirogies in town. And you can sit there for hours with nothing but a $1.50 cup of tea in front of you.

I’ve never been one to write in cafés and restaurants, but there are some places that seem especially writer-friendly where I like to read or bring a manuscript to edit if I’m feeling like getting out of the house. 88 Orchard (not surprisingly at 88 Orchard Street) on the Lower East Side sometimes seems like it might be a showroom for Apple laptop computers. But it has free wireless, good coffee, and all locally supplied baked goods, plus breakfast and lunch. Since I prefer vegan and gluten-free baked goods, I like to stop across the street at Babycakes (248 Broome Street), where I’ll pick up brownie bites, donuts, or banana bread to take back over to 88 to enjoy with a giant iced soy latte while I’m working. And rounding out a trifecta on this block is the Lower East Side Tenement Museum (108 Orchard Street), which prides itself on supporting the literary community, with a heavy-on-the-historical bookstore in its gift shop, and the author-based Tenement Talks series held several nights a month. A few years back, I read at the store with novelist Dara Horn to launch the Young Writers Write the Immigrant Experience series, while other authors I’ve seen there include Emily Barton, Gary Shteyngart, and Richard Price. I used the Tenement museum for researching my second novel, since part of the book is set in the early 1900s, right up the block; I snagged some pretty specific details (smudged squares of newspaper for toilet paper and a bucolic scene painted on burlap in the vestibule) from the museum’s tenement tour for descriptions in my book.

One of the nicest strings of blocks in Manhattan happens to be one on which I was lucky enough to settle several years ago, East Seventh Street in the East Village. I can’t imagine my wife and I ever giving up our apartment there. In addition to being one of the nicest streets in Manhattan, East Seventh also happens to be one of the most literary, having been home to an impressive sample of writers, such as Heather Lewis, Catherine Texier, Jim Lewis, Bruce Benderson, Ken Foster, Lucy Greely, Ellen Miller, Ann Rower, John Leguizamo, Daniel Pinchbeck, Jennifer Levin, Paul LaFarge, Gregory Corso, and William S. Burroughs. Allen Ginsberg’s first New York City apartment was at 206 East Seventh Street, and other buildings he occupied over the years are at 437 East Twelfth Street, 408 East Tenth Street, and 704 East Fifth Street (I think this latter one had a plaque on it at one time or another). In the spirit of Ginsberg, the annual HOWL! Festival is held in June in Tompkins Square Park (offering the best dog park and free public wireless, it’s bordered by East Seventh Street on the south, East Tenth on the north, and Avenues A and B on either side). Many events vaguely in the spirit of Ginsberg’s infamous work “Howl” take place over a weekend in and around the park, and there’s always a group reading of the poem to kick off the festival.

The East Village also happens to be prime hunting ground for creepy writer-stalkers, so if you’re into that sort of thing, hang around for a spell and you just might see, say, rock-star poet Eileen Myles striding down First Avenue in a new, old pair of jeans she just scored at one of the excellent second-hand designer shops in the hood (like Tokio 7 at 83 East Seventh Street), or novelist/playwright/critic Sarah Schulman toting a bag of laundry down from her fifth floor walk-up tenement. Or novelist Arthur Nersesian standing there line editing the stained and frayed manuscript of his new novel atop the U.S. mailbox on the northwest corner of East Sixth Street and First Avenue. (I’ve personally seen all this and more.)

Because I Care
The Brooklyn Superhero Supply Co. (372 Fifth Avenue in Brooklyn) is the storefront to 826NYC, one of eight righteous writing lab and tutoring centers that make up 826 National, the literary nonprofit founded by author Dave Eggers dedicated to supporting students’ creative and expository writing skills and helping teachers inspire their students to write. The Superhero Supply Co. offers everything a superhero at any stage of development might need, including capes, tights, and secret-identity kits. You can also pick up the latest issue of the Believer magazine, a Wholphin DVD, any of the latest McSweeney’s Books titles, or one of the many publications featuring work by 826NYC students. (The free, drop-in tutoring center is housed behind the storefront; all profits from the store support the organization’s efforts.)

For a semester I was a writer-in-residence at the Bronx Academy of Letters, a public school founded in 2003 as a place where reading and writing form the basis for every aspect of education (yes, even math and science). The school was founded on the belief that students who can express themselves in writing will do better in any path they choose in life, and just a few years out, the grades six through twelve public school was included on U.S. News & World Report’s “Nation’s Best High Schools” list. If you care about the cultivation of important new literary voices, consider making a gift to this worthy institution (tax-deductible), or attending one of its few literary benefits thrown each year.

Another organization that believes everything improves through the telling of stories is New York Writers Coalition (80 Hanson Place, #603, Brooklyn). One of the largest community writing programs in the country, the coalition offers free workshops to those who have historically been deprived of a voice, including at-risk youth, incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals, the homeless and formerly homeless, individuals with disabilities or major illness, and the elderly. In support of their mission, the coalition offers several events, fund-raisers, and parties attended by New York literary luminaries who support the efforts of the organization. A favorite is the annual Write-A-Thon, when everybody is asked to “Write your A** Off” during a full day’s activities at the New York Center for Independent Publishing (in the library of the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen building at 20 West Forty-Fourth Street).

The annual (very fun) Small Press Book Fair also takes place at the New York Center for Independent Publishing, which is incidentally, right across the street from the Algonquin Hotel (59 West Forty-Fourth), site of the famous Algonquin round table where a “vicious circle” of authors, journalists, critics, agents, actors, and editors like Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, Harpo Marx, Harold Ross, George Kaufman, and Alexander Woollcott met daily beginning in 1919. Might as well top off the tour with a couple dry martinis at the quintessential literary New York locale, the Oak Room at the Algonquin. I haven’t tried it myself, but rumor is, if you’re an author in town on tour with a new book, you can get a free night in the hotel in exchange for a signed first edition. And if that’s not an inspiration to finish your manuscript, I don’t know what is.

Credit: Nina Goffi