UPDATED (changed info on McNally Robinson)
This list is in order of personal preference. For more information on limitations to the selection, see below.
Gotham Book Mart
16 East 46th Street (btwn 5th/Madison)
Simply the best bookstore in the city. Personal service, a rich history and a deep collection of serious literature. Both new and used books, including classics, poetry (probably the best in the city), many author-specific collections. The ultimate in browsing, even if the location is too midtowney to suggest from the outside that it has character. Gotham used to be the only place you needed to go to find literary journals. Since their recent move one block away - but seemingly a million miles from their old location - their journal collection has thinned. Hopefully that will change as they get settled in. See my previous article on Gotham for more information.
Three Lives & Company
154 West 10th Street (at Waverly Place)
Named in part for a Gertrude Stein book, Three Lives is a bookstore's bookstore. It really is a perfectly beautiful store. The owner has excellent taste and you can always find something interesting and new from some small presses as well as the majors. There are no used books here, so don't go looking for any bargains. Most but not all of the books at Three Lives are trade paperbacks. The poetry section is smallish, but there is a travel section, a New York section, staff picks and a selection of books on writing. The store hosts readings by popular authors, information about which you can find on their web-site. (p.s. Don't go to Three Lives without stopping by Joe, The Art of Coffee, for a near perfect ristretto espresso. Joe is around the block at the corner of Waverly and Gay.)
Mercer Street Books
206 Mercer St. (at Bleeker)
This is one of my favorite used bookstores. They have a solid selection of fiction in hard and paper-back, literary criticism, classics and poetry. It's proximity to New York University is probably responsible for its good selection of criticism and other serious stuff; be sure to check out the recent arrivals table. They also have a selection of old literary journals, which are fun (if such things fit your idea of fun) to pick through randomly.
50 Prince St. (between Lafayette and Mulberry)
McNally Robinson is related to but independent of the Canadian company of the same name. It's great to see new bookstores opening and McNally Robinson appeared just last December in neighborhood nowadays called Nolita. They have pretty a active event calendar and a “tea house.” They have a small selection of literary journals, and a decent emphasis on good literature for a general bookstore. In fact, they have a “local poets” section set aside (of course this is New York City, so that could, practically speaking, be quite large, but it isn't. They also arrange their fiction into regions, which is unique and welcome. The selection is not huge, but appears to be thoughtful.
Update: I had previously reported that McNally Robinson had shrunk their literary selection, but after speaking to the folks there, I am assured that the space has grown, so I've retracted my earlier comment.
From Mcnally Robinson's buyer: “...the shelf space devoted to Lit has only grown since we opened...Literature happens to be squeezed into a physically tighter area in the more valuable upstairs real estate, but there are more books on the shelf than before. Initially I didn't believe it either. Then I got a tape measure out. Interesting how we humans perceive space.”
St. Marks Bookshop
31 Third Ave. (at E. 9th)
Fairly mainstream bookstore, but St. Marks does have a good selection of literature/culture and art books that to some degree reflect the neighborhood. Probably the second best place, behind Gotham, for literary journals. The poetry and fiction sections are by no means comprehensive, but well chosen. There are no used books here. (p.s. If you go to St. Marks, you must stop by the Mud truck at the Astor Place subway for one of the best cups of coffee in the city.)
Housing Works Used Book Cafe
126 Crosby Street (at Houston)
The UBC is a great store for browsing and finding bargains. You can find a book and relax in the cafe. The environment is warm, the building is classic and there's a pretty wide selection of literature, always very cheap. Also, your money is well spent here, because 100% of the profits go to Housing Works, a non-profit organization that provides housing, healthcare, job training, advocacy and many other services for homeless New Yorkers living with HIV and Aids. That alone is worth doing some shopping there. They are having a sale this weekend (Jan 8/9) too, when everything is 30% off.
The Strand Annex
95 Fulton Street (3 blocks east of Broadway)
The Annex is much better for browsing than its parent. A fairly deep used fiction selection (a lot of hardbacks) and much more space between the shelves to maneuver (the main Strand store can get very cramped and crowded).
536 West 112th Street (btwn. Brdwy/Amsterdam Ave.)
Described as a store of scholarly, literary & cultural books, Labyrinth serves the Columbia U. smarties. This bookstore has an amazing literature collection, including poetry, but major authors only. You will sometimes find what you are looking for discounted 25%, but don't count on it. The real bargains are at the sale annex, which is only on-line, but where the prices tend to hover around $5-6. Some of the books from the annex, however, do find their way to Labyrinth's staircase even though that inventory doesn't seem to change much.
828 Broadway (at 12th St.)
18 Miles of Books. Overated, but probably the best place to sell your used books. Great for browsing and with enough effort you may find some bargains, but there are tons of (only) slightly discounted books. The Strand does have one specialty that is unparalleled as far as I know and that is their reviewer's copy section, tucked away in the basement. These are all new and recently published books at 1/2 off of their original price. Don't expect to find anything hot there though.
The Strand also has a kiosk at 5th Ave and 60th for a quick fix on your way to Cipriani's for a $19 glass of scotch.
