Alysa Salzberg

Alysa Salzberg
Paris, France
December 31
Writer, copy editor, translator, travel planner. Head servant to my cat.
A reader, a writer, a fingernail biter, a cat person, a traveller, a cookie inhaler, an immigrant, a dreamer. …And now, self-employed! If you like my blog and if you're looking for sparkling writing, painstaking proofreading, nimble French-English translation, or personalized travel planning, feel free to check out


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NOVEMBER 30, 2011 8:56AM

Two small bookstores that have a big place in my heart

Rate: 23 Flag

Though hard economic times have led to lots of restaurant, café, and clothing store closures, it's rare that a Parisian bookstore fails.  On the other hand, I’ve read with sadness and horror about the closings of many US bookshops – be they chain stores like Borders, or smaller locales. 

I'm glad that two of my favorite independent bookstores in the US are still around to enjoy and visit today.

When I was a teenager, my dad and I took a trip to several spots in eastern Pennsylvania.  We don’t have a lot in common, and our destinations showed our disparate tastes: a microbrewery and Independence Hall for him; Philadelphia's Edgar Allan Poe House and the Museum of Art for me.  But my dad had also come up with a surprise pit-stop near West Chester: Baldwin’s Book Barn, an early 19th century barn that's been converted into a bookshop. 


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I was touched by my dad’s thoughtfulness; Baldwin’s Book Barn was like heaven for me.  Five stories of crammed bookshelves and cozy corners.  The books were antiques – a rarity in my life at the time.  I ended up coming home with a boxful. I still have most of them; some I even brought with me to France. 


 tramp trip

Published in 1886, A Tramp Trip: How to See Europe on Fifty Cents a Day by Lee Meriwether fueled my travel hopes and dreams (though of course I knew it would cost me more than 50 cents a day to see Europe). It's still one of my most cherished books.



On the other hand, I have to admit that I bought this one, The Rise and Fall of the Mustache, mostly for its title, which always makes me chuckle.



Previous owners have written their names in both books, but what I found especially intriguing is the person who scrawled "Bought for the Good of the People" onto an opening page of The Rise and Fall of the Mustache.



I don't know if I would have done this today, but at the time when I bought these books, I felt so touched by the traces left by their previous owners, that I added the date and place I bought them, in very contemporary ballpoint pen.


Though Baldwin's Book Barn’s website presents it as a convivial gathering place for bibliophiles and writers, when I was there, I paid no attention whatsoever to the people or activities going on around me.  All I remember is the old floors and ceilings, and between them, shelves upon shelves of glorious old tomes.  Utter bliss.


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In a completely different setting, the Housing Works Bookstore Cafe, at 126 Crosby Street, New York, New York is another small bookshop I love. 

hw bookstore

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One day, while exploring Soho, I came upon this warmly lit place.  In a high-ceilinged cream-colored interior, books are elegantly arranged on wood-panelled shelves on the main floor and on the narrow balconies of a second floor, which is accessible by a charming spiral staircase. While many of the books are full price, there are discounted ones as well; I’ve found some great bargains here. On one wall of the bookstore is a café area where snacks and drinks are sold, and there are tables where you can sit and savor them while taking in your surroundings...or pouring over the pages of a book.


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The Housing Works Bookstore Cafe is such a pleasant place to browse and pick up a book or two.  Every time I visit New York, I make a stop here, and I always leave wishing I could live out the remainder of my life  in a little corner of it.  Apparently I’m not the only one who’s fallen for the site; the space can be rented for catered events – including wedding receptions, giving me another idea for my dream wedding.


Me on the second floor of the Housing Works Bookstore Cafe 


The best thing of all is that the money you spend here goes to Housing Works, an HIV/AIDS charity.  So not only do you get to eat, drink, and read (and possibly get married) in a wonderful environment; you’re helping others all the while. 

I understand completely why bookstore chains exist, and I freely and unashamedly admit to sometimes spending money at and, and chains like the FNAC and Gibert Joseph here in France.  But nothing can beat the experience of entering an independent bookstore and feeling that special sensation, as if the books are closer to you somehow, a living presence.  Without these places, the world would lose some of its magic. 


