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The Art of the Bookstore

Browsers at Mast BooksBrendan BernhardBrowsers at Mast Books.

On May 8, Mast Books, which takes up about 450 square feet at 66 Avenue A, sailed into its second year as a viable new business in the East Village. Why “Mast”? Is Bryan Leitgeb, who owns the store together with his wife, James McKee, a secret fan of Patrick O’Brian, C.S. Forester, and other icons of nautical literature? Smiling at this idea, Mr. Leitgeb shakes his head but says he prefers not to reveal why his store should have such a singular name.

Mr. Leitgeb, 37, who came to New York from Flint, Mich., is already a veteran of the city’s used-books business. (He spent seven years at Mercer Books alone.) He is also confident that he has hit upon the right business formula in the right place at the right time. Unlike East Village Books, long a fixture at 99 St. Marks Place, Mast has the air of a used book store acutely aware it is in the midst of an intellectual revolution that has raised the image far above the word.

This knowledge is Mast’s secret. With its polished wood floors, white walls, track lighting, and eye-catching display tables, it doesn’t look “used” or “second-hand” in the slightest. On the contrary, it is designed to evoke a small art gallery and to attract similarly chic crowds, although its strong neighborhood ethos prevents it from feeling in any way exclusionary. Mr. Leitgeb, whose blue eyes are alternately melancholy and highly focused, does his part to make non-hipsters feel at home by going unshaven, wearing non-designer glasses, and a brown cap unlikely to be featured in the next edition of Vogue. More importantly, he’s also unsnobbish, helpful, and friendly.
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