Novelist Adam Gittlin Discusses “Deal” Trilogy and Writing Thrillers

March 21, 2014 3:44 PM
(View full post to see video)

Rafael Pi Roman talks with Adam Gittlin, a New York City commercial real estate executive who has turned to writing thrillers.

Adam Gittlin has published three novels, including the first two installments of his Deal trilogy. The books use as their background the world of high-end commercial real estate in which Gittlin works. Rafael Pi Roman talks with Gittlin to discuss his characters, his writing process and the particular sample of New York City culture that brings his stories to life.

Piecing History Together After Sandy

Christina Knight  | December 6, 2012 10:42 AM


Bungalow homes in Broad Channel, Queens.

Bungalow homes in Broad Channel, Queens on Oct 10, 2012, before Sandy hit. Photo by Flickr/d.aniela

One of the smaller communities in New York City, as defined by shared geography, is Broad Channel. According to the 2010 Census, less than 2,500 residents share this a sliver of an island in Jamaica Bay, where canals separate some side streets and only one through-street — Cross Bay Boulevard — provides a connection to the rest of Queens. This tiny, close-knit enclave celebrates its existence every two years with Historical Day.

The occasion landed on Oct. 28 in 2012, one day before Sandy did. The main event was the Broad Channel Historical Society’s exhibition, which included its collection of photos and memorabilia,  a book-signing and the sale of the new 2013 calendar, touted for its all-important listing of high tide times. The October calendar image is unintentionally prescient: a rowboat delivering mail in 1947 after flooding.

Boat washed into house in Broad Channel

A boat washed onto the sidewalk and partially into home in Broad Channel, Queens. Photo by Flickr/Boss Tweed

Even though many people were busy securing their homes in advance of the storm, the society went ahead with Historical Day at the VFW Hall.

“We had the day planned, so we figured we might as way do it and some people actually came,” said the society’s chairperson, Barbara Toborg.

One day later, many of Broad Channel’s approximately 950 homes were ruined by Sandy, as was much of the collection, though some of it was protected by its placement in plastic containers.

Barbara Toborg, chairperson of the Historical Society of Broad Channel, stands with the collection, which was spread out to dry at Vetro Restaurant in Howard Beach, which also was damaged in the storm. Photo courtesy Doris Harris.

Ultimately, the timing of the one-day exhibition may have been a saving grace. The society couldn’t return the items to their normal home at the Broad Channel Library because it was closed on Sunday and they didn’t want to leave it at the VFW since it bordered an inlet of Jamaica Bay.  Instead, members brought the collection of photos dating to the early 20th century, civic association minutes, books and audio-visual materials to the storage room the society rents at the former St. Virgilius Parochial School.

Though St. Virgilius did flood, damage at the VFW Hall and the library, which remains closed, was worse. 

World War II air raid wardens in Broad Channel, Queens, in front of volunteer firehouse.

Air raid wardens during World War II in front of Broad Channel Volunteer Fire Association. During Sandy, the volunteer fire department lost two trucks. Photo donated by Conneely to the Broad Channel Historical Society.

After the water receded and despite suffering the wreckage of their own homes, historical society members and volunteers quickly got to work rescuing the water-logged collection at donated space in Howard Beach. For five days, volunteers dried out books and paper in the dining halls of Russo’s on the Bay and Vetro Restaurant, both on Cross Bay Boulevard and temporarily closed due to storm damages of their own.

“Broad Channel people have a talent for organizing and contacting elected officials and getting things done,” Toborg said, but she was at a loss when it came to applying to any kind of  storm-recovery grants.

She explained, “We’re all volunteers so can’t apply for nonprofit cultural grants, we’re not a 501C-3, so we can’t apply to FEMA. We have money in bank from previous fundraising but it’s daunting what we will have to replace. Our laminator and DVD player were destroyed. We have [recorded] interviews. Regular paper, laminating sleeves are gone.”

The act of preserving history and having the resources  for conservation efforts is a challenge.

“I’m often astonished at amount and quality of work that friendly associations with an interest in history do…it’s hard to establish an historical society or incorporate as a nonprofit,” said Jacob Nadal, the director of library and archives at the Brooklyn Historical Society and an expert in the field of preservation.

He explained that recovery is very difficult even for established libraries, archives and museums (“LAMs” in conservation-speak). “The technology of recovery — things like the vacuum freeze-drying of collections, distributed digital preservation networks — are pretty well developed,” Nadal said. “The costs of those services are a stumbling block. Recovery funds for LAMs are extremely scarce.”

Barbara Toborg and Dan Mundy of Broad Channel Historical Society St. Virgilius School. They're holding a transit authority poster of an "A" train passing through Broad Channel during the boat races at Mardi Gras. The train is a 1915 vintage BMT. Photo courtesy Dan Mundy.

Broad Channel Historical Society was founded in 1994 with some seed money provided by then State Senator Ada Smith, but Broad Channel itself dates to the late 19th century. The Long Island Railroad put a station here in 1881, helping turn the cluster of vacation homes into a more permanent settlement.

One of its homespun holidays, Mardi Gras, is believed to have started in 1911 and is celebrated every Labor Day weekend with a parade, boat races and festivities.

When asked about proud moments in history for residents, Toborg answered, “I think being able to purchase the land after a struggle of 40 years with the city, that was Broad Channel’s finest hour.  They owned their houses, but paid rent to city for land.”

In 1982, home owners won the right to purchase the land through state legislation. The society’s timeline cites that on Sept. 14,  Mayor Edward Koch arrived by helicopter to present first deed.

One of the small, but meaningful artifacts damaged in the storm was the society’s framed copy of the state legislation with the pen used to sign it.

“Those kind of things you hate to lose,” said Toborg.

Toborg said they did save the bulk of written and pictorial materials, but by the week after Thanksgiving, a lot of the items had mildew growth. Toborg thought that water-curled photographs, including some from 1910, could be straightened out in a chemical bath, and that  other papers could be straightened by ironing.

Barbara Toborg at Vetro Restaurant on Cross Bay Boulevard, which gave the Broad Channel Historical Society space to dry out its wet collection. In the background is the canal the tugboat called "Little Toot," which was made famous in a 1940s children's story.

Barbara Toborg at Vetro Restaurant on Cross Bay Boulevard, which gave the Broad Channel Historical Society space to dry out its wet collection. In the background is the canal and the tugboat called "Little Toot." The boat was made famous in a children's story written in 1939. Photo by Doris Harris.

Beyond material losses, which Toborg felt were relatively minimal, what will hurt the work of the  society in the near future is the dispersal of its members whose homes were destroyed. Toborg ticked off the names of four who have left Broad Channel, saying “They are as important a loss as anything else.”

Jenny Swadosh, an archivist by profession, and Albin Jones, who researches historical maps, relocated to Brooklyn but are determined to remain active in the society.  “We love Broad Channel and the other members,” said Swadosh. “It’s an amazing place so we would like to preserve its history in any capacity we can.”

