NEW YORK — "Where is human nature so weak," Henry Ward Beecher once wondered, "as in the bookstore?"
New York City's phone directory lists more than 300 booksellers, excluding gift shops and kiosks that sell hard-covers and paperbacks on virtually every corner, with about half of the city's book emporiums being theme or special-interest shops.
Unique to this city are bookshops that focus on New York itself.
Citybooks, 61 Chambers St., (212) 669-8245, carries mostly books published by the city itself, about 120 titles to help New Yorkers and visitors through the complexities of New York life: consumer affairs, race relations, landmark preservation, tenants' handbooks, parking and traffic regulations, as well as illustrated guides--from $8 to $50--to landmark districts such as Brooklyn Heights, the East Side and Rockefeller Center.
Additionally, there is New York City memorabilia, including Mayor David Dinkins pens, $5, and mugs, $6; fire department and police stickpins, $4, and a wide variety of T-shirts, $6 to $8, not available elsewhere.
New York Bound Bookshop, 50 Rockefeller Plaza, (212) 245-8503, features fiction and factual books about New York City, such as Damon Runyon titles; Edith Wharton's "The Age of Innocence" (out-of-print hard-cover, $25, paperback, $10); "The Gangs of New York--An Informal History of the Underworld" by Herbert Ashley, published in 1928, and I. N. Phelps Stokes' six-volume reference work, "The Iconography of Manhattan Island from 1492 to 1909," $4,500.
The shop recently acquired 600 turn-of-the-century photo negatives of buildings and people, from which it sells prints for $35 to $250. There are also vintage menus, $15 to $20, stock certificates, $40, and playbills, from $25. Book parties and readings take place here about six times yearly.
The most complete selection of New York guidebooks can be found at the Traveller's Bookstore, 22 W. 52nd St., (212) 664-0995, where the classic and unusual guides to everywhere are mixed in with travel-oriented fiction. For a real treat, pick up and read Jack Finney's "Time and Again" ($10.95), a delightful science fiction/romance with vintage illustrations of the famous Dakota Apartment House and other New York City landmarks. The store also has some travel accessories such as money belts, portable pillows and handsome globe bookends, $10.
Urban Center Books, 457 Madison Ave., (212) 935-3595, housed in a handsome high-ceiling Georgian drawing room in the north wing of the historic Villard houses, (built in 1885), is run by the Municipal Art Society and offers more than 4,000 titles on architecture and design.
New York City architecture is prominently represented, but the list also includes volumes on decorative arts, landscaping, historic preservation and a full range of architectural styles--from Italian palaces to Art Deco interiors.
Books on landmark preservation are displayed on shelves built into the shop's marble fireplace. Urban Center Books is also a top source for periodicals from around the world, as well as catalogues on current design exhibitions around town.
In SoHo, the heart of New York City's gallery scene, Jaap Rietman, 134 Spring St., (212) 966-7044, specializes in illustrated books covering all periods and schools of fine and applied art, including architecture and photography. The second-floor, triangularly shaped loft has a vast inventory of European art books on contemporary art abroad.
Applause, 211 W. 71st St., (212) 496-7511, has an abundant stock of books on all aspects of the theater and cinema, including trade and acting editions of currently running Broadway shows such as "Aspects of Love," $24.95 for libretto and glossy-picture production book; "Heidi Chronicles," $4.95; "Les Miserables," $30; "Lettice & Lovage," $9.95, and the off-Broadway hit "Nunsense," $5.50.
It has complete selections of hard-to-find works by Canadian and Australian playwrights, as well as the current crop of English West End titles, such as Alan Ayckbourn's "Man of the Moment," $8.95, and the latest David Hare, plus theater histories, design portfolios, lighting guides, current reference books on theater and film service organizations, and directories of personnel.
Kitchen Arts & Letters, 1435 Lexington Ave., (212) 876-5550, is devoted exclusively to food and wine, and offers more than 5,000 titles, including classic and nouveau cookbooks, tomes on nutrition, home growing of food, designing kitchens and table tops, gastronomic memoirs and culinary histories, plus lovely food-related prints, from $30, and stationery, reproductions of antique food labels, from $8, and curiosities such as wind chimes made from old spoons, $29.95.
An in-store kitchen is occasionally used to demonstrate how to work with fish, fowl or fenugreek, and the bulletin board announces cooking classes and sources for hard-to-find spices.