A literary tour of Manhattan


Holly Golightly kept me company — courtesy of Truman Capote’s “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” — on my latest trip to Manhattan. It was an excursion that combined my passion for books with my love of travel.

The tale of the flighty Golightly’s time in New York City was ideal for my unusual obsession: When I travel, I absolutely must read a novel set in the place I am visiting. Whether it’s current — or like Capote’s novella, 50 years old — doesn’t matter. What I crave is the novelist’s perspective, and I delight in walking past the places I am discovering in a book. 


LIBRARY HOTEL 299 Madison Ave., (212) 983-4500, www.libraryhotel.com

Doubles start at about $429.

PETE’S TAVERN 129 E. 18th St., (212) 473-7676

IDLEWILD BOOKS 12 W. 19th St., (212) 414-8888, www.idlewildbooks.com

STRAND BOOK STORE 828 Broadway, (212) 473-1452, www.strandbooks.com

Manhattan is full of treats for a book-loving traveler. They can be had in a weekend, but you will, of course, have a new list waiting for your next visit.

First stop on this trip and home base: the Library Hotel in midtown, which I had been itching to visit since I discovered it online. Our cab driver didn’t know the hotel, which I took as a good sign. It must be mainly discriminating bibliophiles who make their way to this boutique property with 60 rooms categorized according to the Dewey Decimal System. I am not a book snob, but it’s just too quirky a concept to attract guests who aren’t drawn to scanning the titles on a bookshelf.

We arrived too early for check-in, but the staff stored our luggage and offered us the complimentary breakfast, even though we hadn’t been guests the previous night. The spread was laid out in the second-floor Reading Room, where guests could look toward the iconic lions outside the New York Public Library a block away on Fifth Avenue. I was eager to find out which room we had been given, but all the staff would tell us was that we were on the Religion floor. I had been hoping for fiction; erotica, maybe. (It’s OK. I was traveling with my husband.)

Perhaps my favorite Manhattan bookstore is Idlewild Books, where owner David Del Vecchio, a former United Nations press officer, shares my passion for combining literature and travel. His shop, near Union Square, opened a little more than a year ago and carries guidebooks from around the U.S. and world. But it also stocks contemporary and classic fiction and nonfiction.

What makes this bookstore different is that the books are not grouped by genre but by destination. The guidebook “Florence & Tuscany,” by Rick Steves, for example, is one shelf over from Thomas Mann’s “Death in Venice.” A Lonely Planet offering on Mexico sat one shelf above “Mexican Enough,” a memoir by Stephanie Elizondo Griest.

The store, with its big and bright second-floor space overlooking 19th Street, is a great place to spend a few hours and plan a few trips. I’m dreaming of Morocco, and I couldn’t leave without purchasing “In Arabian Nights” by Tahir Shah. If you’re not lucky enough to make a trip to the store, Idlewild offers customized gift packs you can order online.

We decided not to stray from the literary theme at meals. Pete’s Tavern, in Gramercy Park, claims to be New York City’s oldest continuously operating bar and restaurant. It opened in 1864 and stayed open, disguised as a flower shop, during Prohibition.

But the history that sent us here was one of its famous patrons. O. Henry was reputed to be a regular who wrote his masterpiece “Gift of the Magi” here. It’s also where Ludwig Bemelmans wrote his “Madeline” children’s book. A plaque outside from Friends of Libraries USA designates the tavern as a literary landmark for its “nurturing atmosphere” for the two writers.

The place was crowded with locals on the day we were there. It was easy to see why. A bowl of soup for $4; chef salad for $8.95. With its dark wood and an old saloon’s odd nooks and crannies, it seemed like the kind of place for a burger and beer. The burger was $8.25. Not bad for a restaurant in Manhattan.

A book lover can’t visit here without a stop at the Strand Bookstore, on Broadway at 12th Street. In business since 1927 and occupying 55,000 square feet, the Strand shouts its “18 miles of books” to all comers. There’s probably no way to know the precise number, but the Strand says it has more than 2.5 million volumes of new, used and rare books.

My head was spinning the first time I walked across the aged wooden floors. This is definitely a New York kind of bookstore: crowds of people, lines for the cashiers, signs pointing upstairs and down, noise, bustle and lots to see.

My skepticism about the “18 miles of books” was immediately disabused. There are shelves upon shelves upon shelves. New fiction near the front; dusty used volumes toward the back. You could spend a day — or three — and on a return visit still find something you hadn’t seen.

A place with more books than the Strand is the New York Public Library’s Stephen A. Schwarzman Building on Fifth Avenue. The free tours, offered daily, give a sense of the immensity of the collection and an up-close look at the magnificent Beaux Arts building that opened to the public in 1911.

When we finally checked in at the Library Hotel, we were assigned to the Eastern Religions room on the 12th floor. It wasn’t what I had in mind, but I wasn’t disappointed. The rooms have a theme, but mostly that has to do with the types of books in each room, not with furnishings or design.

Our room with a queen-sized bed, at $250 per night for a weekday stay in April, was sleek and comfortable, not large but sufficient. The furnishings in the room and throughout the hotel were updated Midcentury: Think “Mad Men,” but with 21st century accouterments.

The Reading Room, where breakfast is served, is bright and open, with fresh flowers, a grand piano and shelf upon shelf of hardcover books. If a guest borrows a book and hasn’t finished when it’s time to leave, he’s asked to mail it or hold on to it until a return visit.

The hotel also has a rooftop bar adjacent to its Poetry Garden terrace and Writer’s Den with fireplace.

I had wanted to stop at Tiffany on this trip. Its cachet is not exactly literary, but it has its place in literature. As Golightly knows, nothing bad can ever happen to you at Tiffany.

Maybe next time.


One thought on “A literary tour of Manhattan

  1. Man, this nice spring weather has me in a NY state of mind. I’d love to go on a literary tour of Manhattan, browse some first editions — and try real hard not to buy any — and then enjoy a few hours in park or plaza sipping wine and reading.

    Nice piece!

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