Like most literary types, I consider myself a book hound and enjoy wandering endless shelves and stacks to sniff out deals and cross titles off of my “Must Read” list. I recently went on a day trip through parts of upstate New York (and a quick dip into Vermont) and hit up a bunch of shops, to varying results. Here I list my thoughts on each, share what I picked up, and assign a dreaded letter grade for each shop. (Remember those old, silver teacher pens that were red on one side and blue on the other? I want one of those!! I'll assign an A+ and a “Grape Job” scratch-and-sniff sticker to anyone who sends me one!!)
Please note that these opinions are my own and in no way dictate what you may experience at each shop. A bad experience for me might be a treasure hunt for you, so don’t take my word for it . . . go check these places out for yourself!
The Book Barn (Latham, NY)
This is an old standby that I like to check from time to time, but rarely do I have high hopes for a breathtaking steal because it’s fairly picked over, being in a well-trafficked area. Even so, they have a large selection of older literary classics and mystery/crime paperbacks and hardcovers, most being in very good condition. Their non-fiction and children’s sections are also fairly extensive, but are what I call “yard sale” or “church basement” quality, meaning they are a little dated and have probably sat around unread on bookshelves in homes and libraries for a while before finding themselves up for sale here. However, this also means that if you’re looking for something that won’t be on the bookshelves at Barnes & Noble anymore, there is a good shot they might have it here, or would know how to get it. I’ve always found the staff knowledgeable and I have rarely walked out of here without a purchase. Books bought: This trip—The Dark Half by Stephen King; Previous trips—On the Road by Jack Kerouac, Notes from the Underground by Dostoyevsky. Grade: B-
Down in Denver Books (Stephentown, NY)
This place is a gem hidden away in the middle of nowhere. While I grew up near this shop, most people in the area likely have no idea it exists, which is a shame because they have some interesting finds here, especially for such a tiny shop. With pictures and paintings of the Beats, Hunter Thompson, and Bukowski littering the walls, this is definitely the place for me. They have some rare pieces and a decent selection of fiction for being so out of the way, and the staff does a good job of hunting down unusual items for their shelves. Worth the drive. Books bought: This trip—nothing, just enjoyed browsing; Previous trips—First UK paperback edition of Cannery Row by John Steinbeck, and an excellent biography on Charles Bukowski by Howard Sounes. Grade: B
Now and Then Books (Bennington, VT)
I’ve visited this shop four times over the last ten years, and I can only recall buying one book in that span (I forget the title and I eventually gave it away without finishing it). They have a ton of books here with an interesting selection of very old children’s books, reference books, and literary classics (mostly of the unknown [to me] variety), but as I said, I almost always leave empty handed because I just haven’t found any that called my name. Most of their fiction books are creased paperbacks and most of their non-fiction is outdated. I can’t say skip it because they might have just what you’re looking for buried in the stacks of this twisting, narrow bookshop (which is fun to navigate), but I think I’ve had my fill of underwhelming visits. Books bought: This trip—none; Previous trips—one I can’t remember, so basically, none. Grade: D+
The Bennington Bookshop (Bennington, VT)
This was a pleasant surprise after leaving Now and Then Books empty handed again. This shop deals with new books, and it’s just as clean and spiffy as any Barnes & Noble, just on a small-town scale. I had to whittle my stack down from eight to four to two (I gave myself a per-store limit on this trip) and left very satisfied, knowing I would gladly come back. The prices are about what you’d pay at a Barnes & Noble too, so no real deal for the wallet, but I felt good supporting a small town shop where I went to college. There are also a bunch of other great “mom & pop” shops in downtown Bennington, so this store is the icing on the cake for any out-of-towners looking for a weekend daytrip. If this shop had a used section, I might have gone broke. Books bought: This trip—Zone One by Colson Whitehead and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn; Previous trips—various…I forget how many per the years. Grade: B+
Monroe Street Books (near Manchester, VT)
I couldn’t find it to save my life, but I’ve heard good things. Grade: Incomplete.
Northshire Bookstore (Manchester Center, VT)
Holy crap, was this place awesome or what? I’ve visited this shop once before about nine years ago and it really held up to the high standards in my memory. They have a quality selection for almost every topic and genre, and not only did I see the best names in the book business but I saw a lot of books by writers I’ve never heard of that really fit the bill for the kind of fiction I eat up. They have a huge children’s section, plenty of history and philosophy, rows and rows of fiction, crime, fantasy, an okay poetry section, and enough used and sale items to keep me hopping from one end of the shop to another compiling a huge stack of books that I whittled down to three I simply HAD to break my limit here). If you are anywhere near Vermont, get here, buy a coffee, and enjoy the afternoon among piles and piles of old friends. Books bought: This trip—The Gutter and the Grave by Ed McBain; Arguably (Essays) by Christopher Hitchens, and Go With Me by Castle Freeman Jr.; Previous trips—a collection of poems by Donald Hall, something by Kerouac, and a few others (it was almost a decade ago, cut me some slack!!) Grade: A
Dog Ear Books (near Hoosick, NY)
I’ve never been, but I pass it a lot and always think I should turn around and look. Haven’t yet. Grade: Incomplete.
Market Block Books (Troy, NY)
Here’s the thing about Troy, New York: one block might remind you of any dilapidated, run-down river city in New York’s Hudson Valley region, where empty shopfronts and homeless caricatures wandering the sidewalks make you wonder if you’ll still have tires on your car when you go to put more change in the meter. Other blocks, especially north of Russell Sage College (hello, ladies) and along River Street for a short span, are strikingly beautiful with turn-of-the-century architecture and cobbled streets. This shop is among those revitalized blocks, and it’s gorgeous. It deals with new books, not used, and has an excellent big name selection. They also provide a nice area to sit and read and they supply plenty of the knickknacks and literary accoutrement that you’ll find in any newer bookshop. They also have a healthy selection of events that I plan to keep an eye on. I'd give it a higher score if they had some sale or used items, but Troy NEEDS a place like this, so I highly encourage local shoppers to visit this literary oasis. Books bought: The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury and Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. Grade: B+
The Spotty Dog (Hudson, NY)
Right on the main drag in Hudson, New York, and the best thing of all: it’s also a bar! Yes, they have a few beers on tap and a small sitting area to enjoy a brew and a book, and while this place is pretty small, it had a strong poetry section and a large art book and art supply shop in the back. It has just enough to please most readers and they have events from time to time. If this place was twice as big, it would be heaven sent, but for now it’s just a great spot to visit when I have a free afternoon in upstate New York. Books bought: Howl by Allen Ginsberg. Grade: B (B- without the bar...I really wish this shop was bigger. On busy days it’s tough maneuvering through this place.)