A Guide to Second-Hand Bookstores in NYC — passerby magazine (2024)

“Corners to get lost in all across the city.”

The trade of volumes of second-hand books in New York City has a long history, which has been dutifully recorded and thoughtfully archived for decades, not least since the beginning of the end of “Book Row” saw its dawn in the 1960’s. Flash forward to now, and there are less used bookstores and more new stuff, everywhere, always. Particularly in January, with our trinkets and toys acquired during the holidays, it can feel like all this newness is too consuming — even reading the recently published books that endlessly get recommended can feel daunting.

Second-hand books, then, provide a comforting respite from this sensory overload. Although there is a certain feeling of excitement because you’ll never quite know exactly what you’ll encounter, the idea of obtaining something that’s had a life before you relieves some of the pressure of choice and adds an element that’s void from newer acquisitions. When you read, you’re often asked to reach back through time, forward across space. The same can be said about the physical experience of surveying stacks of used books — but in addition to the usual questions and imaginative worlds books open up, when they’re old, they also encourage us to wonder: “Where did this come from — what did its owner think about the world and its existence, and how has it changed in the years between?” In asking these questions and others, we open up the possibility of preserving wonder and joy across time in the simple act of figuring out what to read. To help you find new corners — and volumes — to get lost in this year, we’ve rounded up our passerby community’s favorite second-hand book spots in NYC below.

The Word is Change

Recommended by madeline howard

This Bed-Stuy bookshop’s hours are 12-7 Wednesday or Sunday, but “later if they’re in the mood” — this relaxed attitude, paired with an activism-forward, solidarity-oriented, and open-to-perusing approach to bookselling, makes it worthy of “neighborhood institution” status, with an Instagram that will whet your palette for new arrivals and deep cuts, a book-buying program for those days when you realize you just can’t fit one more on your shelves, and an incredible selection of Critical Theory and radical writings, thoughtfully curated and paired with compelling events.

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Unnameable Books

Recommended by Naomi Fry, Claire Brodka, Natalie Guevara, claire dauge-roth, Jane o’dwyer, Madeline Howard, Simbi o, clémence polès and Betty

Located a stone’s throw from Prospect Park on an idyllic strip of Vanderbilt Ave that’s equal parts quaint and bustling, Unnameable Books is home to a wide range of both new and used books, sourced from Brooklyn and beyond. Its collection runs deep with paperback favorites and hardcover novelties—all of which are best enjoyed in the grass once the sun warms. Until then, peruse their calendar of events for a cozy, literary winter evening.

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Sweet Pickle Books

Recommended by Caitlin McMullen, Anna Z Gray, Madeline Howard, and Meghan Racklin

Some may flock to a store for what it sells, but when it comes to the second-hand market, what about what you receive for ridding yourself of unwanted titles? Where most deal in cash or store credit, this Lower East Side haunt’s currency has far more crunch: pickles! Jars of Bread & Butter, Dill, and Spicy varieties line the shelves next to a slew of first-edition contemporary classics, mass fiction, and histories of our beloved city.

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Mercer Street Books & Records

Recommended by Kerrilynn Pamer, Marina Sulmona, Eliza Myers, and Becky waddell

A classic Greenwich village institution (and the last of the “old guard” remaining in the neighborhood), Mercer Street Books & Records’ bright neon pink “BOOKS” sign guides the way into an approachable interior. Here, you’ll encounter NYU seniors, village locals, and travelers from afar digging through art books, spiritual tomes, works of fiction, and more. Things got tight during the pandemic, but Mercer’s community has kept it afloat — don’t just take our word on why it’s worthy of a visit, take Zadie Smith’s.

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Topos

Recommended by Molly Surno, Alison bee, and Allison van Der hoeven

A little more polished and less low-tech than others on this list, Topos has a contemporarily functional website for when hopping on the M train to Ridgewood isn’t in the cards. Its homepage divides texts into “Alt” and “Neu!”, the former category artfully housing cover images of Cinema by John Ford and The Dinner Party by Judy Chicago, and the latter, Art on Saturn by Sun Ra and the amusingly intriguing An Illustrated Catalog of American Fruits and Nuts, amongst others. Don’t let this distract you from visiting in person though — good coffee awaits you at this brick and mortar. “Topos all the way,” exclaims Molly Surno.

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Bonnie Slotnick Cookbooks

Recommended by Kerrilynn Pamer, Marina Sulmona, and Becky waddell

“Bonnie Slotnick is my all time favorite, forever,” co-founder of CAP Beauty Kerrilynn writes to us. The ingredients that make this vintage cookbook seller the best in the business not only include her niche and stellar collection of antiquated treasures, but the affability and dedication Bonnie brings to her work. Along with her thoughtful guidance, it’s hard not to find recipes you’ll dog-ear for years to come. One helpful tip from Becky: “Check her actual website for hours!” and a bonus from me for good measure: if with Covid in mind, you’d prefer to be the only customer in the store, Bonnie will graciously accommodate a private appointment for you.

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Better Read Than Dead

Recommended by Naomi Fry, Meghan Racklin, and Discord member christina

In addition to their two mainstay locations, “Better Read Than Dead sometimes does a pop-up out of a garage on Greene Ave in Bed-Stuy that can be great,” writes Christina on our Discord, a comment enthusiastically “seconded” by Meghan. On any given day, this outfit’s delightfully cramped shelves reflect the amalgam you’d expect to find in any Bushwick home — from philosophical tomes to locally-circulated zines and more.

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Mast Books

Recommended by Kerrilynn Pamer, clémence polès, and Marina Sulmona

Sleek, simple, and understated, browsing Mast Books feels more like perusing a well-curated gallery where you can actually touch and take home the works. The finds themselves are incredible — particularly for the artistically-inclined and film buffs — and span everything from inexpensive, lesser known titles by well known authors to rare collector’s items with price tags that match. Keep abreast of their forthcoming readings and events on Instagram.

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Westsider Rare & Used Books

Recommended by Claire Brodka and Jane o’dwyer

A jaunt through the Upper West Side never quite feels complete without a little bit of old school New York culture. Climb the stacked-with-books stairs at Westsider Rare & Used Books to — as its name suggests — track down the uncommon collections that have long evaded your search (at reasonable prices!). Then, make an afternoon of it by heading down the 10-odd blocks to Westsider Records for dirt-cheap, high-quality old vinyls.

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If this list hasn’t quite scratched the itch or you call another corner of the city home, don’t miss the following favorites and check out our comprehensive passerby map:

Codex (recommended by Eliza Myers, Mercedes de Maria Genoveva, and Meghan Racklin)

Freebird Books (recommended by Claire Brodka and Fiorella Valdesolo)

Aeon’s “wild occult collection” (recommended by Clemence Poles, Ly Ngo and Meghan Racklin)

Troubled Sleep (recommended by Emma Claire)

Molasses Books (recommended by Cara Reilly)

East Village Books (recommended by Clémence Polès)

… and lastly, Kerrilynn Pamer’s "idea of heaven,” Joanne Hendricks.

Words by Marina Sulmona

guides, culture

Clemence Poles

New York City

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A Guide to Second-Hand Bookstores in NYC — passerby magazine (2024)

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