12th St. Books
11 East 12th St.
A smallish all used bookstore with a mixture of hard and paper-backs and a variety of subjects. Never a first stop, but worth a drop by if you're at the Strand (which is close by).
Ivy Books/Murder Ink
2488 Broadway (btwn W. 92nd/W. 93rd)
Murder Ink claims to carry every mystery book in print and I think that speaks for itself. Next door, Ivy carries a mixture of new and used literature. It's a small, quaint, homey shop (I think it was in the Visa ad with Kevin Bacon) that is always worth a stop.
400 Bleecker St. (at 11th St)
The best thing about BB is its location on a picturesque street in the village and the sale table outside. It seems that I always find a bargain there.
192 Tenth Avenue (at 21st St)
Okay, so the name is not too creative, but it's a pleasant stop with a small but well chosen selection of literature and non-fiction and an art space. There are bargains to be had on a small cart toward the front, but most of the inventory consists of new paperbacks. The bookstore serves at the pleasure of its owners who also own an art gallery nearby, choose the books and set up the impressive readings the store hosts.
Lenox Hill Bookstore
1018 Lexington Avenue (btwn. 72nd/73rd)
Yeah, so it's on the Upper East Side. It's still a nice bookstore. Very Pleasant with a selection of the latest editions in literature and general non-fiction. Pretty mainstream stuff for the most part, but they have started their own “Chapbook Series” publishing and a “First Editions Club” if that's your sort of thing. I consider myself a reader, not a collector, but I do like to see bookshop owners venturing out and doing interesting things.
Shakespeare & Co.
939 Lexington Ave. (at 69th)
137 E. 23rd St. (at Lexington)
716 Broadway (at Washington Pl.)
There are more Shake & Co. locations than I've listed. The one on broadway tends to have somewhat subversive collection, but otherwise all of the stores are fairly mainstream. Some sell textbooks, most sell magazines, but light on the journals.
21 E 90th St
212 289 2345
Ah, another Upper East Sider. Whenever I brush off my passport to go to that side of town I try to stop by Crawford Doyle. It's small and sells mostly new paperbacks and general non-fiction, but they do have an interesting collection of rare books to look at. It's always fun for an occasional browse.
11 West 42nd St. (Btwn 5th/6th Ave across from Bryant Park)
Coliseum is overrated. They seem to be trying to be all things to all people. Now they have a cafe and a not terribly helpful staff. The selection is spotty (my impression is that it was better before they moved to their new location) and doesn't seem to be too serious anywhere. i.e. I never find myself saying...“I'm looking for X book, maybe I should stop at Coliseum first.”
9 Grand Central Terminal (Vanderbilt & 42nd Street)
Posman used to be a good bookstore. They used to be right next to NYU and carried textbooks and an interesting selection of some serious stuff that you might not find elsewhere. Now they are very general, they sell a lot of paperbacks and serve GCT commuters, not book lovers.
55 East 52nd St. (In the arcade of the Park Avenue Plaza building between Park & Madison Avenues)
This store is dedicated to books by and about Winston Churchill. Much of their inventory is on-line, but the smallish store is pleasant and quiet with a small collection of literature and things like military books or foreign affairs, mostly in hardbound.
Westsider Used & Rare
2246 Broadway (at 80th)
There are quite a few opportunities to buy used books around the Upper West Side. There are a lot of books being sold on tables on the street and there are little bookstores tucked away where you wouldn't know they are there, such as Gryphon Bookshop. One of them (the name escapes me) finally gave up and closed its dusty doors, but there are still others fighting the good fight. Westsider is one of them. Books stacked to its very tall ceiling (it has a loft, so the main floor is two stories), it's a fun place to pop into once in a while. As with most used bookstores, you never know what you will find. Unfortunately, the fiction section seems to be all paperbacks, which are not appealing to me because they've already used a good part of their limited life.
This list is not meant to be a comprehensive list of stores. Here are my biases:
First, these are only Manhattan shops, where, for the moment, I hang my hat and therefore buy my books. There are great bookstores that I know about in Brooklyn and upstate New York and the Berkshires, but then things start to get out of hand.
This list is mostly concerned with literature and not special interests. In NYC there are bookstores that sell nothing but cookbooks, there are gay bookstores like the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookstore, there are travel bookstores, like the Complete Traveller (with an amazing used and rare travel book collection), stores that specialize in rare collectible books like Bauman's or Argosy, children's bookstores like Books of Wonder, art bookstores, and so on. Again, things would get out of hand if I were to try and write about all of them, and literature is my only interest in terms of the pastime of browsing for and buying books. I've also only listed independent stores here because no one needs me to tell them about Barnes & Noble (although they do have a good annex on 18th st, their original store I think, where they have text books and such).
My last bias is that I really really like to find cheap used hardcover books; they last longer and tend not to have reader annotations (which I avidly add myself). I buy fiction, criticism and poetry. These stores are the places I go to find those things. If you know of a place worth checking out, I'd love to hear about it.
Read widely, think well, and write often