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The Science Survey

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The Science Survey

We've got the news down to a science!

The Science Survey

East Village Books: A Used Bookstore Among Manhattan’s Best Vintage

For thirty years, East Village Books has held a spot on Saint Marks Place. While providing an eclectic collection of books, prints, CDs and DVDs, the store bestows an unmatched energy and history to the East Village.
Willa Huber
‘East Village Books’ is found on Saint Marks Place, on a historic street in Manhattan.

New York City is a city of organized chaos. Uptight businessmen and aspiring actresses scurry from place to place with their eyes on the prize. In a city known for its extravagance and restlessness, it’s easy to focus on the large billboards and obnoxious neon signs, disregarding small details. However, when something refuses to seek validation from its surroundings, it’s granted not only free will, but peace. In Manhattan’s adored East Village, there is a bookstore by the name of East Village Books. While the store doesn’t stop time, it slows it down. With its front door tucked in between a coffee shop and sock store, the store is uniquely a part of the city that demands nothing of its customers but to take a moment to slow down. 

Owner Donald Davis, began his business humbly in the 1990s. “We sold books on the street,” said Davis. Quickly, their plan hit a wall. “It got cold and the cops bothered us.” In 1994, Davis opened the doors to his quaint shop. 

Most vintage stores in the city have a unique selection of curated items, often brought in by various consigners. Consignment is a process where the store or company accepts items, but only gives the sellers a cut of the profit once the item has sold. East Village Books, however, strays away from consignment and purchases their items directly from the sellers themselves. 

While they are well accustomed to people who wish to sell one or two books individually, East Village Books specializes in large estate libraries. The opportunity to take in these collections often arises from the passing of someone’s relative or from someone facing a drastic move, needing to sell an entire collection.

The store encountered one library a few years ago that held around 1,500 boxes of books. Even after filling an 18 foot long box truck, they made several trips back to the location, filling their minivan each time. Oftentimes, when dealing with estate libraries, the store’s team rejects certain books that contain outdated themes or facts. However, with a library full of thousands of niche but interesting books, their team immediately began to devise a way to create extra storage in their store.  

At their original location, at 101 Saint Marks Street, they stored extra books on permanent outdoor bookshelves placed in front of their store’s facade. However, after moving to their new space, 99 Saint Marks around 2004, they began storing discount books in what they called the garden. Found behind the building, the garden is an outdoor courtyard space that is open to customers.

Even with the garden’s extra shelf space, the new collection exceeded the store’s limit. As a solution, they bought a large Rubbermaid storage unit that fit roughly one third of the collection, and then wrapped the remaining boxes in secure tarps. After nine months, they were able to process all the books from the extra storage spaces, but to this day, they use these methods to store extra books. 

On the shelves of East Village Books, there are distinguishable patterns that arise as a result of New Yorkers sharing certain interests and tastes. However, the beauty of East Village Books specializing in estate libraries is that one can also notice patterns and evolution of one person’s collection, the way certain genres peaked but were later forgotten, while others remained constant over the years. 

I recently visited the store with three books that I had the intention of selling. After taking the L train across town, I approached the store’s entrance. Its facade sits low to the sidewalk, contrasting with that of most New York City buildings. I passed a small sign sitting on the sidewalk, informing passing pedestrians of the store’s presence. In the main window, past the bold red letters with the store’s name is a display of artwork by local artist, Tony Williams. The window adjacent, labeled ‘The Poetry Window,’ features works by East Village poet, Johnny H. The heartfelt poems are left in a well lit place day and night. Perhaps this is a place to visit when one can’t sleep. 

The crisp air pushed me inside as I made my way down the store’s sole hallway. Passing the old milk cartons which held stacks upon stacks of vintage postcards, I approached the clerk behind the counter who was manning the small store by himself. He told me that the typical protocol is for sellers to e-mail pictures of the books they want to sell before coming into the store. However, given that I was already there, he asked to see the books.

On the counter, I placed May We Be Forgiven by A.M. Homes, David Sedaris’ Me Talk Pretty One Day and Kathryn Stockett’s The Help. The store tends to exclude bestsellers and mainstream movies and music from their selection. “Most of our customers are not looking for mainstream items,” Davis told me earlier. With the latter two being bestsellers, I knew they would likely be rejected. However, given that I had bought May We Be Forgiven from East Village Books a few years before, I imagined they would gladly welcome it back to their shelves. 

After scanning the books, the employee told me he wasn’t able to accept any of my items because their resale prices were too high. He explained that once their resale prices reach a certain threshold, the store could not accept them. However, he told me I could donate them.

I was most shocked by the rejection of May We Be Forgiven. I remember buying the novel at one of my first visits to the store when I was in seventh grade. My hair was longer than it is now, and I was there with a friend that I no longer talk to. After I took the book home, it never moved from its place next to my jewelry. There was always something I was more eager to read. I finally picked it up when I realized it was taking up space I wanted for other things, and selling it was the best option. 

We often think about stores and restaurants as symbols of stability. We perceive them as buildings that will outlive us by many years despite being born far before us. However, the city’s, neighborhoods and their contents change as much as we do. While their foundations remain the same –  places like the East Village can never be Times Square – each neighborhood exhibits individual growth over time. At East Village Books, what was desirable two years ago had become obsolete and unappealing. 

I thanked the employee for helping me, and then I wandered through the store. 

I passed by a box of old comic strips, a nook filled with DVDs, and a bin of prints featuring everything from pin up girls to old Chinese calligraphy. As I made my way through the poetry section, I passed a couple talking to each other in a language I didn’t understand. Looking at each other lovingly, they browsed through various poems.

