12 Stops on my Book-Love Tour of New York City

I’ve been to New York City to see the big attractions and dazzling shows, but my trip last week was something quieter and so sweet: a book-love tour of Manhattan.

This trip was my own creation–self-guided, budget-friendly, and flexible enough for browsing, contemplating, reading, and writing. I missed a few gems, but I also stopped at a surprising number of great destinations in my few days in the city: seven book stores, three museums, and two libraries. I walked or took the subway everywhere. Each night I fell into my clean, no-frills hostel bed exhausted and happy. Can I recommend this 12-stop trip to my fellow book lovers? 100 percent. It was wonderful. Let’s start with the libraries, shall we?

1. New York Public Library, the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building.

Fortitude himself.

Of course I started here. 111 years since the city opened its first library for the people, Patience and Fortitude (the lions so named by Mayor LaGuardia) still guard the steps. The entry still echoes with the voices of thousands of visitors, and the respite of the reading rooms still reminds us why libraries are great and necessary public institutions.

I took a free, one-hour tour, which I highly recommend–otherwise, I would have missed many details, such the DeWitt Wallace Periodical Room tucked into a corner of the 1st floor. Gorgeous. It’s more intimate than the famous Rose Main Reading Room and equally delightful.

But the banner attraction (until Dec 31, 2025) is the Polonsky Exhibit of the library’s treasured holdings. Honestly, I could hardly believe what was in there. I saw Malcolm X’s briefcase; all the animals that inspired A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh books; Charles Dickens’ desk, chair, and cringey little rabbit’s foot letter opener; and so much more. The one item I continue to think about–and it didn’t even make the printed program!–is Charlotte Brontë’s petite writing slope, sitting quietly at the end of a display, several feet away from Dickens’ attention-getting desk. This slope languished in the library’s collection for decades before someone–who was that librarian?–finally tried the lock on its little inner drawer. Memorial cards for her deceased sister Emily and brother Branwell were tucked inside.

Oh, Charlotte. You, too, died so young. If I could sit at your slope, I would write you a letter. I’d tell you that we still read and love Jane Eyre.

2. New York Public Library, Jefferson Market Branch.

Jefferson Market Branch of the NYC Public Library

What a library. People come to read and work at this branch–not take tours–despite its beautiful, 1874 building. Once a jail, then a market, and then almost demolished in 1958 until the neighborhood rallied to save it, it is now a graceful public library at the edge of Greenwich Village.

I spent a little time in the impeccable, gated garden kept by a band of devoted volunteers. Then I moved my reading indoors, where I fell in love with the wall art in the reading room.

Artist Mark John Smith took lines of old library cards (oh, I remember those!) and enlarged them to about a foot across, so the handwritten notes ran down the walls like rain to the wooden bookshelves beneath them. It was a marvelous place to read, and I was sorry to go.

And now, onto the museums. Sadly, I couldn’t visit every museum NYC offers (who could?), so I chose a few that fit my book-love theme.

3. Morgan Library & Museum.

If you had enough money to buy absolutely anything, what would you buy? What would you build? If you were JP Morgan, you would buy the most illustrious literary treasures for sale in the early 20th century, and you’d build a palace on Madison Avenue in which to store them. It is stunningly beautiful–an embarrassment of riches–though you don’t get the impression that JP was even slightly abashed. Here’s his favorite portrait of himself, above one of his many treasures. This library is where Belle da Costa Greene, Morgan’s personal librarian with her own fascinating backstory, worked for over 40 years.

The original Morgan Library is now ensconced in a modern, sunlit building where I saw a fascinating exhibit on James Joyce’s Ulysses. Fellow book lovers, when you are in New York, you must see this museum.

4. The Cloisters.

Let’s continue our tour of what you’d buy if money were no object. Might you buy not one but five medieval cloister courtyards, put them on transatlantic ships, then reconstruct them in one massive complex on the upper edge of Manhattan, overlooking the Hudson River?

The founders of The Cloisters did exactly that, then decked out the resulting contemplative space with treasures of medieval art. This astonishing museum is now run by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It’s beyond the hubbub in tree-lined Tryon Park, but it’s still easily reached by subway and well worth the journey. For me, the illuminated books alone were worth it. I can gaze a long time at a page covered with meticulous script and tiny, dramatic illustrations, the painstaking work of a long-ago monk with great eyesight.

5. The New York Historical Society Museum.

After a stroll up the Literary Walk in Central Park, I came to this terrific museum on Central Park West. You could go just for the New York-themed artwork or city artifacts cleverly displayed in illuminated cylinders sunken into the floor, but of course I went for the literary displays.

I learned from Ron Charles’ weekly Book Club newsletter from the Washington Post about the PEN America installation on the occasion of its 100th anniversary. In the fascinating display was a photo of PEN members in the late 1980s, rallying to defend free speech in general and Salmon Rushdie in particular.

Upstairs in another installation, I found an intimate look into Robert A. Caro’s writing process. While writing his prize-winning biographies, he gave himself bracing rebukes in the form of little handwritten notes that he taped around his desk. So relatable, yes?

Robert A. Caro’s wise words for Robert A. Caro.

