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A literary weekend in New York City

SmarterTravel

Before I could travel, I traveled with books. As a little girl, Roald Dahl transported me to the British Isles, Louisa May Alcott brought me to New England, and Ann M. Martin showed me … suburban Connecticut. As I got older, and had the means to travel, I often found myself seeking out places I had read about, destinations I had explored on the page with some of my favorite characters.

An author’s descriptive voice could evoke a vivid place in my imagination, so much so I would want to see the real thing. Today, my travels are inspired by the tales of my childhood, as well as new favorites I’ve discovered as an adult. For this exploration of literary getaways, New York—muse of award-winning writers, backdrop for influential novels, home of playwrights—seemed an apt place to start.

Here are the highlights, for the literary-minded traveler, from my recent weekend in the city.

Greenwich Village

Willa Cather, James Fenimore Cooper, Jack Kerouac, Norman Mailer, Anais Nin, Edgar Allan Poe, John Steinbeck, Dylan Thomas, and Hunter S. Thompson frequented the pubs throughout Greenwich Village, writing and drinking. And that’s just the short list. On my last visit, I spent an afternoon on the Greenwich Village Literary Pub Crawl, which takes visitors to four well-heeled establishments: the White Horse Tavern, Chumley’s, Minetta’s, and Kettle of Fish (formerly the Lion’s Head).

While I’m not usually a fan of organized tours, this experience was a delight. At each stop, the guides explain the pub’s literary history, detail the famous writers who frequented the establishment, and point out other areas of note throughout the Village, such as Edna St. Vincent Millay’s home on Bedford Street and Grove Court, which inspired O. Henry’s story, “The Last Leaf.” Tour participants are invited to have a drink (or two) at each watering hole, and at $15 per person for a three-hour tour (drinks not included), I felt I got more than my money’s worth. And the price of admission goes to the Bakerloo Theater Project, so all tourism dollars support another form of the arts.

Any proper literary tour of Greenwich Village requires a stop at Washington Square, which is also the title of Henry James’ novel influenced by the mansions and high society of the area. Today, Washington Square is home to street performers, NYU students, artists, and chess players. I wondered during my afternoon stroll there if I had brushed elbows with any future best-selling novelists.

Brooklyn

Brooklyn has been inspiring a literary renaissance of late. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and Motherless Brooklyn, two of my recent favorite reads, were set in this borough, and it’s also the setting of the childhood classic, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Today, Brooklyn is a haven for artists and writers, and I walked the same streets I read about in those novels’ pages, comparing the real brownstones, bakeries, and delis to those of my mind’s eye.

An additional worthy stop: 826NYC, the nonprofit writing center created by Dave Eggers, author of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood. To imagine yourself like the Escapist in Kavalier and Clay, or just to indulge your superhero tendencies, visit 826NYC’s Brooklyn Superhero Supply Co. store, where you can buy capes, antimatter, and muscles in a can, among other fantastic items. All proceeds from the store go to the writing center, so you’ll be supporting upcoming authors to boot.

Midtown

I love the Main Reading Room (room 315) at the Humanities and Social Sciences Library, also known as the main branch of the New York Public Library, located on Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street. Sweeping in scale (it’s the length of approximately two city blocks) and ornately decorated, the reading room provides an ideal place to sit, browse, and brainstorm. I like to stop by here for a contemplative respite, where I can read, people watch, or scribble a few ideas in a notepad.

Make sure you plan your weekend visit accordingly, however. There’s no charge to enter, of course, but the library is closed on Sundays and Mondays.

Central Park

J.D. Salinger set a good portion of his masterpiece, The Catcher in the Rye, in Central Park. On this most recent visit, I wanted to see the park’s famous carousel, where protagonist Holden Caulfield takes his sister Phoebe for a ride. The carousel, open year-round, can be found on the south end of the park, on a lovely walk past the zoo and Wolman Rink. Admission is $1.50 per ride.

Also on the southern end of the park is the “Literary Walk,” which features sculptures of William Shakespeare, Fitz-Green Halleck, and Sir Walter Scott, among others. Situated along the Mall, the Literary Walk is flanked with elms, making it a cozy place to curl up with a book (weather permitting) after seeing the statues.

Bookstores

New York’s bookstore options are mind-boggling, and the city is home to several of the best independent stores I’ve visited. I could easily spend an entire weekend browsing The Strand (the main location is at 12th and Broadway near Union Square), which is awe-inspiring and overwhelming. With “18 miles of books” available, the Strand features extensive used and rare book collections, endless rows of ceiling-high shelves, and enough possibilities to fill a lifetime of reading.

The Gotham Book Mart, on East 46th Street, offers a quiet spot to browse rare and out-of-print titles, literary magazines, and new bestsellers. The handsome surroundings, attractive displays, and excellent selections can make one lose track of time, and I was tempted to sit and read the day away in this comfortable, elegant space.

Finally, St. Mark’s Bookshop, on Third Avenue in the East Village, may not have the biggest selection in town, but its well-lit industrial displays, wide selection of poetry and small-press books, and hipster crowd provides a great combination for browsing. And the East Village, should you have time to wander, is my favorite neighborhood in Manhattan—take some time to explore where the Beats lived and worked, sample great food and coffee at a local cafe, or relax in the once-turbulent, now tranquil, Tompkins Square Park.

Whether I was traveling with Joe Kavalier in Brooklyn, conjuring Holden Caulfield in Central Park, or imagining tipping a pint with Dylan Thomas in Greenwich Village, New York made the pages I loved come to life. Regardless of what characters or backdrops you seek, the literary history and culture of New York will enhance your reading experience, and give you a new perspective on both your books and the city itself.

Planning your New York getaway

Before you can see your favorite New York book spots in person, you have to make arrangements to get there. Read the SmarterTravel.com [% 974 | | New York City destination guide %] for travel tips and advice on planning a value-packed getaway.

Once there, you may want to consider staying at a literary-minded hotel. Here are some picks that bookworms can appreciate.

  • The Library Hotel, located one block up from the New York Public Library on Madison Avenue, has been designed with a literary sensibility. Each of the hotel’s 10 floors is dedicated to a category of the Dewey Decimal System (DDS), with rooms featuring art and books corresponding to the DDS category. I recently stayed on the technology floor, and had computer texts, novels, and coffee-table art books in my room. Rates range from $335 to $495 per night, and include daily breakfast, afternoon snacks, an evening wine reception, turndown service, passes to a nearby fitness center, and borrowing privileges from the hotel’s main book, DVD, and CD library. I particularly enjoyed the roomy accommodations (New York is known worldwide for shoebox-size hotel rooms, and this was a welcome change) and the property’s rooftop deck, which was contemplative and quiet during the day, and bustling with revelers at night.
  • You can pretend you’re one of the Beats at the East Village Bed and Coffee, a cozy guesthouse on Avenue C. Designed for the budget-conscious, Bed and Coffee’s per-night rates start at $85 and go up to $140, including all taxes. You’ll have to share a bathroom, but the property’s squeaky-clean setting and a friendly innkeeper make you feel like you’re visiting a friend’s house. On a recent visit, I found the free Internet access, coffee, and comfy beds worth the stay, and the price is among the cheapest in the city.
  • The Hotel Chelsea, located on West 23rd Street in Chelsea, is the former home of Mark Twain, Tennessee Williams, and Arthur Miller, among other famed writers. Rates start at $195 per night. Known for its embrace of offbeat and bohemian lifestyles, the Hotel Chelsea offers a unique New York experience for the open-minded traveler.

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