With many of New York's museums charging upwards of twenty dollars for admission, soaking in the city's art scene can become quite pricey quite quickly. Fortunately, the opportunity to expand our interpretation of cultural institutions lies waiting in many of the city's carefully curated bookshops.
There has been some upset in the world of language about the extension of “curate” to include not only the exhibitions of museums and galleries, but also anything from a Spotify playlist to a menu. Some people (David Foster Wallace might say, SNOOTS) are getting their panties in a twist over one of the most beautiful elements of the English language — it’s ability to shift and slip into new meanings.
If we define curate as the meticulous collection of artworks for exhibition within a cultural institution, bookstores are not necessarily among the first examples to come to mind. They should be. Literature is an art form and certain shop owners take immense pride in their selection. Several bookstores in Manhattan could be considered cultural institutions housing collections that should be explored with the same reverence reserved for museums. These unique shops are a must-visit for any book lover.
Brazenhead Books is a once-legal establishment now located in a private apartment on the Upper East Side, presided over by Michael Seidenberg. The walls are made of books, or at least made invisible by them. Seidenberg's collection of old and used volumes, especially of poetry and humor, is exceptional. Because nothing is demarcated, you may initially be confused about the division of sections. But part of the pleasure of visiting Brazenhead is exploring Seidenberg's cleverly organized placement of different works, which includes Jane Jacobs's The Death and Life of Great American Cities nestled among the art books and a collection of early Paris Review copies resting above non-fiction.
Printed Matter is perhaps the foremost example of a curatorial bookstore in that it is committed to the dissemination of publications made by artists. Its mission is to "foreground the book as an alternative venue—or artistic medium—for artists' projects and ideas." As such, Printed Matter's inventory consists not of dense retrospectives or coffeetable books edited by TASCHEN, but rather of zines, pamphlets and self-published paperbacks. In this way a museum analogy is not far-fetched: the books are themselves works of art. It's easy to spend hours leafing through Printed Matter's diverse archive, which includes everything from a notebook filled entirely with abstract finger-paint images (Imprint, Eric Veit) to This is Not my Wife — a paperback filled with hundreds of black and white images of a single woman (who you kind of start to think is the author's wife.)
It's no secret that the Strand is one of the most popular secondhand bookstores in the country. Rumor has it they had to crack down on knockoffs of the signature tote bag. Less well known is that the third floor of the Strand features a rare book dealership, complete with a diverse mix of antique tomes, vintage art books, and beautiful antiques in other languages.
If dense retrospectives and coffeetable books are more your speed, don't skip this German publisher's SoHo shop. Awash in a Sixties swirl of color, the Greene street location is home to numerous dramatic collectibles. Current bestsellers include New York, Portrait of a City and GENESIS by Sebastiao Salgado, a stunning collection of black and white photos from the remote corners of the globe.