A Critic's Tour of Literary Manhattan

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A FEW years ago, the novelist Gary Shteyngart, whose books are very funny and very sad, gave an interview to a magazine called Modern Drunkard. (Yes, this magazine actually exists.) It's the funniest and saddest interview I've ever read.

In it, Mr. Shteyngart lamented what's happened to bookish night life in New York City over the past decade. "There are so few people to drink with," he said. "The literary community is not backing me up here. I'm all alone." Mr. Shteyngart, who was born in Russia, added: "It's pathetic when I think about my ancestors. Give them a bottle of shampoo and they have a party."

Is Manhattan's literary night life, along with its literary infrastructure (certain bars, hotels, restaurants and bookstores) fading away? Not long ago I installed myself at the Algonquin, the Midtown hotel where Dorothy Parker, Alexander Woollcott and others once traded juniper-infused barbs, and used it as a launching pad to crisscross the island for a few days, looking to see what's left. I made several more nighttime crawls after that. At the very least, I thought, I could inhale the essence of some cranky and word-drunk old ghosts.

Before I started, I reached out to a handful of convivial writers and editors. I wanted their thoughts about why literary Manhattan doesn't seem to have the wattage it once did. Their diagnoses were several. Lorin Stein, the editor of the Paris Review, replied that the smoking ban "was the death knell for a certain kind of protracted hanging out that was once central to literary life in the city."

Daniel Halpern, the publisher of Ecco Press, suggested that the Internet has obviated young writers' need for companionship, gossip and consolation. He added: "The passion my generation felt about poetry and fiction has gone into food, I think, into making pickles or chocolate or beer." Mark Greif, a founder of the literary magazine n + 1, told me that coffeehouses are where writers loiter now, not bars. The writer Sloane Crosley observed that literary night life is almost impossible to observe in real time. "New Yorkers have a delightfully narcissistic habit of assuming," she said, "that if they're not conscious of a scene, it doesn't exist."

Each of these people noted that the bookish crowd has largely dispersed into Brooklyn, where rents are cheaper. I wanted to take in Manhattan as a literary tourist, however. I wanted to touch base with haunts old and new. I wanted to see if there is still, for a certain kind of bibliophilic seeker, as Simone de Beauvoir put it, "something in the New York air that makes sleep useless."

On my first night, I fortified myself with a cocktail at my favorite Manhattan bar, Jimmy's Corner, a scruffy, boxing-themed joint tucked into a wrinkle in Times Square's space-time continuum. It's where one of the bartenders, Mike McGrady, studied at SUNY Binghamton with the novelist John Gardner.

It's also where the staff of The New York Times Book Review, where I was an editor during the 2000s, gathered regularly for cocktails and for drinks-worthy special events, like the time Cormac McCarthy appeared, blinking like a mole thrust into the sunlight, on "Oprah." Happily, the tiny place was crammed.

So was Café Loup, the genteel but unpretentious West Village bistro that continues to bridge generations in terms of its appeal to editors, academics and writers. Its pommes frites with Dijon mayonnaise, its snails and its burger are still nearly one's platonic ideals of these things. When I lived nearby in the late 1990s, Susan Sontag and Paul Auster were among those I'd see there. My editor at The Village Voice Literary Supplement could be found at the bar, drinking pitchers of Côtes du Rhône. These days, Mr. Stein said, "it really is the closest thing I know of to a writer's hangout in the old-fashioned sense."

(Mr. Stein is also devoted to Otto, Mario Batali's casual Italian restaurant, where the kitchen stays open until midnight. "The bartender, Frank, is a devotee of English book reviews like the L.R.B. and the T.L.S.," Mr. Stein said. "One evening, just chatting with others at the bar, I assigned a piece for our blog, learned of a possible office space for the Review, and arranged a job interview with someone who wanted to sell ads for us.")

I polished off the last of my burger, and fled into the night.

Anyone who doubts that words alone can still pull a rowdy crowd in Manhattan has not recently visited the Nuyorican Poets Cafe on the Lower East Side. If the vogue for poetry slams has dimmed somewhat in America, no one here got the memo. I arrived early for an open-mike poetry competition, and the line outside stretched nearly a full city block. It was cold and windy out there, too.

