Mapping the Bookstores of My Youth

This morning, Helen sent me this picture of The Ashford Affair at the B&N on 86th Street– and it started me off on a spate of nostalgia about the bookstores of my youth.

That particular B&N wasn’t there when I was little, but there was always a B&N on 86th Street. The B&N of my childhood was between Lexington and Park, in the building that’s now a Chase bank, with a wonderful, arched doorway with glass panels at the top, ceilings that seemed to stretch into infinity, and a cheerful clutter of new book racks (which I since learned were called “dumps”) at the front of the store. General Fiction & Literature started on the wall to your left as you walked in and snaked down the side of the store, with Margaret Atwood way up at the front and Joan Wolf’s The Road to Avalon at the back, where the Fiction & Literature gave way to Mystery. Romance was right up front, on the perpendicular to fiction and literature. There must have been other sections– non-fiction and so on– but that L-shaped axis of Fiction, Romance, and Mystery was my domain.

That was the B&N where I discovered Judith Merkle Riley’s A Vision of Light, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and untold numbers of Zebra Regency romances.

Most of the time, I paid for my purchases in quarters and nickels. I had a half-fare bus pass, since I was just far enough from school to need one, but not far enough, by city regulations, to get full fare. At the fare price of the time, that meant I had to pay fifty-five cents. Somewhere around fifth grade, it occurred to me that (a) if I walked instead of rode, the B&N was right on my route home, and (b) that fifty-five cents, twice a day, five days a week, meant a new novel a week. (It was the late 80s; the price of a mass market paperback, including tax, was somewhere under five dollars.) They were very nice about my paying in clanking piles of change.

To be fair, there was some competition for that bus money. There was also a Hot & Crusty on my walk to school, smelling deliciously of hot baked goods on cold mornings, so, from time to time, some of those quarters and nickels would be diverted into blueberry or chocolate chip muffins– or into packs of Combos (pizza flavored) at the bodega two blocks away from school.

That B&N moved around. When I was in Upper School, that old B&N on 86th Street became a specialty branch of the bookstore, children’s books only, while the adult section moved a block over, to Lexington between 86th & 87th. This was a long, low ceiling-ed store, dark and cool even in summer, which gave it rather an Aladdin’s Cave effect. It was in that treasure trove of a store that I found Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander and stumbled across Julia Quinn well before the Bridgertons. I can still remember picking up How to Marry a Marquis, where it stood on the rack, the pale shade of the cover against the dark wood shelves.

And then it moved again. At some point while I was away in college or grad school, a snazzy new B&N opened between 2nd and 3rd. This one had– amazement!– two floors and a cafe, a hitherto unknown luxury. It was large and sleek and light and busy– and I didn’t like it. (Although I did find Eloisa James’s Potent Pleasures there, just out, in hardcover, with a woman with a floaty skirt on the cover.) Interestingly, the old B&N on Lexington stayed open, despite its new rival two blocks away, and it was there that I gravitated still, to the calm, quiet, dark of the old store, until it closed several years later and the big new B&N became my only option, with fiction scattered about between two floors and the romance section shoved into a corner on the second floor near the bathrooms.

Four B&Ns on 86th Street later…. A few years ago, the big, snazzy new B&N closed, and the bookstore shuffled down the block again, to 86th between Lex and Third, to a new, subterranean location right off the subway– just a street crossing away from the Chase that was the home of the B&N of my youth. The picture you see way above is from that new B&N.

I haven’t formed the same sort of personal relationship with that store that I had with the old ones, but my hope is that, way down that escalator, in the new subterranean B&N, there’s a little girl in a school uniform who has hoarded her school bus money to buy books– and who will always remember the books she bought there, in the bookstore of her youth.

What were the favorite bookstores of your youth?


  1. Celeste on May 4, 2013 at 2:15 pm

    What a great question! I can barely go back far enough to remember the bookstores of my youth and am old enough that the bookstore of my youth that I can remember, doesn’t even exist anymore. Kroch and Brentano’s had several locations in the Chicago area, but I have no idea if it existed beyond this area. The ones that I visited always had a subterranean feel to them, ie. there was very little natural lighting. This made it all that much easier to get lost in the books.

    • Nancy Kvorka on May 4, 2013 at 2:47 pm

      I echo that choice having grown up in Chicago. There was also Waldenbooks. My real bookstore of choice when I was young was the library though. Once I was old enough to work, then it was Kroch’s.

  2. Christine on May 4, 2013 at 4:31 pm

    When I was in elementary school, going to the bookstore was a luxury as there weren’t really any near us. When we did get to go, it was at King’s Plaza. Most of my books came from the school book order and my teachers could always count on me to get something every month. I’m pretty sure there was a time or two when I forgot to bring my money in on time so the teacher waited an extra day for me or fronted the money. Then we moved and my go-to store because the Staten Island Mall Waldenbooks. I got the member discount card every year because my savings definitely made up for the $10 annual fee. I don’t think my parents realized that at some point I stopped buying Baby-sitters Club and started buying Danielle Steel…

  3. Adeia on May 4, 2013 at 7:02 pm

    Because my dad was a government employee and we spent a lot of time overseas, I spent my allowance at the Stars and Stripes. That was the American chain for the military/government employees on every PX/BX shopping complex. I loved the Stars and Stripes! I didn’t set foot in a Barnes and Noble until we moved back to El Paso in 1992. But the best was moving to Michigan my senior year of high school – so many bookstores in Ann Arbor!

