When I was a geeky, badly travelled, style fixated teen, four people made me desperate to come to New York City. F Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Truman Capote and Dorothy Parker. I was certain that there was something alchemic about the combination of the skyline and dry martinis. If you marinated yourself in gin and despair, and surrounded yourself by beautiful buildings, it was impossible not to write something dazzling. Names of famous bars and hotels got stuck in my head like a song - Algonquin, Chelsea, Bowery, Dylan - a literary litany to be incanted until inspiration strikes, or the devil appears behind your left shoulder and writes your novel backwards in a mirror for you.
This summer I spent a month in Manhattan, and I failed to write the Great American Novel (I’m working on The Great American Limerick), but it hit me all over again that the city is a paradise for bibliophiles. Here are the places I fell in love with as a reader - and when I’m done stalking my literary heroes, I hope to come back to one of them and write something of my own.
You know a city takes reading seriously when its library has a budget of almost $250 million
The New York Public Library
You know a city takes reading seriously when its library has a budget of almost $250 million and sprawls over several thousand square feet slap bang in the middle of the city. The people who built this place know that books can be so dazzling, powerful and alarming that they’ve stuck a couple of enormous lions outside, to protect everyone. (Stone lions, admittedly. But still.) The library doesn’t make a profit, but operates a books for all policy backed by some of the city’s wealthiest residents. It would be lovely if a few UK billionaires followed their lead, and when they’d finished spaffing their riches on cravats and Nando’s, splurged on some book space for everyone. I’m sure there are a couple of spare lions we can borrow from somewhere.
The Library Hotel
The hotel, which is next to the New York Public Library, has room numbers which correspond with the Dewey Decimal System library catalogue, so your room could be filled with books on Erotica, Fairytales or if you’re in 602, Manufacturing. The breakfast room has book cases filled with an exciting if unlikely range of novels (I think I spotted Northanger Abbey next to Jaws - The Novelisation), and there’s a complimentary cheese and wine reception in there daily from 5PM - come for the books, stay for the brie. The best bit is the view from the fourteenth floor rooftop bar. If you want to emulate your favourite writers, the best way to start is with alcohol.
It’s been selling “new, used and rare books since 1927” - and there’s 18 miles of shelf space
The Strand bookshop
If kids don’t think reading is cool any more, they need to check out this place, which has so much cache that they sell their own bags and tees - and they fly off the shelves. It’s been selling “new, used and rare books since 1927” - and there’s 18 miles of shelf space. I walked out with the Diana Vreeland biography I’d been hunting for for 10 years, a copy of Jay Macinerney’s My So Called Life that had been heavily annotated in Cantonese and a book about MTV signed by The Edge. (It was a present for someone else and we didn’t discover this until it had been unwrapped. We were both quite surprised.)
The top floor, where all the rare books are for sale, is the priciest place in the building, but it also works as a mini museum where poor but passionate book fans can dawdle and drool over the older titles. Everything else is a bargain, which is lucky because the displays are put together to appeal to the most eclectic, far reaching set of tastes. You’ll find William Burroughs next to Julian Fellowes, and end up putting everything in your basket. The in store author appearances and events are hugely appealing too. I have never cursed my heterosexuality harder than when I saw the flyer for the Strand’s Lesbian Speed Dating Night.
It’s the quantity, not the quality of the booze that will leave you slumped on a sidewalk and vomiting
You could linger in the lobby, check out the Dorothy Parker pieces, the playbills, the handwritten notes and ghostly menus from dinners attended by long dead literary luminaries. Or you could head straight to the bar and ask for Christian. There’s a cocktail menu, but he won’t let you look at it - he’ll suss out the drink of your dreams by glancing at your hairdo and asking what your evening plans are. (I’d recommend the ‘Daisy B’ - a deceptively powerful Martini made with Hendricks and St Germain.) And if he hears you mentioning a birthday, he’ll be dispensing champagne quicker than Kanye at a platinum trainer and helicopter launch. Also, he’s happy to make you enormous, potent drinks “to taste”, because he really, really loves his job. It’s the quantity, not the quality of the booze that will leave you slumped on a sidewalk and vomiting, just like Hemingway.
The Gramercy Park Hotel
The Gramercy Park area is one of Henry James’ favourite haunts - and the hotel building is where Edith Wharton is born. The Design Hotels Group Manhattan outpost is a touch impersonal - although room rates start at $400 every single extra is charged for, including wifi. But if you’re looking for a writers’ retreat, the lack of instant internet will stop you from getting distracted. Every single room has a different interior, and the space and quiet transports you to turn of the century New York. Although it isn’t open to the public, hotel guests can access Gramercy Park with the help of the concierge, who carries the antique key on a huge hoop like a Victorian prison warden. If that doesn’t inspire you, the leafy roof terrace might - it’s festooned with fairylights, original Warhols and Damien Hirst’s butterfly triptyches.
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