Thursday, March 10th, 2011

Brooklyn Is Hardcover Book Country

A recent Friday expedition on an uptown F train found not a single Kindle, iPad or knickety-knack Nook in sight.

Two young ladies, one clutching her canvas shopping bag, the other with a smart pageboy haircut, were instead reading the ultimate fuck you to the e-reader, the original ambiguous literary doodad: a jacketless hardcover book.

“Feel it,” said Pratt student Chelsea Dowell, about her bare-skinned copy of The Enchantment of Lily Dahl. “It’s sturdy and formidable. Jackets on hardbacks don’t look nice. And I like my book to look good.”

Dowell said she even has no intention to own an e-reader. She instead has bookshelves upon bookshelves of hardcovers, most of which aren’t wrapped in colorful semi-gloss that could easily tackify a hip twentysomething’s apartment. Rows of worn monotone books, as the Times has pointed out, can add vintage charm and intellectual cred to any brownstone walk-up. This lends a complication of aesthetics to a simple choice.

“It’s not my intent to look smart,” she said, “but I can see how it seems snobby to read hardcover books.”

Dowell is not alone in her fondness for naked library castaways. On nearly any train that leaves or enters the crux of thrifty trend-concocting (i.e. Brooklyn), plain-face hardbacks can be found in just as many, if not more, hands than a LCD tablet. (Ride the PATH train to Jersey, or any line to Penn Station, however, and this ratio is reversed.) Unlike the e-reader and iPad, the accessories of choice of the straight-legged business casual fella, the jacket-free book can be regarded as a practical choice or, if you like, a placard of retro chic. And yet it remains as equally anonymous as its electronic counterpart. Its shell is unmarked and free from judgment from train passengers; anything (even a secret Kindle!) could lay between those hard covers and no one would suspect it’s not Pulitzer Prize-worthy literature.

“Yes, I’m reading Candace Bushnell,” said Jennifer Fell, 22, taking her book from her lap to display its spine. “The jacket had pink writing all over it. It was pretty ugly.”

Fell said she’s reading The Carrie Diaries for research for her job as an assistant at HarperCollins, but she also said that she was terribly enjoying it.

Dowell agreed that there is a certain protocol to reading commercial best sellers. “I have to wait at least two years before I can be seen on the subway with a book that was made into a major motion picture,” she said. There is the shame of the mini-billboard cover art that accompanies a book-to-film release. “I don’t want everyone to think that’s why I bought it.”

The same could be said for a book that’s too new or too trendy. In the course of a single afternoon on the L train, three copies of lit Messiah Jonathan Franzen’s second coming, Freedom, were spotted—each without paper wrapping. “It’s just cause it’s a pain to keep on,” explained one young woman in an oversized deer-bedazzled sweater. She raised her brow at the very question of her book's nakedness. (It should be noted however, this reporter has yet to see someone, anyone, anywhere, reading either Freedom or the new Keith Richards biography with its proper blatant advertisement.)

While some of these hardbacks spotted around Brooklyn are new releases and work perks, the real old school deals are often purchased from book-swapping websites and, presumably, Park Slope rummage sales. The paper trail, so to speak, also leads to Court Street in Cobble Hill, to the aptly named Community Bookstore.

Owner and possible godfather of sardonic hipster disdain John Scioli is a bit of a relic in city’s used bookstore business. The mustached straight shooter does not discriminate against the buying and selling a book without its jacket.

“I’ve never thrown away a book. Who can throw away a book?” he said, and ashed his cigarette on the floor.

Despite the sprouting of fair-trade patisseries and organic baby boutiques around him, Mr. Scioli’s literary hoarder’s nest has been open, successfully, for 25 years. The kicked-in boxes of uncataloged books at the feet of slumped-over bookshelves will not deter the hardbound-hungry who come in with their requests for Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose or Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree. Scioli’s nimble mind is his own personal Amazon, keeping track of where every single cookbook, young romance novel and European history text can be rescued from his haphazardry.

To draw attention to his anti-e store, Mr. Scioli also leaves a trail of random books along the sidewalk, leading unsuspecting hipnerds astray from their High Life happy hours and tandori tapas for a peek into his den. Most in the neighborhood are already well aware of his “no-book-left-behind” policy and his amassing of thousands of titles, most of which are sold for under $5—half the price of an electro copy.

Scioli, who has never touched an e-reader, and doesn’t presently own a computer, could be the unsung hero of retrograde cool, the beacon of curmudgeony that will lead resilient hardcover lovers to his treasure trove in the paper apocalypse.

Or, you know, totally not. “When I’m not here, I stay away from books,” he said. “I watch television.”

Jessica Machado has been fabricating trends under the guise of journalism for far too long.

Photo by moriza.

27 Comments / Post A Comment

soco (#8,225)

I'm loving that people are still enjoying hardcovers (though I'm an unashamed Nook love myself).

I have to wonder what kind of research someone would be doing for HC that involves reading a not particularly new YA novel based off an off-the-air TV show.

LCD Boundsystem

KenWheaton (#401)

I've been reading the Keef Richards bio with the jacket still on it, which is odd because I usually take the jackets off. It's a book I would have read on my Nook had the hard cover not been given to me as a gift.

