12:28 pm Jan. 14, 2011
If a Soho model—a lithe, long-locked creature in a poncho sweater and leggings—were to be seen reading a book in some cafe, the book could very well be Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids. So it's not terribly surprising Smith’s charming memoir, which chronicles her relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, appears at the top of this week’s bestsellers list at Prince Street’s McNally Jackson Books.
But there are other Old New Yorks buried beneath the condo buildings and suntanning salons of lower Manhattan, and readers of a different cast would find that in Colum McCann’s 2009 book Let the Great World Spin (No. 5 on the list). The novel is anchored in 1974, when Philippe Petit walked the tightrope between the Twin Towers as many New Yorkers walked a thin line on the ground below.
In the corner cafe inside McNally, visible from the window displaying books by Zadie Smith and Denis Johnson, a startling demographic of attractive, bespectacled writer types asserts itself among the habitués sipping Stumptown coffee and sharing crepes. When they don't look like writers they look like Brooklynites between Manhattan appointments or interns at one of the fashion boutiques or photo studios nearby.
Both sorts are to be seen there flipping through the Paris Review or n+1 while waiting to be seen waiting for the list's No. 2 entry, a reading from David Swanson of his new book War is a Lie. Activist Mark Crispin Miller joined him earlier this month. Footage of the talk later appeared on YouTube, plenty of it recorded on iPhones.
As the reading went on, McNally’s book shelf-stackers went about their specialty: offering gentle reading suggestions without making browsers feel like they’re being elbowed into buying anything. They are literary astrologists, those McNally Jacksonites, with personality traits as their guiding bodies. They note the dress, demeanor and the aisles a browser is wandering and take the temperature of the publishing geist of the moment, trying to make connections. Stacy Schiff’s Cleopatra: A Life for the third-wave-feminist librarian type poking at the biographies (No. 9 on the list), Keith Richards’ Life for the greasy-haired record collector type (No. 6), who is eyeing her in side-long stares. You are what you read.
For the secretly skiffy obsessive hovering over the science fiction section, they would recommend Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, (No. 4), which was published last year but has received an autumn resurgence in sales thanks to a hat trick of honors in 2010, including the Locus Magazine Award, the Nebula Award, and being named National Book Award finalist.
Another award winner McNallyites are picking up on the long tail: Howard Jacobson's comedy about anti-Semitism, The Finkler Question (No. 10), which won the Man Booker Prize for Fiction in London in October.
And then recent but not brand-new work by well-worn names will always make there way onto the list at a neighborhood browsing bookstore like McNally Jackson. J.M. Coetzee’s Summertime, also released in 2009, gets a shelfside recommendation from McNally staffer, Dustin, who writes on the store's website: “Coetzee has been working since Elizabeth Costello or earlier to Trollope the contemporary novel so hard it'll knock the jade right out of our eyes. If anything was lacking from those efforts it was exactly what Coetzee finds here: the bravery, the damned gall, to place his fictional self at the center of the thing and wound it, himself, over and over again as he cuts away at the corpus of the book and the form. It's too good, this book, too ambitious to be bloodless.”
On the display tables, you'll likely find Chris Cleave’s Little Bee (No. 7), his 2009 novel about a tenuous friendship between two strong females: a brave 16-year-old Nigerian refugee girl and a white British magazine editor.
Also on those display shelves are the must-reads: the of-the-moment books that take over the publishing conversation. In 2010 and into 2011, that will be Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, which makes it to No. 3 on the list. Franzen himself may have referred to the store in his new novel, in which one of the characters, Patty, notes that a “few weeks ago, on Spring Street in Manhattan, on her way home from a bookstore reading by an earnest young novelist whom Jessica was excited to be publishing, Patty saw a tall middle-aged man.” One of McNally Jackson’s salesmen noted the passage on the store’s blog: “What bookstore—located near Spring Street, frequent host of earnest young novelists—could the character be walking from?” We can take a guess.
More by this author:
- At the Tribeca Film Festival: Filmmaker Mira Nair on our 'world of misunderstanding'
- The Brooklyn Islanders: what's left to lose?