The society eventually moved the drying materials from the two dining establishments to Toborg’s home for further drying. But now, while her house is being renovated, Toborg will put the collection on the second floor of another place that she rents out.

While the society would like to find a better location, the rental property, she said, “at least gets us access to put Humpty Dumpty back together again.” She continued, “It’s a tight-knit community. Come back in a year and I think things will be alright.”


Comic Con Fans are Heroes to NYC Comic Industry

Evan Leatherwood  | October 12, 2012 4:00 AM

A costumed woman in silver at Comic Con on Thursday promoted the comic-themed restaurant Action Burger in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. It's a collaboration with BIO-Sapien Comics & BIAlien Sci-Fi novels. Photo by Evan Leatherwood.

New York Comic Con proves superheroes are big business for Gotham City.

This week, an anticipated 115,000 fans, many in costume as their favorite movie and comic book characters, will converge on the Javits Center for New York Comic Con from Oct. 11 to 14. Billed as the biggest “popular culture convention” on the East Coast by event producers ReedPOP, attendance has grown by more than 500 percent since 2006, its first year.

“The growth staggers me,” says Lance Fensterman, Global VP for ReedPOP.

In just six years, New York Comic Con has grown to almost 90 percent of the size of its decades-older, West Coast equivalent, San Diego Comic-Con. Fensterman and others agree that the growth stems in part from New York’s pride of place in the history and business of comic books.

“New York City has a rich history of comic conventions,” says Fensterman, “and it absolutely helped that Marvel and DC are both based here and supported the idea from day one.”

Three cubes depicting DC comics hang over its enormous area at Comic Con at the Javits Center. Photo by Evan Leatherwood.

Marvel and DC, comic book publishing’s rival titans, were both founded in New York City at the industry’s inception in the 1930s.  Many comic legends, like Spiderman creator Stan Lee and Batman creators Bob Kane and Bill Finger, were born in New York City.  It perhaps explains why New York has been destroyed by more supervillains and saved by more superheroes than any other place on earth.

“Comics are absolutely part of New York City’s cultural DNA,” says Matt Desiderio, a manager at Union Square comics retailer Forbidden Planet, which has been in business since 1969.

Gerry Gladston, co-founder of Midtown Comics and one of the stars of National Geographic’s reality TV series Comic Store Heroes, agrees: “New York is to comics as LA is to film and television … New York has always been a mecca for comic books—since the 1930s—and New York Comic Con has done a great job of mining that potential.”

This character at Comic Con on Thursday passed out copies of the New Gen: New Dawn comic book by DC comics. Photo by Evan Leatherwood.

Since it’s founding in 1997, Midtown Comics has expanded to three locations across New York City and has grown to become the world’s largest comic book store, which reflects the strength of the nation’s comics retail industry, thriving at a time when the loss of brick and mortar stores and the move to digital is eroding other parts of the publishing business.

“Business is booming,” says Gladston, “The print comic business is up approximately 20 percent across the board … we’ve all been enjoying a nice surge in the sales of print comics and related books and collectibles.”

The uptick in interest around the world is due in large part to Hollywood’s mainstreaming of comic book heroes like The Avengers, Spiderman, and the X-Men, but the increased sales in New York can be linked directly to the growth of New York Comic Con itself.

Since the convention began in 2006, the number of vendors on the floor has gone from 600 to 2,000, an increase of about 330 percent. ReedPOP’s Fensterman says the increase in video game and toy companies has been “huge,” but that hasn’t taken away from the comics business.

“Midtown Comics says that the days leading up to, during and immediately after New York Comic Con are the busiest they have all year,” says Fensterman. “It’s like a second Christmas for them.”

David Reynolds of Daves American Comics in Radnor, PA, at his booth at Comic Con on Thursday. Photo by Evan Leatherwood.

Retail profits are a big draw for exhibitors from the Tri-State area and the nation.  Midtown Comics, which has been an official retail sponsor of the event since 2006, not only devotes a hefty amount of floor space to retail in their booth, but even buys stock specifically for the event.

“We sell a ton of stuff every year,” says Gladston, “We have expert buyers who plan this months in advance.  We have it down to a science.”

In addition to retail sales, the marketing benefits of displaying their brand before legions of devoted fans is not lost on major players like Marvel and DC, both of whom will have highly visible floor presences, housing events like signings, give-aways, photo ops, and product roll-outs.

The convention has also become known as a comics industry pow wow and marketplace.  ReedPOP has reserved a half-day out of the weekend for industry professionals only, and tied in this year’s Con to ICv2, a state-of-the industry gathering for comics pros that assesses the impact of digital publishing on their business.

Even publishing enterprises that don’t specialize in comics, like Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins, Random House, Penguin, and Sci Fi and Fantasy specialist Tor Books are investing in a floor presence this year.

New York Comic Con’s focus on printed comics, rather than the movies and TV derived from them, is a boon to comic book stores, but also part of what makes New York Comic Con unique.  San Diego Comic Con’s proximity to Hollywood has allowed movies and TV to outshine the comic books that started it all, but in New York, it is still primarily about ink and paper.

Evan Leatherwood ( writes about books, the arts and productivity.  He directs communications for Fordham University’s Bernard L. Schwartz Center for Media, Public Policy & Education.

During Playoffs, Poll Shows New Yorkers Back the Yankees Above All

Christina Knight  | October 10, 2012 10:52 AM

On the eve of Game 3 between the New York Yankees and Baltimore Orioles on the Yankees’ home turf, NY1 announced the Bronx team the definitive winners of New Yorkers’ hearts in a poll on local sports teams.

Conducted in partnership with the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion, the poll asked men and women across all five boroughs about nine area teams, including the former New Jersey Nets, Newark’s Devils and the Islanders (based in Uniondale, Long Island).

"Pinstripe Empire: The New York Yankees From Before the Babe to After the Boss" by former Yankees PR director Marty Appel delves into the history of the famous New York team.

Sixty-three percent of the city’s residents say that the Bronx Bombers are the best team of the last 20 years. The Giants, with two Super Bowl titles, rank a distant second, with only 15 percent of the vote.

The stats on the Yankees’ hometown rival, the New York Mets, are interesting. While a rare 4 percent of New Yorkers called the Queens-based team the “best area sports team” of the past two decades, 52 percent are optimistic and say it’s likely or very likely that in the next 20 years, the Mets will win their first World Series since 1986, when they forced a seventh game against the Boston Red Sox.

On MetroFocus, Marty Appel, author of “Pinstripe Empire: The New York Yankees From Before the Babe to After the Boss,” shares the history of the Yankees-Mets rivalry and how the Bombers rivalry with the Boston Red Sox began in the first place.


Coming up on the October episode of MetroFocus, anchor Rafael Pi Roman talks baseball with Marty Appel, former PR director of the New York Yankees and author of “Pinstripe Empire: The New York Yankees from Before the Babe to After the Boss.”  Here, Appel describes the development of rivalries between the Yankees and the Mets, and the Yankees and the Red Sox.