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Both of those stores look enchanting, Alysa. I love even to look at photos of bookstores - fronts and interiors. Almost as good as being inside them.
Your post was elegant and both bookstores look like places where I would want to spend long hours escaping to unknown worlds. Old books are so gorgeous, I am reminded, as you show us your beauties--so carefully bound in cloth and embossed with great craftsmanship. The ragged edges on the pages are sensual.

I think there is nothing wrong with writing in a book. Your ownership of it is part of its history. Annotated volumes by writers are considered quite valuable. So carry on.
Oh Alysa, I could feel your love coming through. You showcase the personalities of each store beautifully! I want to come to the wedding! R
Thanks for another great trip, Alysa, with great photos. I had no idea that one could get married in a bookshop--that really IS a dream wedding. I love old books so much. It's the human touch factor, I think, just wondering how many hands held the book, experienced the same world I did through the same medium. I think it's cool that you wrote where and when you bought the book since you're now part of its history. Also, I laughed out loud at (and am so curious about) the Rise and Fall of the Mustache--too funny! Is it a good book?!
Always love bookstores but I would die to get into yours..
The books.. sigh.. I hae some of those back in Canada and wonder if my kids will appreciate them.
Both of those places look really wonderful.
Great post about great things- bookstores. You look very spiffy in that picture too.
Yeah, Housing Works is great. It's a bit of a hike but I try to get out there at least a few times a year.
They look like fine places to spend a few hours/days/weeks.
After the blissy goofy rush in my head
from entering a new bookstore is subsided,
and the almost feral hunger to EAT the books with my brain
is passed, I calm down and figure out where to settle my ass
on the floor crosslegged so as to get a good eyeview of all the titles
in my near vicinity. I sit scanning. I take stock of what I am gonna
grab when I decide to make my move. Suddenly,
jump up, grab some books,
plop down again and paw through my treasures
like a gorilla on speed. Anyone watching this is convinced
I am either a genius or a madman. I always need coffee for this.
The back of my throat screams for caffeine.
I am known to spill my coffee in my spastic movement of hands
over paper. I want everything. I decide : yes, I shall get everything.
Then I have to make the hard choice of what I NEED. argh.
Your descriptions are wonderful and the photos are the icing on the cake. How you feel about these two places really comes through.
Warm, lovely piece. You've captured all the things I love about independent bookstores -- and the joy of reading.
Great, now I need an excuse to go to rural PA. Thanks, Alysa! :)
How cool would it be to take a road trip and visit all these bookstores people have blogged about on OS? Both of yours sound fab.

congrats on the EP!
Alysa, I absolutely love bookstores. In fact, Daniel and I met in one. -R-
A very good friend of mine was the founder and director of Housing Works. It is a great organization. We met at the College of Wooster. Keith left us way too soon. He is missed by many.
Oh, these churches.... how delightful a post. I see it with your eyes and with mine...a shared passion of read-a-holics. Blessings, Alysa. Well done on the EP
Nicely done piece and wonderful pictures. I especially appreciate the info about the Soho bookstore--I'll go check it out. I'd love to see an article about Parisian bookstores . . . it's great to know they're still doing okay.
Alysa, thanks for this great look at two delightful bookstores spaces! I haven't been to Housing Works Bookstore Cafe but will looking forward to visiting the store soon. Those are some wonderful books you have in your collection and I agree it's fun to have books that have notations along with autographs in them.
Next time I'm in the city, I will be stopping by the Housing Works Bookstore Cafe. I agree with you--the world would definitely lose a lot of its magic without these kinds of bookstores. I pray that they survive technology!
I've fantasized about working in a book store, but I'd probably get fired for not paying attention to the customers. This is just delightful and you should write in books. I love buying used books and finding previous owners' handwriting.
Matt – Thanks, and I know what you mean! Bookstores are so wonderful that it’s even fun to just imagine being in a good one!

Miguela – Thank you – and the teenager I was would definitely agree with your thoughts on writing in books. So many of the books I bought then are covered in marginalia – even the date and time I started and finished reading a book. It’s kind of cool to look back and see those things, but in the case of very old books, I still feel a bit like I’m trespassing. And yet, logically, I’m only continuing tradition. Writing this, I feel like I want to go inscribe my name into all of the books I own, even the antique ones! But another part of me is fainting on an imaginary divan. I am torn….

