A cultural epicenter lit in neon, New York City’s landscape of skyscrapers impresses me. Last month, I immersed myself in this cement, steel and brick study of world geography. New York City (NYC) is a city steeped in foreign languages, dotted with unique eateries and populated by avid readers. Historically a hub of writers, critics and the literati, New York City is home to The New Yorker, Scholastic Books and the New York Times.
However, I was still surprised when my cabbie read the newspaper while accelerating through yellow lights. I saw a number of people on the subway reading newspapers and paperbacks. I even saw diners, sitting alone, tucked in the corners of restaurants with a plate of food and an eReader. To my delight, I realized the city was still a veritable playground of bookstores and literary havens.
Beekman Bar and Books is one of three bars in the NYC area whose shelves display literature as well as liquor bottles. Billed as a refreshing and civilized meeting place in NYC and the Czech Republic, Bar and Books is also a cigar club. The Beekman location is best for true bookaphiles because smoking is not permitted indoors (the other two locations are the last in-door smoking relics within Bloomberg’s purview.)
Obscure medical texts, out-of-print encyclopedias and anatomy texts crammed the bookcase-lined walls. Classics like Little Women and works by George Elliot are couched next to Cisernos.
The books, my blonde and Polish-accented waitress said, were not for sale, nor could one take them outside of the bar. The worn spines were mere decorations for the many who were imbibing. For this bookworm, however, a cup of coffee, a slice of cheesecake and a few chapters of Little Women were the perfect compliment to a February evening.
Currently, the Punchdrunk Theatre Company also provides literary nightlife. A theater troupe from London, their interpretation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth is an immersive, macabre dreamscape.
Entering the McKittrick Hotel in Chelsea was disorienting. The warehouse facade faded into a dark, narrow hallway that groaned under our feet. When we stepped into an art-deco piano bar, a glittering dame with a smoky voice on stage, reality fell away. Waitstaff sporting 1930′s garb served beverages. Sultry women, with red lips and strands of pearls, complimented men dressed in dapper, penguinesque tuxes. A few cocktails later, audience members were split into groups. A charismatic bellhop handed out white Venetian masks and gave instructions.
“Things are not what they seem.”
“The more you explore the more you will be rewarded.”
The bellhop’s smile twisted at the corners as he ushered us, masked and silent, into an elevator. His gloved hands urged us out in small clumps on each floor. The final group stepped off on the sixth floor and wove their way back down.
We stumbled through each elaborately decorated room — a hospital ward, a saloon, a cemetery and a witch’s lair. We dug through drawers, examined letters and autopsy reports. A copy of Tender is the Night lying open on a table caught my attention. We were specters drifting through this netherworld, discovering secret doorways and passages.
Actors moved through the rooms as well, dancing and miming conversations with passion and skill. Scenes ended and actors ran from the room. Purposeless specters no more, theatergoers stampeded after the actors. We chased the plot along hallways and up or down the stairs.
After Lady Macbeth succumbed to insanity and Macbeth met his untimely end, we gathered in the piano-bar once more. Adrenaline still coursed through the audience — a presence as heady as the licorice-colored beakers of “absinthe” handed across the bar. This was a literary experience like no other and one I will never forget.
Daylight hours also offered a plethora of activities for a crazy-book lady like myself. We discovered the Center for Book Art (CBA) in Chelsea, a gallery/studio/bookstore housed in an innocuous tan-brick building on West 27th Street.
CBA opened in 1974, making it the first organization in the country dedicated to preserving the traditional art of book making and exploring the book as a contemporary art form. Exhibitions, classes and literary presentations connect CBA to the wider worlds of art and literature.
The first that struck me as we walked out of the elevator was the light. Winter sun, feeble as over-watered watercolor, still poured through the windows and along the walls. The windows opened onto the brick siding of other buildings, light bouncing between them before landing on the old wooden floor. This felt like an artist’s space, a place to write and dream.
Pamphlets describing the center and featuring artists and class schedules covered the reception desk. Two glass cases housed books, easily accessible through the partially open doors. I perused the artist’s books, poetry chapbooks and broadsides shelved among small-press fiction and non-fiction. I even stumbled across The Sexy Librarian, by Julia Weist.
Cubicle-like walls decorated in Easter hues formed a miniature art museum in the center of the space. Equipment and tables vied for leg-room in the outer perimeter. Of all the exhibitions I was particularly struck by the art of Candace Hicks.
In an exhibition called “Fabrications,” open from January 18 to March 30, 2013, Hick’s expresses her love of literature by hand-sewing books, an art form she calls “Common Threads.” “Fabrications” displays two collections — Compositions, a new series of prints— and String Theory, a three volume, hand-sewn book. Her humorous and philosophical writing, hand sewn in better cursive than I render with a pen, blew me away.
We walked past the florist shop three times in our search for 51 W 28th Street. I jostled and dodged, willing the glass panes of Bloomsbury to appear. Of course, Bloomsbury Books is not located in New York , but I was looking forward to a light-filled, coffee-scented book shop like ours. I craved friendly, if not familiar, human faces and my faithful book friends.
Instead, I kept passing a kohl-sided building, the windows rimmed like the eyes of billboard models. Mahir Floral and Event Design was displayed in chrome lettering across the awning. This was the place — a modern floral gallery that could pass as a tattoo parlor or night club.
We stepped inside, shuffling, scanning the walls and sniffing the air. The floor looked like the night’s sky with every star extinguished. The walls opposed each other — black and white — the clash only highlighting the floral displays in lit glass cases. A man with forearms like Popeye stood at the back of the store, his legs wide and face compressed into lines. Clad in black, his bald head partially hidden under a beanie, he reminded me of a bouncer in a Hollywood film.
I turned to exit, but the left side of the room grabbed my attention. Hidden in the dark recesses was a wall of books. A few modern paperbacks, like A Visit From the Goon Squad, but mostly antique, rare and first-edition volumes crowded the shelves.
My fingers hovered over a copy of Jules Verne’s The Tour of the World in Eighty Days, the cobalt leather embossed with a floral patterned border. The gold-lettered title was beginning to fade, but it still sailed across the worn leather alongside a gilded boat. Then I held in my hands, for the first time since I was about twelve years old, a copy of Hans Brinker or the Silver Skates. Every inch of available shelf space displayed a leather or paper treasure. The modern floral-art exhibits fell away.
Previously Skyline Books, the motto of Rob Warren’s book store is: books, rare and well done.
Museum bookstores also offered a variety of art books, literary best-sellers and volumes exclusive to each museum press. In the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I was hypnotized by the daffodil and sapphire-colored covers of Jazz, by renowned artist Henri Matisse. The Matisse exhibit, In Search of True Painting, opened at the MET in December and runs through March 17, 2013.
Published in Paris in 1947 by Efstratios Tériade, Jazz combines rich color with provocative prose. Cutting and pasting colored paper, Matisse created marquettes or cut-and-paste images for printing. Using a brush and stencil technique called pochoir, printers reproduced the artwork alongside photoengravings of Matisse’s handwritten notes.
In a section called Drawing with Scissors Matisse wrote, “To cut to the quick in color reminds me of the direct cutting of sculpture. This book was conceived in this same spirit.”
His words and simple, yet emotionally complex, images propelled me through the glossy pages. I continued to read: “A new painting should be a unique thing, a birth bringing a new face into the representation of the world through the human spirit.”
In my heart I heard “book” instead of “art,” and I smiled.