An inspiration and backdrop for innumerable stories, New York City has a rich literary history that could fill volumes—and it does. (Cleo Le-Tan’s A Booklover’s Guide to New York and Evan Hughes’ Literary Brooklyn are two fascinating ones to start with.) But even for the truly bookish, the experience of seeing literary landmarks and famous authors’ former haunts in person is difficult to match. To make sure your NYC visit is sufficiently book-centric, put these notable libraries, cool bookstores and storied locations on your itinerary. Just remember to bring a book along for the trip.
New York City has a knack for making everyday places extraordinary, and the New York Public Library is no exception. The majestic main branch, just east of Bryant Park, has been a beacon for book lovers since its opening in 1911. Even if you’re not here to check out books (it is home to a circulating library during the renovation of the nearby Mid-Manhattan branch), spend some time under the soaring ceilings of the Rose Main Reading Room and make sure to snap a pic in front of the beaux-arts building alongside the library’s leonine mascots, Patience and Fortitude.
Another stunning public branch (this one originally a courthouse) worth a visit—in part to admire its clocktower and garden—is the Jefferson Market Library, in the West Village. Lower Manhattan’s Poets House library is free and open to the public as well, though not affiliated with the NYPL system. Peruse its stacks of more than 70,000 volumes of verse or take some time to relax in its airy reading room, overlooking the Hudson River.
You’ll find two more notable libraries tucked inside museums. At the Morgan Library & Museum, the showpiece of the permanent collection is J. P. Morgan’s beautiful display of rare and out-of-print books. The museum holds regular exhibits on authors and illustrators (for example, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman and Maurice Sendak) that are also a major draw. Dog lovers won’t want to miss the American Kennel Club Museum of the Dog, which features a surprisingly substantial archive—about 16,00 volumes—of breed-specific guides, AKC dog show catalogs and other canine-related records.
If you’re looking to take a piece of literary New York home with you, pick up a title or two at one of the City’s many independent bookstores. The Strand is unquestionably one of the most famous, thanks in part to its signature “18 miles of books” (though they now stock closer to 23 miles of printed material). Don’t miss the Rare Book Room, peaceful upper floors and jaw-dropping sidewalk-sale prices.
Other beloved book-selling institutions include neighborly Greenlight, author-owned Books Are Magic and the Center for Fiction store, noteworthy both for its indie selection and superlative levels of natural light. Find old-school browsing experiences at Unoppresive Non-Imperialist Bargain Books (check out the NYC-specific section of guidebooks and anthologies), Mysterious Bookshop (a high-ceilinged spot specializing in whodunits) and the trusty Housing Works Bookstore Cafe (complete with handsome spiral staircase).
New York City has always been a hub for writers, so much so that there’s a chance you unknowingly might be walking in the footsteps of an author you admire. One way to be sure, though, is to visit an author’s former home. Pass by the Hotel Chelsea (currently closed for renovations), where literati like Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and Patti Smith—as well as a slew of other artists, musicians and punks—once resided. In Greenwich Village, you can find the Edna St. Vincent Millay house (also the neighborhood’s narrowest building) at 75 ½ Bedford Street. And don’t forget about Edgar Allan Poe, who spent his last five years in the City. Take a tour of the Bronx cottage where he composed haunting works like “Annabel Lee” and “The Cask of Amontillado.”
Pay homage to renowned figures along Central Park’s picturesque Literary Walk, lined with statues of writers including poet Robert Burns and novelist Sir Walter Scott. In Riverside Park, look for the Ralph Ellison Memorial around 150th Street, near the novelist’s longtime residence. The Schomburg Center in Harlem is the final resting place of poet and novelist Langston Hughes. His ashes are buried under the main lobby floor beneath an installation inspired by one of his poems; his former home, open to the public, is within walking distance.
Bars and Restaurants
Though not exactly landmarks, bars have been historically sacred places for writers. Some NYC nightspots were known for their literary regulars—or even credited as being the birthplace for famous books and stories. Legend holds that O. Henry wrote his short story “The Gift of the Magi” in the second booth of Pete’s Tavern (or did he?). The Algonquin Hotel was the home base for the Algonquin Round Table (co-founded by Dorothy Parker), which now lends its name to the hotel’s restaurant. Try to snag a coveted table at Greenwich Village’s Minetta Tavern, once a favorite hangout of Ezra Pound, Eugene O’Neill and E.E. Cummings, or one a few blocks away at Chumley’s, where Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald had a nearly permanent claim on table 26.
There’s another category of bars that may not have hosted famous authors (yet) but are a bookworm’s happy place thanks to their literary themes and decor. Guests of the Library Bar at the Hudson Hotel are invited to read books from the bar’s impressive collection while relaxing by the fireplace. You’ll also be surrounded by hundreds of handsome volumes at Hudson Bar and Books in Greenwich Village and at Bookmarks in Midtown East. Toast writer Oscar Wilde at this namesake gilded watering hole (which has NYC’s longest bar) with a book of your own.