  4. Jessica C on May 5, 2013 at 12:46 am

    I grew up in a small town that didn’t have a bookstore. The school library and public library (and my parent’s bookshelf) were for a long time my only source of books. By the time I finished primary school, I’d read every book in the school library that interested me. I can still remember the excitement of the big new shiny public library opening; and even better when a bookstore finally opened in the bigger town 20 minutes away. I now live in a big city, but over the past 5 years all my favourite bookstores have closed, to be replaced by horrible bargain bookstores which never stock books that I want. I’ve started hunting through op-shops and second-hand bookstores, which have yielded up many delights (including 5 Victoria Holt books, whom I had never read before) for under $5 a book. As lovely as this is, I still miss the squishy armchairs and soft classical music of my favourite bookstore (aptly named The Reader’s Feast).

  5. Lynne on May 5, 2013 at 1:06 am

    Dear Lauren – when I was young there were no B&N”s anywhere in the West. But we had the perfect bookstore here (Spokane, WA) called John W. Graham and its’ motto was “If it’s made of paper we have it.” The Book Dept. ended up being my first job. Dusty and smelling just like an old bookstore should. I was sure I’d died and gone to heaven. It also processed all the school library book orders for Eastern Washington and so I spent summers during college selling books and filling orders. (No computers – all by hand.) It was the most fun I ever had and I started my own library while working there. It’s been gone for years. But we have 2 B&N’s and several Hastings around town and still have 1 indie store that everyone loves but it struggles against the giants now. I’m rarely a “good old days” girl because I love technology most of the time, but I miss those lovely old bookstores of my youth.

  6. Sheila on May 5, 2013 at 11:11 am

    When I was young, my father and I would go into town about twice a month to an independent store to buy books. The store owner questioned if it was okay with my parents for me to read Anna Karenina. I think I was 14 . I think kids are being sold 50 Shades now with no questions asked !

    Another fav was the book department in the Luckey-Platt Department store.. I was allowed to browse while my mother shopped. Here is where I found my first Heyer, in hard cover, and I have been hooked ever since!

    When we lived in New York, back in the late 60’s, early 70’s, I adored Charles Scribners’ for their gorgeous glass store front. Is it still there?

  7. jeffrey on May 6, 2013 at 7:13 am

    I can’t remember a single bookstore growing up that I used to frequent. My favorite haunts by far were the public libraries wherever I happened to be living at the time. You can’t beat FREE when you’re a dirt-poor kid!

  8. Jessica S. on May 6, 2013 at 1:28 pm

    What a lovely piece, Lauren. It should be in a book of essays.

    My hometown didn’t really have a bookstore when I was growing up; we had the Scholastic order sheets, from which I always wanted at least a dozen titles. It was a huge treat to go to the mall in a small city about 40 minutes away and visit the bookstores there. My book dealers were my grandmothers for birthdays and Christmases, and I probably read everything in the school library.

  9. Nessa on May 6, 2013 at 1:40 pm

    One of my earliest memories is constantly visiting “Antykwariat” that specialized in old and rare books in Gdansk’s (Danzig) medieval Old Town with my beloved Grandpa.
    Today, my kids love our local B&N on Rt.17S in Paramus,NJ with their huge Sale and Used Books Annex and Pierce’s Bookstore in Brodheadsville,PA by our weekend getaway home. Pierce’s owner Russ is very friendly and knowledgeable, and has great prices with awesome trade-in policy!

  10. Lauren R. on May 6, 2013 at 11:29 pm

    The public library was the bookstore of my youth. I recently had the privilege to visit the library in the town in which I was born. (it’s so much smaller than I remember!). I went to story group there and got to pick out whatever books I wanted. My bedtime was a whole half hour later if I stayed up reading. At 30, it is still a magical place for me. And at 30, libraries in general are still magical places for me. That’s probably why I do a lot of my book shopping in the used bookstores that support the libraries.

  11. SusanN on May 9, 2013 at 8:10 pm

    Beautiful post, Lauren. I almost felt as if I were on that school walk with you, or haunting the B&N shelves. (Hey, you should be a writer!)

    We moved a lot when I was growing up (at least once a year), so I never had a “regular” bookstore. When I was really young, I was sometimes allowed to order books at school from that Scholastic Books program (remember that?). But I got most of my books from either school or public libraries. (Yay for libraries!)

    I spent most of my summers with my grandmother in a small town that didn’t have a bookstore or–horror–a library. The drugstore had one little rack of paperbacks and, on very rare occasions, I was allowed to buy something.

    Oh, Adeia, I do have fond memories of a Stars and Stripes one place we lived. I think the majority of the books I bought as a young person came from there. It was the size of a broom closet, and had about as much charm, but seemed to be crammed full of just what I wanted at the time (which was a good deal of Barbara Cartland books, I’m afraid).

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