I approached the area in the back of the store labeled discount books. Pushing the metal door open, I entered the garden, one of the places used to store extra books. Concealed from the surrounding courtyard, its walls were constructed by five filled bookshelves, a blue tarp, and a floor made of small gravel rocks.

East Village Books opened their outdoor storage space entitled ‘The Garden’ after moving to their second and current location, 99 Saint Marks Place.
(Willa Huber)

Looking around the small room, old cookbooks caught my attention, perhaps originally from the shelf of a mother who never learned the spaghetti’s proper ratios. Surrounding them were law books and textbooks, the contents of which most people will never understand. Picking up one book entitled, 1000 Places to See Before You Die, I skimmed the first few pages, and put it back on the shelf. 

The next time I visit the store, a new generation of people will have discovered its presence, purchasing what I utterly overlooked. The cycle of customers has been inevitable since the store’s opening. In the 1960s, Saint Marks Place became a magnet for east coast counter culture. Hippies were especially drawn to the small but notorious street, with major artists like Andy Warhol and The Velvet Underground establishing themselves in small clubs along Saint Mark’s. Upon its arrival to the scene, East Village Books became vital to the street’s history, both as a contributor and witness of its culture. For years to come, the store will both meet new customers and rediscover old relationships, just as its customers will encounter new books and genres, while also rediscovering old memories and interests. 

After leaving the garden, two large bookcases filled with CDs struck my attention. While they refrain from accepting pop music CDs, the store’s selection holds more than the expected classical music. I ran my finger across the various album titles, unsure of what exactly I was looking for. About a minute into my search, my finger stopped at Waiting for the Sun, one of The Doors’ first albums. 

After standing in front of the shelf for about fifteen minutes, I found an adequate collection of rock albums. The Rolling Stones’ Aftermath, Lou Reed’s Magic, and The Byrds’ Loss, Younger than Yesterday struck my attention first. Later I found Live at Last and Master of Reality by Black Sabbath, as well as Dozin’ at the Knick by the Grateful Dead. 

Most distinctly, I found seven albums by The Doors. Some were side by side, others sandwiched between various classical compositions, but I couldn’t help but wonder where this majority collection came from. I thought maybe they were from someone recently deceased, who grew up on Jim Morrison’s raspy voice. Maybe their CD collection was found by a family member and donated to this small store in the East Village. Or perhaps someone gave away the albums because they were ready for their childhood to pass, their donation a symbol of moving forward. Or maybe it was much simpler, and the albums just became another piece of clutter in one’s lively household. 

It could be that the origins of the albums are scattered around the city, coming from people who don’t know each other and never will, people whose lives spiraled in different directions with careers big and small. Or perhaps they were people who loved The Doors for different reasons, yet somehow, all found themselves in a small used bookstore in the East Village, giving away part of their collection, and part of their life.

I ended up buying a Chet Baker album, My Funny Valentine, and LA Woman, The Doors’ last album. I became a Doors fan at a young age when my dad would put them on as we made dinner together. Wishing I listened to them more, I bought the physical copy, because actually owning a copy of an album encourages me to listen to it more. I’ve also been in search of a Chet Baker CD for some time, but even at various record stores I could never pinpoint one. I never would have anticipated finding one of his albums at a bookstore, especially after having zero intention of purchasing a CD.  

The team at East Village Books is very thoughtful with the libraries they encounter, just as their customers are thoughtful with the books they browse through. “The person who owned the books most likely selected each volume with care. They purchased with the intent of reading or at least possessing the knowledge within the pages,” Davis wrote in an essay describing the store’s experience with estate libraries. Although there are designated sections throughout the store, in most cases there is only one copy of each book. Oftentimes, even employees can’t point to the exact location of a book, so it depends on the mindfulness of the customer to determine whether they will leave the store empty handed or holding exactly what they wanted.

After lingering in front of various shelves, I left the store’s comfortable silence and found myself back among the quiet chatter of the East Village. Walking down Saint Marks Place, it was apparent which stores were new and which had been there for years. The older ones were less flashy, as they had more experience with what people were looking for. They were comfortable with their niche. The newer ones had a wider variety of items, unsure of where they stood in the village. 

East Village Books has stood on the same street for thirty years, a street that watched some of the world’s best artists come and go. One who has never walked down Saint Marks Place will never discover the bookstore, but for others, visiting the store is a staple of their routine. While time does not stand still in East Village Books, it does slow down. The serene bookstore is a place to recharge, unload, and remember.  

Upon its arrival to the scene, East Village Books became vital to the street’s history, both as a contributor and witness of its culture. For years to come, the store will both meet new customers and rediscover old relationships, just as its customers will encounter new books and genres, while also rediscovering old memories and interests.

About the Contributor
Willa Huber, Staff Reporter
Willa Huber is a Spotlight Editor for ‘The Science Survey.’ She enjoys journalism that is creative, informative, and grants a voice to people and legacies that are often discounted as obsolete or unimportant. Moreover, she enjoys powerful quotes and photographs that speak for themselves and demand the reader’s attention. Outside of school, Willa can be found at her dance studio, with daily classes and rehearsals consuming the majority of her free time. In accordance with her love of dance, she has a strong appreciation for music. Her favorite genre is classic rock, and she enjoys playing along to her favorite songs both on the guitar and the drums. Her favorite bands include Fleetwood Mac, Pink Floyd, and Simon and Garfunkel.