Inside, it was warm and jubilant. Cheap bottles of beer were to be had. The night's M.C. warmed up the crowd by announcing: "This is not Dead Men Watching. If something moves you here, respond." She told the judges, plucked from the audience, to rate the performers on a scale from 0 to 10. "Zero is Rush Limbaugh," she said. "Ten is Michelle Obama." I so wish I could employ this scale for book reviews.

A few blocks away, at KGB Bar -- a dark, intimate, Soviet-themed second-story space, where one half expects to see Mata Hari drinking shots of Stoli -- the cult novelist Kris Saknussemm was declaiming bits of his new autobiographical book, "Sea Monkeys" (Soft Skull Press), while a friend tossed off angular riffs behind him on a harmonica. KGB Bar has a regular reading series and is always worth a drop-in. This night was no exception. The crowd was small but rapt. Mr. Saknussemm soloed like a jazz master.

I strode across town to Kettle of Fish, a venerable bar on Christopher Street in the West Village, for a pint. By now, I'd had several. This is a Green Bay Packers bar (go figure) with a low ceiling, strung lights, a homey vibe and a bookish reputation. It's the only place I saw someone drinking while actually working on a manuscript. I might have struck up a conversation, but he seemed manic and tweaked. Perhaps he was editing E. L. James's next book. Best to leave him alone.

I ended my night at Lolita, on Broome Street in SoHo, recommended to me by friends. It's a languid, sprawling space, with an excellent pink cursive neon sign in front, where most of the women looked like extras from an episode of Lena Dunham's HBO series, "Girls." I would report to you the books they were carrying, but the only readers in the bunch were grasping Kindles. When it's no longer possible to tell what attractive young women are reading, part of the romance of Manhattan is gone. It's time to move to Sheboygan and open a deli.

Back at the Algonquin, my head spinning only slightly, I hung the hotel's version of a Do Not Disturb sign outside my door. It read: "Quiet Please. Writing the Great American Novel." This is an amusing tchotchke, worth taking home to put in your weird uncle's Christmas stocking, despite the flagrant unlikelihood of anyone writing any kind of novel whatsoever with that sign hanging on his or her door.

About the Algonquin itself, which has recently been extensively renovated, I have mixed feelings. The famous round table is long gone, of course, but so is the dowdy charm. The Algonquin now feels a bit chilly and corporate, though the hotel's famous cat, Matilda, can still be seeing lazily acknowledging guests.

While bookstores have been vanishing for years, stylish book-themed hotels are newly abundant in Manhattan. The Library Hotel, on Madison Avenue not far from the New York Public Library, manages to be sleek and geeky at the same time. Each of its 10 guest room floors is devoted to one of the categories of the Dewey Decimal System, and each of the 60 rooms has a set of books devoted to a topic within that category.

A throw pillow atop a bed reads, against the wisdom of the ages, "Book Lovers Never Go to Bed Alone." If you'd like your room tidied up, the sign you hang on your door handle reads: "Please dust off my books."

(During a stay at the Library Hotel, there are several reasons to spend a few hours at the New York Public Library. I'll give you one of the lesser-known ones: the library has the sweetest reading-related gift shop I've ever been in.)

The new NoMad Hotel, named for its neighborhood (North of Madison Square Park), deploys books as furniture both playfully and artfully. The NoMad resides in a turn-of-the-century Beaux-Arts building, and its public spaces are hip yet have the grandeur of a Stendhal novel. Even if you can't afford a room here (they start around $300), do have a drink in its cocktail lounge-cum-library, with two vaulting stories of lighted bookcases connected by a spiral staircase imported from the South of France.

I lingered here, over a Gibson made from Hendrick's gin, for a long while. I will be back, too, despite agreeing with Mr. Greif, the n + 1 editor, who told me: "Whenever I'm invited to meet anyone in a hotel bar or lobby, it means I'm in for a rough hour, because it means my host has more money than sense."

It's possible to enjoy a purposeful afternoon, as I did, simply walking and absorbing the vibes given off by the many old Manhattan hotels with literary associations. The Plaza, on Central Park, is where Eloise ran amok, where Truman Capote held his Black and White Ball in 1966 and where F. Scott Fitzgerald set parts of "The Great Gatsby." Tennessee Williams once lived on the top floor of the Hotel Elysée, in Midtown. Just off its lobby is the Monkey Bar, now owned in part by the Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter.