Pinstripe Empire: A Look at Yankees Legends Past and Present

Michelle Michalos and Georgia Kral  | October 5, 2012 4:43 AM

"Pinstripe Empire: The New York Yankees From Before the Babe to After the Boss" by former Yankees PR director Marty Appel delves into the history of the team that is one of the most recognizable sports teams in the world. Cover photo by Arnold Newman, courtesy of Bloomsbury USA.

The Bronx Bombers have done it again.

After a tight race with the Baltimore Orioles in September and a season filled with injuries, the New York Yankees made it through to the playoffs on Thursday night, ousting the Boston Red Sox for their 13th division title in 17 years.

Though the Yankees enter the postseason without veteran closing pitcher Mariano Rivera for the first time since 1981 (Rivera tore a knee ligament in May), the team moves forward with the two fellow remaining members of the “Core Four,” shortstop and team captain Derek Jeter and pitcher Andy Pettitte (catcher Jorge Posada announced his retirement after 17 years with the Yankees this January).

There are many legendary Yankees.  In “Pinstripe Empire: The New York Yankees from Before the Babe to After the Boss,” author Marty Appel (the Yankees PR director in the 1970s) takes us behind the dugout for a closer look at some of the folklore and little known history surrounding the sports team perhaps best known for its winning streaks. From Yogi Berra (“A beloved American figure – I think everybody just smiles and feels good when they hear his name,” says Appel) to Derek Jeter, MetroFocus takes a look at Yankees legends.


Coming up on the October episode of MetroFocus, anchor Rafael Pi Roman talks baseball with Marty Appel, the author of “Pinstripe Empire: The New York Yankees from Before the Babe to After the Boss.” Hear stories about Yankees legends in this web extra clip.

And today’s legends in the making…

Derek Jeter, who by all counts has played an incredible season this year, at Yankee Stadium on Sept. 23, 2012. AP/Kathy Willens.


Derek Jeter

Now 38, Jeter has been with the Yankees for 18 seasons and is the team captain. Jeter finished this year’s season with a .316 average, 32 doubles, 15 home runs, 58 RBI’s, 99 runs scored and 216 hits, which is the most in the majors. Even though Jeter is likely entering the twilight of his career, his performance this season certainly solidifies his reputation as one of the premier baseball players in the Major League, and as a Yankees legend.




Second baseman Robinson Cano hit a two-run home run in the fifth inning in the game on Oct. 3 that clinched the Yankees' place in the playoffs. AP/Kathy Willens.




Robinson Cano

A Yankee since his major league debut in 2005, Cano plays second base and is known for his excellent batting skills. Oh, and he’s also responsible for the Yanks making it into the playoffs this season. He went 4-for-4 against the Boston Red Sox Wednesday night and hit two home runs. It was his ninth consecutive multi-hit game.

A New York Yankee only since July, outfielder Ichiro Suzuki is the first MLB player to enter the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame. AP/ Kathy Willens.








Ichiro Suzuki

Originally from Japan, outfielder Ichiro Suzuki was traded by the Seattle Mariners to the Yankees this July. He’s already poised to play an important role on the team in the playoffs. Ichiro’s batting records are impressive, and include Major League Baseball’s single-season record for hits with 262. He had 10 consecutive 200-hit seasons. He may be new, but he’s a Yankee through and through.



Brooklyn Book Festival Expands as Reputation of Small Presses Grows

Georgia Kral  | September 17, 2012 4:00 AM

The Brooklyn Book Festival takes over Downtown Brooklyn and the Brooklyn Borough Hall Plaza in an annual celebration of literature. In 2011, pictured above, 40,000 people attended. Photo courtesy of the Brooklyn Book Festival.

Brooklyn has been a literary hothouse since the days of Walt Whitman. In this century, the tree-lined streets of Brooklyn Heights inspired the likes of Truman Capote and Norman Mailer, Boerum Hill-born Jonathan Lethem made his borough the setting of his bestsellers, and transplant Martin Amis recently settled into Cobble Hill. While writers and Brooklyn have gotten along famously for some time, the Brooklyn Book Festival is only in its seventh year.

The fact that the borough is chock-full of writers likely has something to do with the popularity of the festival (40,000 attended in 2011), which this year has extended to seven days and features more than 280 authors and 104 panels where fans can hear authors read and ad lib for free and aspiring writers might get advice from editors either during a post-talk Q&A or across a book sales table.

There’s a certain scrappiness and desperation and thirst and hunger that leads to the most exciting books.
—Johnny Temple, publisher, Akashic Books
But there’s another reason why the fest is booming: the Brooklyn Book Festival specializes in showcasing small, independent presses, and the interest in those publishing houses, those bastions of creativity that publish because of their deep love of the written word, is growing. Both nationally and internationally, the books of the U.S. indie press are in high demand.

“There’s never been a better time to be an independent publisher,” said Johnny Temple, founder of the independent publisher Akashic Books, the chair of the Brooklyn Borough President’s Literary Council and the de facto leader of the Brooklyn Book Festival.

When Temple first wanted to start a book festival in Brooklyn he found an interested party in Borough President Marty Markowitz, whose office presents the festival. The publisher said they had no idea that the festival, which celebrates international publishers and authors in addition to those from Brooklyn and the city as a whole, would catch on as it has.

“We said, ‘Yeah we sure did have a good idea!’” said Temple.

The Brooklyn Book Festival kicks off Monday, September 17, and runs through Sunday the 23rd. Highlights include a panel of literary heavyweights Walter Mosley, Edwidge Danticat and Dennis Lehane discussing character creation; editors Lorin Stein (The Paris Review), Rob Spillman (Tin House) and John Freeman (Granta) extolling the importance of literary magazines in contemporary culture; and the culminating day-long book expo on September 23 held outside of Brooklyn’s Borough Hall, where hundreds of publishers line up farmers’ market style to tempt readers with their latest books and backlists.


The author Pete Hamill, 2012 festival honoree and Park Slope native, describes the rich inspiration Brooklyn provides writers. Video courtesy of the Brooklyn Book Festival.

While the festival does include some of the big publishers, the spirit of  the week  is largely independent and progressive. Temple said the festival  strives to  fully represent Brooklyn, which is, according to Temple, “hip, smart and diverse.”

“There isn’t a festival out there that does more careful curating than we do,” he said. “Other big festivals might have an equally impressive group of authors, but can feel thrown together.”

For example,  a panel in which authors discuss violence in their work and how they handle it combines first-time novelist Amelia Gray, who wrote the thriller “Threats,” Dennis Lehane whose ninth novel “Moonlight Mile” follows the investigators and victim he first wrote of in Gone Baby, Gone, and Sapphire, whose second novel “The Kid,” examines what happens to the son of the protagonist Precious, who was the center of her novel-turned-Oscar-winning film,  “Push.”

Last year at the Brooklyn Book Festival, a newspaper was available with the schedule of events. This year, there will also be an app for your smart phone. Photo courtesy of the Brooklyn Book Festival.

