Type of Place: Books
Description: Once upon a time, as we've been told, the West Village was a
neighborhood of struggling-artist types who played music on its street corners, chain-smoked in its bars and cafes, and pored over books in its many independent bookstores, as part of a lifestyle concerned, in part, with protesting The Man.
You might still find musicians on street corners here, but you'd be smart to bet that they do not live in the neighborhood and in fact will have a long train ride home at the end of the night. Even one cigarette in the bar, of course, is a no-no. And the man and woman walking down West 10th Street, he answering email from his boss on his hand-held-computer gizmo and she making a dinner reservation on her cell, just don't seem to have The Man's comeuppance on their minds. (And they're lucky they don't; if they protested overtly and lost their jobs, how would they pay for their small but charming $3200/month one-bedroom on Morton Street?)
So it's good to know that at least not all of the indie bookstores are gone. The Biography opened in 1984—after the Village's
struggling-artist heyday, but before its current status as one of the most expensive neighborhoods in the city—and has not moved from its original cozy-corner location.
Outside, new overstock hardcovers and paperbacks max out at about $10 (but are usually much less). Inside, the varied stock is always 20% off cover price—a marketing trick that husband-and-wife owners Charles Mullen and Carolyn Epstein picked up from Barnes and Noble (sometimes, the best way to protest The Man is to use his methods for your own better cause). The store is neither so small that it can't stock what you're looking for nor so big that you can't find anything. Its
friendly, cheerful vibe makes you feel like it's been one of your favorite spots for years, even when you're visiting for the first time.
Mullen and Epstein started out focusing on biographies, but, as Mullen explains, "customers kept asking for other things as well, and we didn't see the point in telling them we wouldn't order books for them." So the Biography's inventory, like the neighborhood, changed over time. "There used to be a lot more independent and used bookstores around—it's a shame," Mullen laments, looking out onto Bleecker Street. "The cost of renting can be prohibitive, for businesses and for
people." (We hear you, Charles.)
Not that the Village has lost all of its artists. The difference is, the ones here now are generally long past their "struggling" days. Mullen points out that noted writer Stanley Crouch, for example, lives nearby and is a regular customer. Perhaps more surprisingly, he also tells of a rocker clientele: "The Edge came in and bought a lot of books. Billy Idol
We read that Nicole Kidman is renovating a West Village townhouse. When it's ready, she'll have a lovely neighborhood bookstore nearby. Meanwhile, the price of poring over books here is still $0, and you'll probably be able to find one that you both want and can afford; thank goodness some things don't change. -Pamela Grossman; 03/2004
400 Bleecker St. @ W. 11th
New York, NY