116 E 59th Street, New York, NY
If your ideal bookstore is a quiet shop with green lamps and dark wood, rife with that old book smell, then Argosy book store is perfect for you. Just blocks from the southeast corner of Central Park, it claims to be New York’s oldest independent bookstore, standing strong since 1925, and it certainly feels like it. With all the ancient prints and maps available throughout all six floors of the shop (I only explored the first), the winding staircases, the green desk lamps, and the floor-to-ceiling rows of gorgeously-bound antique volumes of poetry, fiction, and historical texts, you know you’re in a serious shop from the first moment you enter.
The staff works quietly and formally at their desks throughout the main floor, and you can roam around and through them, poking and browsing at stacks and piles and rows of books. Not all are antique throwbacks that may look a little too obscure for a casual shopper. There are newer titles too, and a few discount carts offerings books for a dollar or three, including one book I almost grabbed about life in a medieval castle. Nerd alert, I know. This is not to mention the walls of discounted books full of older paperbacks in great shape just outside the front door, along with an assortment of inexpensive art and coffee table books of all varieties. These are a lot of fun to poke through, whether you just want to keep them around or use them to clip art from for decorating your office, bedroom, fridge, etc.
Now and then I see a newer title, but for the most part you’re going to see older or harder to find titles dominating the stacks in this shop.The poetry section was almost exclusively nineteenth century to the middle twentieth, with e.e. cummings being one of the more modern poets, if that tells you anything. I happened to pick up his 95 Poems collection, but for a stout $15, hardcover and eleventh printing. Could I have gotten it cheaper elsewhere? Certainly, but this one also had a signed letter inside from Phyllis Levy to Howard Kaminsy, two renowned book editors from a bygone time, in which Levy (who championed Ken Kesey) gave the very book I bought to Kaminsky (who signed numerous blockbuster authors) and included a signed and imprinted letter about her favorite poem within. That’s not something you’re going to get on Amazon or at Barnes & Noble. That’s a treasured piece of the old NYC publishing world, a little snippit of history, and that’s why you shop at Argosy.
There were t-short available as well, in case you think Argosy to too snobbish to consider the tourist book lover. There’s really more to the shop than the library-like atmosphere gives off, and there are plenty of gems to be found hidden in the orderly piles. This shop, which not perfect, may be a dream shop for some of you out there. Make this a must when you visit New York City.
Atmosphere — Argosy has the feel of a library from an Indiana Jones movie, except you can buy anything and take it home with you. A lovely, quiet world of green and polished dark woods.
Quality — The older books are in excellent shape, though sometimes you’ll find appropriately worn dust jackets or binding. Otherwise this shop aims for quality, though you’ll find some cheap mass market books out front.
Quantity — A ton of ancient books, a truckload of twentieth century hardcovers, and a smattering of newer paperbacks. Plenty to sort through on a rainy afternoon.
Diversity — Widely diverse, although most of the authors are older, so if you’re looking for a recent poet or more modern nonfiction, you’re in the wrong shop.
Affordability — Varies. There are rows of affordable paperbacks out front, but once you’re inside the used prices can be a little higher than expected, but you’re paying for quality and rarity.
Amenities — Imagine a library without a place to lounge. You’re there to snoop for books, not to make a social occasion of it.
Location — Not too far from Central Park and within walking distance of a few subways. It’s not too far for local or tourist alike.
Customer Service — The staff were present but focused on their work, and I did have to wait a bit to find one free enough to check me out. But they were polite.
Overall — This is a serious old school bookshop that can suck you in for hours if you’re into antiques, older editions, or just love the feel of a library bookshop. A part of old New York well worth your time.