As much as I loved each of these museums, eventually a book lover needs to touch the books, turn their pages, and wish for immortality to have enough time to read them all. Off to the bookstores!

6. Strand Books.

Not only is this bookstore a joy to wander through, but it feels wholly delivered from an earlier era. It’s an enormous, uncompromising smorgasbord of both new and used books on three stories.

I took the photo below in a corner of the top floor. I love how the bookshelves and buildings out the window echo each other. If this bookstore were my one and only stop in NYC, my book-loving heart would be happy.

7. Alabaster Bookshop.

Alabaster Bookshop appears to be doing very well, thank you. This tiny storefront, bathed in the hush of rare, antique, and other hard-to-find used books, is not only quietly carrying on in the middle of Manhattan, it’s also right around the corner from the massive Strand Books, of which it seems blithely unaware.

While I was there, a reader was selling a bag of books, and the bookseller asked if he’d like the proceeds in cash or store credit. Oh, store credit, the reader said, because I’m giving the credit as a gift. I loved that. Strand Books, boasting 18+ miles of shelves and sitting mere feet away, also buys books and offers store credit. But this reader knew that the perfect, new (old) book, after a delightfully tranquil browse in the Alabaster Bookshop, would be a welcome gift.

8. Bauman Rare Books.

If you are looking for a rare edition, and you have as much money as, say, JP Morgan, you could knock on the door at Bauman Books on Madison Avenue and be admitted to an entirely different book buying experience. The booksellers (book dealers?) were nice enough, despite the obvious truth that I was not shopping but rather admiring the extraordinary books. $39K was the most expensive book I noticed, down to a “bargain” on a lower shelf, for $4K. Maybe I should list this stop with the museums?

These first editions, such as Maurice Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen and Dylan Thomas’s In Country Sleep, are precious. When a book is so precious that it is enveloped in plastic and shielded behind thick glass, is it still a book, or is it a book-shaped object?

9. Three Lives and Company.

Just around the corner from the Stonewall National Memorial, there is a bookstore with the world’s most enticing red doors. Young parents bring their child to pick out his next bedtime story. A local reader with a bum knee sends her nephew to pick up the books she ordered, knowing the booksellers will happily hand them over because they know their family by name. I eavesdropped on both of these interactions while poking around this little book paradise in Greenwich Village. The booksellers seemed to know almost everyone who came in the door, and many readers stayed for a long chat about this book and then that one. The space was small enough that the books seemed not just displayed, but curated after careful deliberation. What a pleasure to see what they chose for their neighbors and for wanderers like me.

10. McNally Jackson.

In this crisp bookstore of well organized shelves, I had the feeling that all dilemmas could be solved because the right book could be found to solve them. Despite the piped-in indie rock which made me feel my age (does anyone else in here find that a little loud?), I loved my meander through this NOLITA bookstore. Each category was so well stocked; on the ground floor, I found a travel section with titles I’d never come across before but now eagerly want to read.

The sign in this photo reads, “Cheap books–but not, you know, cheap.” Another sign at the front desk said “ask me any question–about books.” I had the feeling that I could ask anything, book-related or not, of the industrious bookseller rapidly tapping on her keyboard, and she’d have a pretty solid answer.

11. Housing Works Bookstore.

Just down the street from McNally Jackson but a world apart is the beautiful Housing Works Bookstore and Cafe. I mean, look at that stairwell! This used bookstore is a brilliant place to just be, browsing in that frame of mind in which you’re open to anything. So you find yourself thumbing through a photo retrospective of 1992, and you understand that this random book, found on this wooden table bathed in gentle, natural light from the picture windows, is the very reason you came in here, and maybe the reason you came to New York. Bonus: each sale benefits Housing Works’ mission to aid those affected by HIV/AIDS and homelessness. Book lovers, you’ll love it here.

12. Drama Book Shop.

Not far from the main Public Library is Drama Book Shop, a sweet destination on 39th Street for both the book lover and the theatre geek. The deep wood tones, stunning book sculpture, and drama-themed shelves are more than enough to draw me in, but also there’s that close-to-celebrity thrill–this gem is owned by Lin Manuel-Miranda.

Funny story: I was deep in the stacks when I received a text from my husband that he’d secured tickets at the Kennedy Center–back home in DC–for a touring performance of Hamilton. A book shop fairy tale come true.

My book-love tour of NYC delighted me–no regrets. But I did miss some wonderful spots. I need to go back to 192 Books in Chelsea, to Rizzoli Bookstore, and to the much beloved Argosy’s on 59th Street. And I must go to Brooklyn! After reading Emma Straub’s short stories Other People We Married, and the recently released This Time Tomorrow, I just know her Brooklyn bookstore Books are Magic! will be a great place. Also in Brooklyn is Greenlight Bookstore, another branch of McNally Jackson, and others–so clearly a Brooklyn book-love tour is brewing.

What are your favorite NYC destinations, fellow book lover? Let me know in the comments. Wishing you happy travels, stacks of excellent books, and enough time to read many of them.

Thanks for reading, and by the way, I love comments. Bookmark fieldtripnotebook.com for more on travel, minimalism, books, public transportation, and hikes. For daily postcards from, well, wherever we are, subscribe to launaatlarge.substack.com.

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