Small Presses Get Big Respect from Literary World

For independent publishers, the festival is a chance to present their work to an interested and intrigued audience, but also to hobnob with like-minded people. It’s a see-and-be-seen event, where even the fans can hear their favorite authors speak, and sometimes meet them.

“It’s really a comfortable love fest!” said Dennis Johnson, co-founder of Melville House Books, an independent publisher in Brooklyn. “It’s everyone we know. It’s a very knowledgeable audience.”

Melville House was founded in 2001, in order to publish what has turned out to be a very popular work, “Poetry After 9/11.” They also publish work from two Nobel prize winners. Johnson said another reason why the Brooklyn Book Festival is great for indie publishers is because “people come with their wallets.”

“It’s the clearest way people can show you they love you,” he said.

The Frankfurt Book Fair, the largest trade book fair in the world, is also taking notice. At this year’s fair in October, Anna Moschavakis of Brooklyn’s Ugly Duckling Presse and Temple will participate in a panel discussion called “How Independent Literary Publishers are Successfully Reaching Their Audience.

“America’s independent literary publishers seem to have figured out exactly who their readers are and how to reach them,” the event description reads.

Riky Stock, Director of the German Book Office of the Frankfurt Book Fair, located within the Goethe-Institute in SoHO, said she was seeing an increased interest in independent U.S. publishers from German publishers and that Frankfurt was hosting events with them in order to amplify the work they were doing.

“In Europe, everyone thinks of the U.S. as everything that’s extra large: publishing houses, blockbusters. What people forget is that there is a marginal scene as well,” she said. These small presses are the ones that “discover important American writers.”

Johnson, understandably, feels the same way.

“It’s really the indies where new kinds of fiction is happening,” he said.

The economic crisis didn’t hit indie publishers as hard either, said Temple.

“We’re always in an economic crisis,” he said. “There’s a certain scrappiness and desperation and thirst and hunger that leads to the most exciting books.”

Stock said that while the big publishers “look for the bestsellers,” independent publishers can  look for what has “literary merit.”

“The small publishers are doing this because they believe in the authors,” she said.

Believing in the authors and in the work itself is certainly what drives the staff at Ugly Duckling Presse, which operates out of the formerly functioning factory in Gowanus appropriately called the Old American Can Factory. All but one of the staff members of the press, which has been publishing for at least 12 years, are unpaid.

Brooklyn's Borough Hall was thronged with visitors at last year's festival. This year will likely be no different. Photo courtesy of the Brooklyn Book Festival.

“We’re completely unprofessional, or anti-professional,” said Anna Moschavakis, co-executive director and an editor there. “We’re all volunteers.”

Moschavakis noted that the changing perception of independent presses, and their growing importance on the world literary stage, made their informal ways of doing things a non-issue.

“To the literary world and the National Endowment for the Arts, it didn’t matter how small we were. It just mattered what we were putting out,” she said. “You can have total legitimacy on one hand and on the other hand you’re doing it in a bootstrap style.”

At a time when the future of the publishing industry — at least for the major publishers — is desperately trying to adapt to changing technologies and consumer demands, some authors prefer the indies.

“It’s a tumultuous time and there’s been a real shift in the industry,” said Johnson of Melville House. “It’s a better publishing experience for authors” at independent presses.

Moschavakis said something similar of the craftspeople who spend so much of their time in isolation.

“They [authors] say we give them the attention they need…They want to be a part of a community.”

New App from AT&T Tracks Growing Festival

While the festival has grown exponentially, that wasn’t a goal. Temple said the organizers actually tried to limit the number of programs this year, but they couldn’t do it.

“We tried to shrink this year because we were bursting at the seams, but we completely failed!” he said with a laugh.

And so, in order to make it easier for attendees to navigate the many events, long-time sponsor AT&T has created an app, available for iPhone and Android, specifically for the fest. On Friday, the Brooklyn Book Festival app was released and is available in the Apple app store and in Google Play.

“Through this collaboration, AT&T is excited to help take the Brooklyn Book Festival to the next level and expand it to an even wider audience,” said Marissa Shorenstein, president of AT&T New York , in a statement. “Brooklyn has become the hub of technology for the city and Brooklyn is also the hub of the literary community.”

The app, which features writers’ biographies and maps their festival events, is also social. Users can vote for their “Fan Fav.”

But in the end, the festival has grown and is popular because it is where those who love and appreciate literature want to be.

“It’s a charge when you get out there and see all these little presses taking chances and making art,” said Johnson. “It’s a real kick in the pants. It reminds us why we’re doing this.”


Former Parks Commissioner Recalls Highs, Lows and Secrets of Central Park

Adrian Benepe  | September 17, 2012 4:00 AM

Former NYC Parks & Recreation Commissioner Adrian Benepe shared highlights of his career, the history of Central Park, and some of its secrets in his interview with MetroFocus. He currently works for the Trust for Public Land, a national preservation group.

Editor: Andrew Blauner
Contributors: Paul Auster, Thomas Beller, Buzz Bissinger, Bill Buford, Susan Cheever, Ben Dolnick, Jonathan Safran Foer, Adam Gopnik, Brooks Hansen, Mark Helprin, David Michaelis, Francine Prose, Nathaniel Rich, John Burnham Schwartz, Susan Sheehan, Colson Whitehead, Alec Wilkinson
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
Publication Date: Apr. 2012

Adrian Benepe, the former NYC  Parks and Recreation Commissioner from 2002 to June 2012, wrote an introduction to the “Central Park: An Anthology,” a collection of essays edited by Andrew Blauner about the crown jewel of New York City’s parks. Below is an excerpt in which Benepe shares highlights from his 30-plus year career working in city parks.

On Oct. 3, Benepe will appear at a public event about writers’ odes to Central Park alongside Thomas Beller, Buzz Bissinger and former mayor Ed Koch at 92Y Tribeca. Tickets are available here.

I recently had the opportunity to record an oral history of New York City’s parks for a high-tech start-up. The software wizards there created a Web-based map of the world and asked people near and far — comedians, bartenders, professors, city servants — to talk about their pieces of the world. Mine involves approximately five thousand pieces of property under the jurisdiction of the NYC Department of Parks & Recreation, our parks, playgrounds, beaches, recreation facilities, meadows and woodlands covering more than twenty-nine thousand acres, about 14 percent of the city.

Yet I found myself telling not one, not two, but three tales of Central Park. The first described a few of the Park’s quirky characters, the second discussed the amazing temporary art installation known as The Gates, and the third covered the great statues and movements featured along Literary Walk and throughout the Park’s great expanse.

When I was in college, I had a summer job, perhaps my most interesting summer job, as a pushcart vendor in Central Park. It was an enormous pushcart that belonged to the Front Porch restaurant on the West Side of Manhattan. This was in the summer of 1976, the summer of the Bicentennial celebration, the tall ships, and fireworks, when disco was ascendant and “A Chorus Line” opened on Broadway. It was a summer when NYC was mostly grimy and decrepit, with stifling subway cars covered in graffiti, but there were signs that all was not lost. It was also a summer when a girl I had just met at Middlebury College came to visit from her home in California, and Charlotte Glasser fell in love with New York, and would later marry me in Central Park.

