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East Village Book Crawl

browsing outside Strand BooksMichelle RickBrowsing outside Strand Books.

I enjoyed the portrait of Mast Books by Brendan Bernhard we published yesterday because the clean, bright space has become one of my regular haunts on Avenue A. Not that I can claim to be a valued customer. I like to take my ten year-old daughter in there and point out the books I’ve already got. “I have that. I have that. I do have that, but in a different edition.” The problem for Mast Books, if not for me, is that its curation of titles is so close to my taste that the store’s bookshelves uncannily mirror my own.

Reading the piece, I mentally counted off the neighborhood’s surviving independent bookstores and paused to mourn a few long lost. Posman’s on University Place was somewhat west of the East Village but housed an extraordinary selection of academic paperbacks. This was a place to revel in critical theory, bask in sociology and drown in philosophy. Almost irreplaceable, but I get an adequate fix of Foucault and Badiou, together with the opportunity to browse improbably expensive glossy magazines, at St Mark’s Bookshop.

The Strand is the neighborhood giant, of course, and one of the largest bookstores in the world in terms of miles of shelving. Usually crowded, always hard to navigate thanks to crowd-sourced aisle dithering, it’s the place to find relatively new books heavily discounted as well as cheap used editions. The Strand has been easier to access since surveillance cameras took over from the bag check (like only people with large bags can steal books) and the store’s website, unlike aspects of the store itself, is a model of user-friendliness. Read more…

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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