Booksellers on street corners are a New York institution. But which books are they most likely to be sellingand why? Simon Akam works it out ...

From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Spring 2010

High in the Stephen A. Schwarzman building at the New York Public Library–a sprawling Beaux-Arts pile on Fifth Avenue—is a series of murals that tell the story of the recorded word. Painted by Edward Laning and unveiled in 1940, the four panels begin with Moses carrying the tablets down Mount Sinai and end with Ottmar Mergenthaler inventing the lino-type machine in 1884. But one scene is notably absent. Nowhere in Laning’s paintings is there anyone selling a book on a street corner.  

Sidewalk booksellers are an essential part of New York street culture, the intellectual wing of an alfresco economy that includes coffee carts, peanut roasters and break-dancing buskers. In a number of locations across the city, determined men—and the odd woman—endure the periodic atrocities of the climate and set up trestle tables laden with secondhand books.

Arriving in New York from Britain to study for a master’s, I spent a lot of time hanging around these stalls and soon saw the same titles cropping up time and time again—in particular literary American fiction by writers like Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Steinbeck. And so last autumn I set out to discover the most common title on secondhand bookstalls in New York, as a way to gauge literary tastes and trends. I chose four areas where booksellers congregate: the stretch of Broadway at 112th and 113th streets on the Upper West Side near Columbia University, Bedford Avenue in the Williamsburg neighbourhood of Brooklyn, West 4th Street outside New York University, and Sixth Avenue around 8th Street. In each location I catalogued two stalls, listing their collections by author and title. After several weeks I had a tally of more than 3,000 books.

My first discovery was that the four areas showed a curious mixture of consistency and variety. By Columbia, I found Saint Augustine’s “Confessions” and Roland Barthes’ “A Lover’s Discourse”. One of the stallholders, Adhemar Ahmad, explained that he was “trying to sell to the professors”. By contrast in Williamsburg, a painfully fashionable neighbourhood of vegan restaurants and skinny denim, I found voguish titles by the comic essayist David Sedaris. One vendor there, outside a newsagent stocked with magazines like Wound and Flaunt, also had a hefty pile of new-age literature. 

After I had tallied all the stalls, a weekend spent in the company of Microsoft Excel transformed my notes into a spreadsheet of the most abundant titles and authors. The results appeared to back up my earlier suspicions, with “The Great Gatsby”, “The Grapes of Wrath” and two Hemingway novels all featuring in the top ten titles. But the top spots went to authors who were neither American nor dead: at number one was Ian McEwan’s “Atonement”, with Khaled Hosseini’s “The Kite Runner” and Gabriel García Márquez’s “Love in the Time of Cholera” in hot pursuit. When I made a chart of authors as well as one of individual books, more prolific writers came to the fore. Boosted by the stalls on Sixth Avenue, which were less literary than the rest, Stephen King and John Grisham sneaked into the top ten. At number one was an author who could do thrills as well as literature: Graham Greene.

What wasn’t clear was what it meant to have a big presence on secondhand stalls. Was it an honour for a book, or a slur on its author’s reputation? Which was more significant—the fact that so many copies had been bought by someone, or the fact that they had since been offloaded again? To add insult to injury, were the titles I encountered in droves lying on the stalls because today’s reading public chose not to pick them up, even at a much reduced price? I needed to find out whether the champions of my survey were much loved, or doubly scorned.

To the stallholders, the reality was somewhere between the two poles. When I ran my lists past Corey Eastwood, a bookseller in Williamsburg, he pointed out that the top three titles had all recently been made into films. “Oftentimes a movie will kill a book,” he said. “Often the movie has run its course and everyone who bought the book because they’d seen the movie gets rid of the book.” Tellingly, most of the copies of “Atonement” I found were the paperback tie-in to the film made by Joe Wright in 2007.

With older titles, Eastwood felt that their appearance in the chart was a reflection of enduring quality. Fitzgerald’s and Hemingway’s novels, he pointed out, are “some of the most printed books in the English language”, while Graham Greene is “immensely popular”. He added that school and university reading lists keep certain authors streaming on to the secondhand market. “The Fitzgerald you can tell has often been read by a high-school student, who marks it up with inane comments.”

There was one type of secondhand hit that my chart did not reflect, Eastwood argued—the most sought-after titles of all. “The bestsellers by far are Charles Bukowski, Haruki Murakami,” he explained. “They don’t last too long.”

Zachary Aptekar, a stallholder on West 4th Street, also described Bukowski as his most requested author, admitting that when he finds a volume of his, he uses it as bait. “I’ll display it”, he said, “and hope it doesn’t sell.” Aptekar agreed too that while some classic books are enduringly popular, others follow the vicissitudes of fashion. “It’s a curve, a sine wave,” he said. “Books crest for a while, then they trough.”

To get a firmer sense of how my findings meshed with public taste, I went to see Fred Bass, president of the Strand bookshop, a Manhattan institution that claims to have 18 miles of books. A sprightly 81-year-old, Bass met me at his vast store just south of Union Square and ushered me past a spectrum-like wall of books arranged entirely by the colour of their spines. In a back office he showed me a list of his customers’ 80 favourite books, as voted for by them. “Gatsby” was at number three with “The Grapes of Wrath” and Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises” further down, which seemed to confirm that their presence on the trestle tables was a compliment rather than a curse.

Bass stressed that the New York reading public is a sophisticated beast. “We have a highly educated population concentrated here,” he said. “We have many colleges, we probably have more college students.” So what was happening on the sidewalk stalls of the city could itself be a variation on an archetypal Gotham theme. Classic books bought and discarded elsewhere wend their way to New York, where, like many a provincial fugitive before them, they at last find someone who appreciates them for what they really are. 

(Simon Akam is a Fulbright scholar who has written for the New York Times.)

Picture Credit: ktylerconk (via Flickr)