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Paw through the sidewalk bargain bins at the Strand in New York. (John Lee)
Paw through the sidewalk bargain bins at the Strand in New York. (John Lee)

What are New Yorks best book shops? Add to ...

Since I had a few spare hours on a recent New York visit – and I share your page-sniffing fondness for bookish pursuits – I investigated a couple of options for you. But first, I touched base with a local whose tips for travelling literary-types would fill several highly readable volumes.

“The best part of being a bookworm and living in the New York area is that there are so many independent bookstores, each with their own personality,” says book publicist and blogger Gabrielle Gantz (thecontextuallife.com). “I have many favourites, but visitors should check out the iconic stores: McNally Jackson in SoHo, St. Mark’s Bookshop in the East Village and the Strand near Union Square.”

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McNally Jackson takes a quirky approach to organizing its fiction, shelving books by region based on author nationality. “It makes for interesting perusing since you might not always know where a certain writer was born,” says Gantz, adding that the store is one of New York’s liveliest hangouts for the bookishly-inclined.

If you’re a serious reader, she recommends St. Mark’s for its comprehensive collections of political and cultural-studies books, many of which are difficult to find elsewhere. Plus, says Gantz, it has a great selection of poetry, magazines and literary journals.

Her final recommendation is also one of my favourites. Opened in 1927, the Strand is a beloved New York institution. On my visit, I spent an hour closely caressing the stacks like the protagonist in The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, although not quite so maniacally. The store’s sidewalk bargain racks are also impossible to pass by.

After filling your backpack, it’s tempting to spend the evening reading in your hotel room (consider a stay at the city’s Library Hotel, where floors are themed using categories from the Dewey Decimal System). But then you’d miss volume two of New York’s literary world: it’s lively social scene.

“One of the hardest parts about being a bookworm in New York is that as the evening approaches one is faced with a nearly unsolvable dilemma: which reading should I go to?” says Gantz.

She advises scanning online calendars at event-busy bookstores like Housing Works in SoHo as well as Word and PowerHouse Arena, both in Brooklyn. She also suggests the Bowery Poetry Club’s poetry slams and the East Village’s KGB Bar for readings and launches. For more options, click on Book Boroughing (bookboroughing.com), a handy blog previewing local literary happenings that Gantz co-authors.

If you awake the morning after a book launch with a white-wine hangover and a signed copy of a tome you’ve never heard of, it’s time to step outside. On my visit, a brisk Fifth Avenue stroll to the grand New York Public Library was the perfect brain restorer. A booklover’s delight, it offers free guided tours twice daily (once on Sundays).

Weaving through marble-lined corridors and silent, wood-panelled rooms crowned with cathedral-like painted ceilings, I peered at a priceless Gutenberg Bible and listened to stories of the billionaire philanthropists who funded the region’s early library system – including Andrew Carnegie, who built 65 libraries.

But while the century-old main library is planning a large children’s literature exhibition this June, Gantz also recommends some annual events.

Both Brooklyn (May) and Manhattan (September) stage popular one-day Lit Crawls (litcrawl.org) with readings, panels and bookish shenanigans, while May’s Book Expo America (bookexpoamerica.com) is a giant publishing convention that recently opened its author events to the public.

Gantz is also keen to see New York-bound book nuts visiting Brooklyn.

“Its literary scene is thriving, hence the growing success of September’s Brooklyn Book Festival. The festival is on a Sunday, but there are tons of readings and parties all around the borough in the days leading up to it.”

Follow John @johnleewriter.

Send John your travel questions at concierge@globeandmail.com.

Follow us on Twitter: @tgamtravel

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