Every day, I would get my cart and fill it up with tureens of cold soup and interesting fruit breads and push it — all six hundred pounds of it — from West Eighty-Second Street to Fifty-Ninth Street. I sold food at lunchtime at the south end of the park, and then, after lunch, I pushed the cart to the Delacorte Theater, outside of which I sold food at dinnertime. Though the cart lacked a Parks permit and the restaurant did not inform me that I needed one, no one enforced the rules at the time. There was a passel of other vendors selling creative food, and a few classic hot dog/pretzel guys who likely had real permits. Every once in a while a police officer would show up and shoo us away, but we would come back and sell our soup, falafel, or tacos. (The charismatic guy who sold falafel would shout out to prospective customers, “Falafel — Will Not Make You Feel… Awful!”) We banded together and enjoyed friendly competition, except for the two hot dog guys, who once had a fight that ended with one stabbing the other in his arm with a large hot dog fork. During this time, I came to know a lot of the people who seem slightly unreal to me now.

Top: Before its restoration in 1983, Belvedere Castle in Central Park was covered with graffiti and was in disrepair like many attractions in Central Park. Bottom: The castle as it appears today. Photo courtesy of Sara Cedar Miller/Central Park Conservancy.

When we refer to the “bad old days” of Central Park, we are usually talking about the days of rampant crime, graffiti, abandoned buildings, bare lawns, and dead trees. And yet I miss some aspects of those old days. In particular, Central Park was home to a lot of “characters” who added to the atmosphere, but who, for the most part, are not there anymore.

One of the characters I met, the Poet O, trundled around Central Park with a shopping cart. He had a bushy white beard and he would ring a handbell. If you gave him money, he thanked you by reciting a poem that he composed on the spot, a sort of blank verse. He made promises to cure paying listeners of sexual diseases by ringing his bell. I talked with him often, and once he realized that I didn’t have the means to pay him for his wisdom, he dispensed it for free. Among other things, he explained to me the value of Central Park as a large, outdoor sanitorium. He said he was mentally ill, and the park enabled him to get out of his single room in a West Side hotel and be out in nature — not elbow to elbow with people — where he could experience what he called “the natural medication of nature.” The park, he explained, was saving the government huge amounts of money by allowing mentally ill people to “self- medicate” through the intoxicants of the romantic landscape and avoid expensive mental hospitals and drugs.

Another character, a flamboyant man with a pompadour, toured the park on an elaborate bicycle, pulling a tricycle with a red wagon behind it. A series of enormous tropical birds, cockatoos and parrots, rode on the tricycle and wagon behind him as he circled the park, allowing people to admire his birds. Perhaps the best known was Adam Purple, with his long flowing white beard and purple, tie- dyed clothes, who traveled the park on his purple bicycle picking up horse manure to compost in his garden on the Lower East Side. For a while, a woman in purple, whom he called Eve, accompanied him.

Photos of Central Park's Great Lawn prior to restoration in 1997 (top) and after (below). Benepe said that if you played football on the Great Lawn when it was neglected you'd get cut from all the rocks and sand. Photo courtesy Sara Cedar Miller/Central Park Conservancy.

A hippie named “Mountain,” who had long, dirty-blond hair, played Frisbee every day by the Naumburg Bandshell. The Bandshell was where the other hippie kids hung out. Mountain, not one of the rich kids from Central Park West or Fifth Avenue, was lean and muscular and had the air of a Westie from Hell’s Kitchen. He knew how to throw a Frisbee better than anyone else and served as a kind of Peter Pan leader of the Lost Boys (and girls) of that generation. But Frisbee wasn’t his only talent. Mountain could commune with anyone, and he had to, because the area was habituated not only by middle- and upper- class teenagers, but also by a group of drug dealers who counted on the kids as customers. Soon enough, a new group would overtake the area — roller disco skaters in colorful outfits dancing to Donna Summer’s “Love to Love You Baby,” and then, in another summer, Chic singing “Le Freak” as dozens of skaters and hundreds of onlookers of all races and nationalities and sexual persuasions grooved and mingled and proved why New York City was the capital of where people just got along.

These were some of the Central Park characters. Today, they are not nearly as numerous. The Central Park Conservancy and New York City have invested six hundred million dollars in private and public funds to restore the glory of the nineteenth-century landscape in a way that suits twenty-first-century users. Ladies in hoop skirts and gentlemen in linen suits strolling along the paths have given way to both genders running and cycling in Lycra tops and bottoms that their predecessors would have seen as underwear. Or perhaps you simply cannot see the characters now that almost forty million visitors enter the park each year. I suppose it is better that the park is busier than ever rather than abandoned, which it essentially was back in the seventies. Maybe now you just have to look a little closer to find the characters.

For sixteen days in February 2005, Central Park was transformed by the now-famous art installation known as The Gates. Centuries of great sculptors are featured along Literary Walk and throughout the park’s broad expanse, and The Gates, like a powerful orange highlighter, drew the attention of millions of New Yorkers for a blissful and brief rapprochement with the unexpected and the great.

In February 2005, artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude installed 7,503 five-meter-high "gates" in Central Park for two weeks. The duo had proposed the park-wide project in 1979 but were not granted permission until Mayor Bloomberg's first term in office, when Adrian Benepe was parks commissioner. The total cost of the project, over $21 million, was paid for entirely by Christo and Jeanne-Claude. In an interview with MetroFocus, Benepe called the installation "a transformative experience." Photo courtesy of Sara Cedar Miller/Central Park Conservancy.

The NYC park system has a very large temporary art program. The Parks Department works with groups like the Public Art Fund and Creative Time and also with independent artists to temporarily install contemporary works in parks across the city, notably on Park Avenue and at Grand Army Plaza and in City Hall Park, among many other places. I became deeply involved in perhaps the greatest and briefest exhibit, The Gates, by Christo and Jeanne-Claude, in the early 2000s. Mayor Michael Bloomberg thought the project would have merit both as a work of art and as a tourist draw, so he and Deputy Mayor Patti Harris instructed me to ensure the park’s safety first, but ultimately to try make the idea a reality.

The Gates went up for sixteen extraordinary days during which time something like two million people visited Central Park in the year’s coldest month.
Over the previous twenty-five years, we had repeatedly informed Christo and Jeanne-Claude why we could not allow them to do the project. In its initial version, the plan called for fifteen thousand gates, with footings deep in the lawns, rocks, and woodlands of the park, and an autumn installation date. With so much potential damage to the park at stake, and scheduled as it originally was at a time of high visitation (and bird migration), as well as staunch opposition from preservationists and community residents, their project seemed undoable. In fact, Park Commissioners Gordon Davis and Henry Stern both formally turned it down, in Davis’s case with an elaborately argued booklet of more than one hundred pages.