Jaime – Thanks. These two places really mean a lot to me. As for the wedding, I’m not really the marrying kind, but if I ever did get married, I’m really going to do my best to convince the boyfriend that the American part (we’d have to get married in each of our native countries, because we both have big, somewhat immobile families) should be at Housing Works Bookstore Cafe!

Sally – I agree completely. I knew the boyfriend was for me when he told me he collected antique books. That’s the best way for a man to seduce me : -) As for “The Rise and Fall of the Mustache”, it’s a collection of humorous stories, one of which is the mustache tale in question. I have to admit, I’ve never read it – I’ve been trying all day to say why, and I think it’s because, you know how books sort of call out to you to be read, or it just feels right to read them at certain times? This one hasn’t, yet. But I feel sort of guilty about that, so maybe I’ll read it soon – and when I do, I’ll definitely tell you how it is!

Linda – I hope you’ll be able to visit both of these places. What do you think about City Lights, by the way? When I was in San Francisco, I made a pilgrimage there, but was impeded by a few factors and so I didn’t really get to take it in as I would have liked. Is it all it’s cracked up to be?

Jeanette – They really are. I’m happy I had a reason to write about them; usually they’re just there, in my mind’s collection of “happy places”….

fernsy – Thanks – and I am glad someone thinks I look spiffy! I feel like I’m staring dully ahead (okay, I was sort of distracted by the books) and the coat doesn’t fit me right, and those boots were the only ones I could find that year that fit tight to the calves (I have massive calves and can’t wear formless boots) and they are too big in the feet. And my nose is red because it’s cold outside!

Seth – I’m so glad you know about Housing Works and how cool it is. And you’re so lucky you get to go there a few times a year! For me, it’s only once, if that (sometimes I don’t get to the New York area).

Stim – Oh, they are indeed!

James – You make me think of a quote from my favorite book, “A Little Princess”: “’She doesn’t just read books, Miss Minchin, she devours them.’”

Sarah – Thank you! I really do love these two bookstores.

Pauline – Thanks so much. I’m glad you enjoyed it!

Blue – Oh yeah, Baldwin’s Book Barn is definitely worth the trip!

Firechick – Oooh, what a cool idea that would be!!! Yet another trip I want to take….

Christine – That is delightful! I always thought I’d meet and fall in love with someone in a bookstore. It just seems like the perfect place for that kind of thing. But alas, I never have…. I’m glad you got to live the dream!

Mark – How wonderful to have known someone who’s done so much for others.

Brazen Princess – I’m so glad you enjoyed this little journey – I thought the OC was a great way to celebrate these two places I love so much!

Manhattan – Thank you, and you should definitely check out Housing Works – it’s a lovely place. As for Parisian bookstores, I may one day write a post about them, but I felt like this OC would be better used to highlight bookstores that could one day face closure. No one knows what the future holds, but generally bookstores in Paris do well enough to stay in business, which is a real blessing. If you’re really hankering for a post about Paris bookstores, I’d highly recommend Matt Paust’s latest piece, about Shakespeare & Company.

designanator – Thanks! I’m glad you enjoyed this post, and I’m so happy you’ll check out Housing Works Bookstore Cafe – it’s just such a wonderful place.

Karin – Housing Works is definitely a magical place, and what I love is that whatever you spend goes towards helping others.
Mime - I've thought the exact same thing about working in a bookstore! And I'm glad you approve of writing in books.
Wonderful stores, indeed! My "Lady Lucia" is employed by Housing Works ('though in administration; not in the stores). Like you, I am grateful for those brick-and-mortar independent bookstores that survive! I'm also a big fan of the Strand Book Store in Greenwich Village.
Alysa, I can't believe I've never heard of the Housing Works! I've probably walked past it many times. I'll make a special stop next time I'm in Manhattan.
Love to visit both of these...Cheers and read on.
What a beautiful memory of spending time with your father. He knew you well and picked the perfect surprise on your trip. Both of these book stores sound like treasure. Thank you for sharing them with us. R
Thanks for spotlighting these two favorite spots of yours, Alysa. They look amazing. I love it that you have a picture of you in one of them (that shows serious passion).
(Agreed...perfect place for a wedding)
beautiful spaces. 30 years ago downtown Boston had both big chain stores, used book stores and fine antiquarian. Since Borders closed last year all we have is one used book store in the basement of the Old South Church.