The Ansonia, on the Upper West Side, was once a residential hotel and is lovingly described by Saul Bellow in "Seize the Day." The Carlyle has its timeless Bemelmans Bar, with murals by the creator of "Madeline." John Cheever used to declare, "I was conceived at the St. Regis." And there's always the Chelsea Hotel, where Sid frolicked with Nancy and where everyone from Charles Bukowski to Patti Smith once prowled. Here's an odd factoid: Arthur C. Clarke wrote "2001: A Space Odyssey" in the Chelsea Hotel.

The next day I hit bookstores. Manhattan doesn't have nearly the number of them it once had. It's been a long time since Book Row, which stretched along Fourth Avenue between Eighth Street and 14th Street, hosted some three-dozen used bookshops. (The last closed in 1988.) But the city's survivors are beautiful to behold.

Bauman Rare Books, in Midtown, is where I like to commence a day of dedicated bookstore hopping. It's a place for looking, not touching. These volumes are dear, and dearly priced. This is where you can ogle a first edition of Milton's "Paradise Lost" (1669), on sale for $35,000. I'm not a collector of fine volumes; I like cheap editions that I can gnaw upon, underline in, use as coasters or fling at the cat. But Bauman is a temple of sorts, a place to feel a certain kind of awe.

In Chelsea, 192 Books has hardwood floors and a small but brilliantly curated selection of fiction and nonfiction. (The day I was there, so was the supermodel Helena Christensen.) The place is adorable. It also happens to sit almost exactly across the street from another bookstore worth visiting, Printed Matter, dedicated to artists' publications, from grungy chapbooks to very expensive volumes indeed. Printed Matter has a punk spirit and a renegade vibe.

I also like to pop into Unoppressive Non-Imperialist Bargain Books in the West Village, in part for its name, in part because it offers an offbeat selection of low-priced remainders, with a focus on things like underground comics and Bob Dylan. When I was there most recently, the new Dylan LP was croaking over the speakers. Dylan sounded like, as Clive James once put it about Randy Newman, "the hoarse foreman of the apocalypse."

There are so many other good bookstores I could mention here, including the Housing Works Bookstore Cafe in SoHo, a downtown stalwart. The selection here is terrific, and profits support an AIDS charity. Many stylish weddings are held at Housing Works, too.

I've saved the two best for last. St. Marks Bookshop, an independent on the Lower East Side, is the place to go when your spirits are sagging, when you need a reminder that the world's literary culture is still big and weird and vibrant and all but unknowable. The selection of books is excellent; even better is the display of literary magazines and foreign periodicals. You walk in here and you think: These are my people.

The Strand, not so far away, at 828 Broadway, remains Manhattan's bookstore ground zero. It's worth flying in from London simply to browse the stacks. Across three crammed levels, it sells books old and new. The Strand's current boast is: "18 Miles of Books." (I am old enough to own a T-shirt from when it was merely "Eight Miles of Books.") This bookstore is where legions of writers and reviewers have come over the decades to be rescued, to make a bit of necessary cash by selling their extra books and review copies.

This scene, from Jonathan Franzen's novel "The Corrections," captures the ups and downs of that process: "He ran out of money on a Friday in July. Facing a weekend with Julia, who could cost him fifteen dollars at a cinema refreshments counter, he purged the Marxists from his bookshelves and took them to the Strand in two extremely heavy bags. The books were in their original jackets and had an aggregate list price of $3,900. A buyer at the Strand appraised them casually and delivered his verdict: 'Sixty-five.'"

By now I'd seen enough of literary Manhattan to agree with Woody Allen, who intoned at the beginning of "Manhattan," his 1979 film: "He adored New York City. He idolized it all out of proportion." I was smitten all over again.

Best of all, there was time to hit a few more bars.

I'd been hearing good things about the Dalloway, a new restaurant and cocktail lounge on Broome Street in SoHo that channels the spirit of Virginia Woolf. It's a lovely space, lighted largely by candles, with a vibrant and nearly all-girl bar scene (the owners are out and proud lesbians) downstairs. I was carrying a biography of Martin Amis while sitting at the bar upstairs, and a woman said to me: "I had dinner at his place the other night." Which, as these things go, is a respectable conversational opener.