Now it was my job to try to find a way to make it work, and Central Park Administrator Doug Blonsky and I, along with a very diplomatic assistant parks commissioner named Jack Linn, had the task of figuring out how to work with the artists so they could realize their extremely personal vision while doing no damage to the park’s landscape nor unduly disturbing the resident wildlife and park visitors. The artists had to figure out a way — and they did very cleverly with their engineer, Vince Davenport — to construct The Gates without digging holes in the park. Among the many ingenious aspects of their design was the use of hollow, extruded vinyl tubing to be used for the gates themselves, an idea based on similar technology used for fencing horse paddocks. The design used heavy weights to which lightweight gates were bolted to the asphalt paths. Christo and Jeanne-Claude also reduced the number of gates by half and installed the exhibit in February, during the park’s icy season, when visitation is normally extremely low and no bird migration takes place. The artists, along with Vince and his wife, Jonita, organized an army of paid technicians and volunteers to install the gates, and the entire process, including countless technical meetings, public review presentations, press conferences, and walks through the park, were part of the work of art. By the project’s conclusion, the park remained completely unharmed.

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg stands with artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude on the first day of "The Gates" installation in Central Park on Feb. 12, 2005. Photo courtesy of NYC.GOV/Edward Reed.

On February 12, 2005, Mayor Bloomberg and the artists unfurled one of the saffron-colored curtains that hung, the crowds streamed through, and like a very long line of dominoes, the other gates were unfurled by volunteers. The Gates went up for sixteen extraordinary days during which time something like two million people visited Central Park in the year’s coldest month. It was a transformative experience for me. I had gone from being the guy who had to deliver the bad news as to why the show could not go on in the nineties, to being the one who helped make it happen. The Gates made me, and millions of visitors, look anew at Central Park, because the rows of orange gates formed lines across the landscape, undulating with the terrain, sweeping up and down hills, and swooping along lake edges and roadways, as if a giant hand had traced the contours of the park with an orange highlighter. For the first and perhaps only time, the complexity of this work of art, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux in the 1850s, was dissected and revealed in a way it had never been before,brilliant but evanescent. People thronged into the park and packed nearby hotels, shops, and restaurants; it was even rumored that the Starbucks near Columbus Circle ran out of cups. Tourism hit record numbers, and the city saw a positive economic impact estimated at almost $250 million. Like the three days of peace and love at Woodstock in 1969, the two weeks of unbridled joy in New York City in 2005 touched even the most cynical of the city’s residents. Perhaps most important, New Yorkers felt a very tangible sense that they could recover from the terrible devastation of the World Trade Center attacks. The Gates was not just the single greatest art installation the city has ever enjoyed; it was a reaffirmation of the enduring vitality of New York City and cities in general.

In the seventies, Central Park was a municipal embarrassment and a symbol of a city going down the tubes in a hurry. Graffiti obscured everything in sight, including the abandoned, once-historic buildings, festooned with extraordinary ornamentation, designed by eminent architects of the previous century. Vandals broke off pieces of stone carvings on the Bethesda Terrace. The fountains were empty and full of scrawl. The rowboats were covered with graffiti. There was no grass on the lawns, and the park lacked horticulture. The poorest of people made overnight homes in the burned-out buildings. Crime soared, from rampant drug dealing to hundreds of muggings and even murders. That was Central Park, the city’s premier park; one can imagine what the rest of the park system looked like.

These were the parks I knew as a teenager, in the summer of 1973 when I first worked for the Parks Department on the Lower East Side, cleaning toilets and locker rooms at the Dry Dock Pool on East Tenth Street and then picking up garbage and sweeping up huge piles of beer cans in the East River Park. I learned firsthand that a combination of reduced funding, low morale, and poor work attitudes can drive even a once proud park system to its lowest level. It was also the Central Park I first encountered when I graduated from Middlebury College and came back to New York City in the early spring of 1979.

In 1979, Adrian Benepe, center, joined the Urban Park Rangers, a program that hired young people to become ambassadors to showcase the transformation of city parks. Photo courtesy NYC Parks & Recreation.

Through a series of happy accidents, I made my way to the Parks Department, meeting Betsy Barlow, the newly appointed Central Park administrator, while working as an unpaid intern at a community newspaper. I learned about Commissioner Gordon Davis’s wonderful idea to start a program called the “Urban Park Rangers.” The Rangers would bring a corps of fresh-faced, mostly young and idealistic parks “ambassadors” to the public and show in a tangible way that the park system was undergoing a rebirth under Mayor Ed Koch. From May 1979 to September 1980 I served as an Urban Park Ranger. On one of my first patrols, walking through the Ramble, I stopped to talk to a middle-aged man, who said,”You know, I’ve lived in New York all my life, and the city really got lost when we abandoned the parks to the vandals and the hooligans.” He told me, “When we gave away the parks to the bad guys, that was the end of the city.” And I think he said, or he may simply have implied that “we will take back the city, and the city will become livable again, when the parks feel safe and decent again.”

It was very hard to feel hopeful about the future at that time. I would look at tinted postcards and black-and-white photos of old Central Park with perfect green lawns and flowers and fences and intact buildings and monuments and no graffiti and say, “Look at the terrible things that have happened. Can it ever be nice again?”

Soon, the city, and its parks, did indeed begin to become “nice again.” The Central Park Conservancy was formed under the leadership of Betsy Barlow, who was named park administrator by Mayor Koch and Commissioner Davis. The city restored the Sheep Meadow, and the Dairy was reopened as a visitor center. Then came the magnificent restorations of the Belvedere Castle in Central Park and the Boat house in Prospect Park. Each time a restoration occurred, the city sent a message. It was like winning a war against decrepitude and vandalism and all the bad things that had happened. With some minor bumps along the way, the work started by Davis and Koch and continued under Mayors David Dinkins and Rudy Giuliani and their respective parks commissioners, Betsy Gotbaum and Henry Stern, paved the way for Mayor Bloomberg to lead the largest expansion and improvement of the park system since the halcyon days of the WPA and Robert Moses.

The NYC Parks Department, among many other things, oversees most of the city’s collection of statues and monuments; certainly everything that is in a park. Statues and monuments in a city are traditions that go back to the ancient days of Egypt, Rome, and Greece. The primary purpose of civic sculptures and monuments in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was to honor heroes or ideals. Parks have memorials to all of the wars; to generals, soldiers, presidents, and other leaders. There are bronze statues and generals on horse back (unfortunately, all men). More recent additions to New York City Parks include statues of Eleanor Roosevelt, Gertrude Stein, and Harriet Tubman, as well as those representing a diversity of backgrounds — Mahatma Gandhi and Duke Ellington and Frederick Douglass, among others.

Some of the very best sculptors lived and practiced here in New York City. Augustus Saint-Gaudens, a man many consider the best sculptor of the nineteenth century, and certainly the best American sculptor ever and a true genius, was born and raised on East Twenty-second Street.

Before becoming a successful sculptor, he served as a cameo cutter and then an apprentice. He eventually relocated to Cornish, New Hampshire, and founded the Cornish Colony, where all the artists and writers and sculptors and painters — including John Singer Sargent — went and lived. He created some of the great sculptures of American history, including the one of Admiral David Farragut that stands in Madison Square Park, the seated figure of Peter Cooper that sits in a small triangle behind the Cooper Union, and perhaps most famously, the gilded statue of General William Tecumseh Sherman being led by the allegorical figure of Victory, which stands at Grand Army Plaza at Fifty-Ninth Street and Fifth Avenue.

Today, Central Park is home to many statues and monuments, but very few have been added since the mid-twentieth century, when a trio of South American heroes went up along Central Park South. People now have come to understand that Central Park itself is, as the Central Park Conservancy historian and photographer Sara Cedar Miller stated,”the most important work of American art of the nineteenth century.” Even more remarkably, it is a work of art that has managed to survive and evolve, look better than ever, and serve more visitors than ever, over 150 years after it was conceived and created. And it was considered perfect then.

Reading this volume is a little like a walk in the park with some truly excellent companions. It is a long distance, in a Proustian way, from the characters of Central Park I met then. But it underscores the fact that Central Park is not simply a geographic destination, nor just the essential masterpiece of landscape architecture and great creative accomplishment of the nineteenth century. Once you add people and time, it becomes an ever-evolving work of art and performance art. It is central to our thinking, our style, and our magnificence.

© Bloomsbury USA. Excerpt published with permission.

The Hard Sell of an American Icon: The Statue of Liberty

Menglin Huang  | July 3, 2012 4:00 AM
Author: Edward Berenson
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication Date: May 2012

The Statue of Liberty has long become the country’s most recognizable icon, yet in the late 19th century, Americans could not foresee all the statue would come to represent — America’s freedom, its form of democracy and even immigrant history.

This gift from the people of France had to be promoted by the statue’s sculptor, Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, who traveled to New York in 1871. Before he could secure New York’s harbor as the setting for his statue, the artist struggled to gain American support for the project. As he traveled the country, Bartholdi proposed the plan to every person he met, many of whom were socially influential, but only few showed interest.

Most wealthy New Yorkers seemed unwilling to reach deep into their pockets. People in D.C. and Philadelphia that were supportive in spirit were reluctant to contribute, as the statue would be erected in New York, after all.

In a brilliant, 19th-century style “social media” campaign — a newspaper publisher in New York whipped up the final necessary $102,000 from 121,000 ordinary Americans in 1885. The statue’s unveiling on Oct. 28, 1886 drew more than a million people into New York’s streets.

See who was for, and against, Lady Liberty by clicking the graphic.

MetroFocus/Karen Brazell

The Idea Factory: How New Jersey’s Bell Labs Engineered the Future

Christina Mulligan  | June 27, 2012 4:00 AM

Innovations at New Jersey’s Bell Labs included those that paved the way for satellites and cell phones. Jon Gertner, author of “The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation,” sat down with NJToday Managing Editor Mike Schneider (@MikeSchneiderNJTV) to discuss the company’s past and how it remains an active research facility until today.

Author: Jon Gertner
Publisher: The Penguin Press 
Publication Date: March 2012

From its founding in 1925 until its demise in the 1980s when its owner AT&T was broken up, Bell Labs, now owned by Alcatel-Lucent, was the biggest laboratory for ideas and innovation in the world. The research and development wing of AT&T was so forward-thinking that its innovations sometimes took up to 20 years to develop.

As Jon Gertner, author or “The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation,” explains, “It was attached to a monopoly, AT&T in those days. It had this huge stream of money that was flowing, so it could hire the best people, build the best facilities.”

The labs started in New York City, and moved to its current location in Murray Hill, New Jersey in 1941. It was there that Bell Labs hit its prime with the invention of the transistor in 1947.

“That’s really the building block of all digital products in contemporary life,” said Gertner. The three scientists who invented the transistor received the Nobel Prize in Physics for it in 1956.

Almost every aspect of modern life has been touched by Bell Laboratories, the birthplace of the laser, the solar cell and fax machines.

“We think of California and Silicon Valley as synonymous with innovation but really for the better part of the century, New Jersey was the center of innovation — first with [Thomas] Edison… and then Bell Labs as really being the center of innovation for 50, 70 years,” said Gertner.

Though AT&T kept its interests in Bell Labs after its court-ordered antitrust breakup in 1984, it soon sold Bell Labs to Lucent.

“It didn’t seem that things would go downhill or things would change that drastically,” said Gertner. But it did. Although the company was free to compete in other markets, it just wasn’t up for that kind of competitive metabolism.

The legacy of inventors and Bell Labs’ ability to think into the future was what kept the company striving.

“Maybe that long-term thinking needs to come back in some ways,” he said. “It’s a nice balance for the short-term, high metabolism, high-speed innovation we have right now.”

Videos from the AT&T archives on how the company explained its innovative technology and imagined the future:

WATCH VIDEO: “First Born,” 1991

“First Born,” a short film produced in 1991, imagines what life would be like in 2003 — when, according to the voiceover, “telephone lines will unlock the knowledge that will help us learn, keep us well and set us free.” The film tells the story of a San Diego family welcoming a new baby into the world. They use voice-activated computers, shop online using an electronic Yellow Pages and communicate using video pay-phones.

WATCH VIDEO: “Party Lines,” 1946

A relic of the past, ”party lines” allowed several homes to share the cost of owning a telephone by connecting to one local loop. The only drawback? Only one person could use the line at one time and, if you picked up at the wrong time, you could eavesdrop to your neighbors’ conversations, so phone lines weren’t secure or private. Sharing a phone line required etiquette that’s now obsolete. This 1946 film offers advice on the “do’s and don’ts” of sharing a party line.

WATCH VIDEO: “The Thinking Machines,” 1968

This 1968 film takes an abstract concept, computer logic, and compares it to human thought to explain how computers work. “The Thinking Machines” was originally produced as part of an in-school educational program that AT&T piloted during the 1960s.

WATCH VIDEO: “Scrap!” 1974

Handsets, wiring, even decrepit telephone booths — “Scrap!”,  from 1974, explains how waste created by the telecommunications industry was recycled in the Nassau Smelting and Refining Works facility. According to the film, in those days the plant processed 2 million pounds of telecommunications waste and reclaimed copper, aluminum, and other metals for re-use.

For more technology news, watch “MetroFocus: The Tech Economy,” airing on THIRTEEN on June 30 at 5 a.m. and 7:30 a.m. and July 12 at 8:30 p.m.; on WLIW at 5:30 a.m. on June 30; on NJTV on July 1 at 5:30 a.m. and July 2 at 4:30 a.m.

Be Independent in Your Summer Reading

Lindsay Armstrong  | June 15, 2012 4:00 AM

Are you ready for summer reading? Flickr/Abdulla Al Muhairi

Summer is just around the corner. With it comes a hallmark of the season as reliable as the warm weather and long days: the summer reading list. Everyone from Oprah to The New York Times Book Review editors  weigh in on which titles you should peruse this season, but consider making your own discoveries at some of the city’s bookstores, most of which cover the top-sellers and also have their own quirky preferences.