The White Horse, in the West Village, is an institution. It's where Dylan Thomas drank himself to death, Anaïs Nin and Seymour Krim talked shop and where someone once scrawled "Go home, Kerouac!" on the bathroom wall during the years the Beat writer drank there. This bar is resting on its laurels, but what the hell: it can afford to. There's still Dylan Thomas memorabilia on the walls. And there's still a sense that Norman Mailer might walk in, looking to punch some cretin out.

My final stop was McSorley's Old Ale House, across town in the East Village, which attracts 10 times the crowd the White Horse does. It's the oldest Irish tavern in Manhattan, dating back to the mid-19th century; visitors are said to have included Abraham Lincoln, Boss Tweed and Woody Guthrie.

Writers have always flocked here. There's a collection of Joseph Mitchell's stories called "McSorley's Wonderful Saloon," and E.E. Cummings described the brew here as "ale which never lets you grow old."

I can't say how many literary types were in attendance at McSorley's on the night I spent some hours there. I didn't recognize anyone. But the buzz in the air put me in mind of something the novelist Walter Kirn said not long ago, about why big cities are still vital for young writers.

"My advice for aspiring writers is to go to New York," Mr. Kirn said. "And if you can't go to New York, go to the place that represents New York to you, where the standards for writing are high, there are other people who share your dreams, and where you can talk, talk, talk about your interests. Writing books begins in talking about it, like most human projects, and in being close to those who have already done what you propose to do."

Once you're here, young people, try to find Gary Shteyngart.

BY THE BOOK

There are some eight million people in New York City, and there are nearly as many ways to get here. Do not try, as Will Ferrell does in the movie "Elf," to enter Manhattan by walking through the Lincoln Tunnel.

EATING AND DRINKING

A long, bookish weekend should begin with a drink. One place to start, for its hectic, literary and very New York vibe, is McSorley's Old Ale House (15 East Seventh Street; 212-473-9148; mcsorleysnewyork.com). Another gruff old favorite, Dylan Thomas's onetime hangout, is the White Horse Tavern (567 Hudson Street; 212-989-3956). Here are two mellower ideas: the homey Kettle of Fish (59 Christopher Street; 212-414-2278; kettleoffishnyc.com) and the more seductive Dalloway (525 Broome Street; 212-966-9620; thedallowaynyc.com), filled with candles and Virginia Woolf memorabilia.

For dinner, there is Café Loup (105 West 13th Street; 212-255-4746; cafeloupnyc.com), a gentle and unpretentious bistro in the West Village that has catered to writers, academics and editors for decades. Try the snails and the pommes frites with Dijon mayonnaise. Late nights, head for Otto Enoteca Pizzeria (One Fifth Avenue; 212-995-9559; ottopizzeria.com), Mario Batali's casual Italian restaurant, for pasta or a pizza. You might find Lorin Stein, editor of The Paris Review, loitering at the bar. Try to sell him your short story.

HOTELS

As for hotels, the Algonquin (59 West 44th Street; 212-840-6800; algonquinhotel.com) in Midtown, where Dorothy Parker once held court, is a classic, though its recent renovation has rendered it a bit chilly and stiff. The Library Hotel (299 Madison Avenue; 212-983-4500; libraryhotel.com) is a geeky but chic boutique hotel where the guest floors are organized along the dictates of the Dewey Decimal System. More dramatic, is the NoMad Hotel (1170 Broadway; 212-796-1500; thenomadhotel.com), in a turn-of-the-century beaux-arts building. At minimum, have a drink in its large, soaring and usually crowded library.

BOOKSTORES

A trip to the Strand (strandbooks.com), where the motto is "18 Miles of Books," and where new and used books are packed into every cranny over three levels, is worth the price of your airfare. For small, well-curated and adorable, try 192 Books (192 10th Avenue; 212-255-4022; 192books.com). Finally, there is Housing Works Bookstore Café (126 Crosby Street; 212-334-3324; housingworks.org/locations/detail/bookstore-cafe) on the cobblestoned streets of SoHo, which does good deeds as well as peddle good books, always the happiest of combinations.

DWIGHT GARNER is a book critic for The Times.

travel

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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