Whether you want a light beach read or finally have the time to delve into “Ulysses,” avoid the glare of an electronic reader and throw an actual book in your bag. Besides, technology and sand don’t mix.

Here our picks for local bookstores worth a visit.




WORD caters to Greenpoint's literary tastes. Photo courtesy of WORD.

126 Franklin Street, Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Open seven days a week.

Beloved by both the hipsters and the moms with babies on their hips, WORD in Greenpoint proves that the small can be mighty. In spite of limited square footage, the store offers a well-curated collection. They specialize in paperback fiction, narrative non-fiction and cookbooks. WORD also loves the indie press. The store carries a respectable collection of titles from publishers such as Europa and Unbridled and is hosting a summer book club with only books from independent publishers. Some people even find love among WORD’s book stacks. The store has a board where singles can post literary-themed personal ads.

Good for: Indie reads or making a love connection



163 Court Street in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn. Open seven days a week.

Book Court’s owners must be doing something right. The store, which opened in 1981, has not only survived the onslaught of the big box book store and the e-reader, it actually expanded during that time. There’s lot of space for everything here, including up-close-and-personal events with authors who reliably sell out venues like the Highline Ballroom and the 92nd Street Y. Past highlights have included Chuck Kolsterman, Lou Reed and Miranda July. Colson Whitehead is on tap for July. Book Court also has a long-standing policy of offering best-sellers at 30 percent off the retail price on a rotating basis.

Good for: Picking up the newest best-seller at a low price, free events with authors you’d normally pay a pretty penny to see.

Browsing the used books at Freebird.Photo courtesy of Freebird Books.

Freebird Books & Goods

123 Columbia Street in Red Hook, Brooklyn. Weekends only.

Customers describe the Freebird experience as similar to hanging out in a friend’s living room – if your friend is a bibliophile with a penchant for New York City or the end of the world. The store carries mostly used reads and owner Peter Miller says he has one of the largest collections of books on New York in the city. Miller is also the founder and host of the Post-Apocalyptic Book Club. The idea started as a joke. Four years later, it’s still going strong with members analyzing books like Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” and Stephen King’s “The Stand” at monthly meetings.

Good for: Books on New York City; the backyard where you can read and pretend you’re on vacation.

Other great choices in Brooklyn:

Park Slope: The  Community Bookstore: 143 Seventh Avenue in Park Slope.

Greenlight Bookstore: 686 Fulton Street in Fort Greene.

Boulevard Books and Café: 7518 13th Avenue in Dyker Heights.


The front window at Idlewild Manhattan. Photo courtesy of Idlewild Books.

Idlewild Books

12 West 19th Street, Manhattan, or 249 Warren Street, Brooklyn. Open seven days a week.

Stocked with books about other countries, Idlewild Books is appropriately named after the original name of  John F. Kennedy International Airport, which was called Idlewild Airport until 1963. To add an element of serendipity, Idlewild organizes its shelves of fiction and non-fiction titles by locale. You may find E.M. Forster’s “A Room with a View” next to a biography of Leonardo da Vinci. The store also plays host to conversational language classes in French, Spanish and Italian at both the Manhattan and the new Brooklyn location.

Good for: Reading up on that exotic place where you’ll be spending your vacation or at least helping you pretend you’re there.

Posman Books:

Grand Central Station, East Terminal, Manhattan. Open seven days a week.

I read the first two books of the Harry Potter series in poorly understood Spanish; not by choice. I forgot to pack books for my vacation and had to make a last minute purchase in the international terminal of the airport. If you’re forgetful like me, Posman Books in Grand Central Station could be your saving grace. They carry best-sellers, a good selection of fiction and a well-curated collection of non-fiction titles, all of which you can pick up while you’re waiting for your train to some countryside getaway in Connecticut or for your commute.

Good for: Grabbing a good read on the go. Posman also has shops in Chelsea Market on Ninth Avenue and at Rockefeller Center.

Other great choices in Manhattan:

The Strand Book Store: Broadway and 12th Street in the East Village

Book Book: 266 Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village

Three Lives & Company: 154 West 10th Street in Greenwich Village

Upper Manhattan

Book Culture's second location is very kid friendly. Photo courtesy of Book Culture.

Book Culture

536 West 112th Street or 2915 Broadway in Morningside Heights, Manhattan. Open seven days a week.

Book Culture is actually two book stores rolled into one. The 112th Street location, formally Labyrinth Books, carries more academically-oriented works. The first floor is made up of all new publications, organized by subject matter. What many people don’t know is that Book Culture’s owners also opened a general book store around the corner on 114th Street. This location has an especially large children’s section. With one trip uptown, you can satisfy the reading needs of everyone in the family.

Good for: Finding something a bit more challenging than the average beach read or a great kids book


Word Up Books

4157 Broadway in Washington Heights, Manhattan. Open seven days a week.

Call it the little book store that could. Word Up was the brainchild of Veronica Liu, a Washington Heights resident who wanted a book store in her community. She approached the Northern Manhattan Arts Alliance about creating a pop-up book sale during its annual Uptown Arts Stroll. Local residents loved having a local book store so much that they fought to keep it at the end of the festival. Word Up is about to celebrate its first anniversary thanks to lots of fund-raising and donations. In order to keep costs down, the store is run by a collective of volunteers and most of the books are donated. The selection can be erratic, but the friendly staff is more than happy to help customers find something interesting among the stacks. Word Up also has a packed roster of events that keeps the store buzzing every night of the week.

Good for: The thrill of discovery. You never know which book you’ll find on the shelf or who you might run into here. Past guest readers have included Junot Diaz and Julia Alvarez.

Other great choices in Uptown Manhattan

Hue-man Bookstore & Café: 2319 Frederick Douglas Boulevard in Harlem, Manhattan.

La Casa Azul: 143 E. 103rd Street in East Harlem, Manhattan


Turn the Page Again

39-15 Bell Boulevard in Bayside, Queens. Closed Sunday.

One of the few independent booksellers in Queens, Turn the Page Again gets rave reviews for its customer service. The store sells used books priced between one and five dollars. One reviewer noted that the selection tends to the mainstream, but most locals are just excited to have a book store nearby, complete with a sitting area and coffee. The shop is run by Transitional Service for New York and provides job training for people who have struggled with mental illness.

Good for: Bargain hunting.




Page 1 of 712345...Last »
About Us    Contact Us    The MetroFocus Team   Mobile   WNET Pressroom   Privacy Policy    Terms of Service

Ford FoundationMutual of America


MetroFocus is made possible by James and Merryl Tisch, the Ford Foundation, Cheryl and Philip Milstein Family, Charlotte and David Ackert, Jody and John Arnhold, Betty and John Levin, and the Dr. Robert C. and Tina Sohn Foundation. Corporate funding is provided by Mutual of America.
© 2014 WNET    All Rights Reserved.    825 Eighth Avenue    New York, NY 10019