I also read the Autobiography of Mark Twain in hard cover (and minus the jacket). Pain in the ass that was to lug it around, but it's a book I wanted on my shelf forever and also one I wanted to scribble in and underline and such.

SeanP (#4,058)

The jackets can be a pain in the ass, but if you're concerned about resale value… the price the book will fetch later is less without the jacket. It's also more likely that the book will get banged up, which further lowers its value. If you don't care about any of that, then it really doesn't matter. I tend to leave the jackets on because I never seem to have a bookmark, and I don't like to dog-ear the corners.

seentwagg (#8,810)

I'm not a fan of e-readers but reading hardcover books on the go just makes you look like a doofus. It's like combating the rise of smartphones by using a beeper.

forrealz (#1,530)

YAY BOOKS! but… also, yay book jackets. Some of them deserve to be kept. That said, I read on my phone on the train like a sinner. It's easier!

mrschem (#1,757)

Lily Dahl was good. as was 'Blindfold.'

Agreed! I saw a signed copy of Blindfold at housing works and am still kicking myself for not buying it. :(

ejcsanfran (#489)

"Who can throw a book away?"


edgeworth (#8,867)

Yep. Some people just don't get it – the same people who own Kindles because "it's easier." Entirely aside from holding stories, books are lovely objects.

My paperback copy of Cloud Atlas got ruined after I got caught in a rainstorm on a motorbike roadtrip. I individually hairdried every page and it's still readable but it looks like a fucking accordion. Yet I would never, ever dream of throwing it away. That is the first copy I ever owned of my favourite goddamn book in the world.

gumplr (#66)

Please, I read The Giving Tree before that ish was even published.

gumplr (#66)

I have since moved on to Gherkin for the Weekend: My Life as a Pickle Backer.

Mr. B (#10,093)

I buy hardcovers when a book is new and I JUST CAN'T WAIT for the paperback to come out. (As with "Freedom." I know what you're gonna say, but whatever: I thought it was great.) I take the jackets off while I'm reading them, but only because they make the book a pain in the ass to hold.

One minor complaint about this piece:

anything (even a secret Kindle!) could lay between those hard covers

Posted on March 10, 2011 at 9:18 pm

Elle (#7,022)

Both (paperback) books I'm currently reading are so not subway friendly that I have to either suck it up and deal with being alone with my thoughts, or say "fuck it" and yank out the floppy versions of "Pornography and the End of Masculinity" or "The Ethical Slut." I'm not at the awesome place in either book where you can just fold the cover over and be alone with your shame; especially not because the first one has DOES PORN HURT MEN in big letters on the back cover (spoiler: no, it does not).

Kevin (#2,559)

If you know how to do it properly it can.

bananahamix (#10,417)

Hey now, don't forget that hardcover books make great pass-this-along presents to your friends when you're done reading them. If I get a book I love on my kindle and want to share it with someone, I usually end up buying them a hardcover copy. Because the hardcover is more durable obviously, and cheaper used.
Also I love snarking on Brooklyn as much as the next self-conscious Brooklynite but cmon, who leaves dustjackets on? They get in the way of reading, they get messed up in your bag… I could go on and on.

Milo's Dog (#10,418)

I'm sorry to say I've had the misfortune of seeing someone read a jacketed edition of FREEDOM on the train. I hope he wasn't doing it to impress people, but that's sort of the impression I got. The whole sad affair is documented on my subway/book blog:

Neopythia (#353)

I like books but I'm past the point of fetishizing them. I don't have the space to display all the books I own or have read. My Kindle serves me perfectly.

@Neopythia: Lengthy books are better in paperback, because then you can cut them in half for ease of portability. Take that, book-fetishizers!

Also, my Kindle is awesome for books I'm pretty sure I'm going to read once. Not so good for textbooks, though — apparently, nobody knows how to format a math book for Kindle without completely screwing up the layout of every! single! formula!

I love my kindle. But that has yet to stop me from accumulating more and more real books. Reading on my kindle just isn't as nice.

Andrew Piccone (#7,185)

Can someone write a follow up about loud headphones? Every day I almost tell someone I can hear their music over my own, but always chicken out and have a hard time focusing on my AM New York

TwoDollars (#2,898)

Omg yes, you. I rehearse the level-headed yet stern comment over and over in my head as I stare at the same book page the whole subway ride.

Andrew Piccone (#7,185)

I think if you approach it on the defensive: 'Is my music too loud? I just want to make sure you can hear yours ok.' you might have a chance. Maybe one day I will.

MythReindeer (#5,553)

At some point, we start reading books without pictures (leaving aside graphic novels and the like, which I do read). This isn't so bad, because we get to use our imaginations to make our own pictures. So here's an idea: use your goddamn imagination and make like you're reading a hardcover book instead of a Kindle.

The "re-gifting" thing is a valid point, but really you aren't getting your grubby hands on my books anyway so DEAL.

SeanP (#4,058)

Nothing wrong with Kindles (or Nooks or whatever). I just prefer real books for a couple of reasons: 1) E-books really aren't that great of a deal – nowadays they cost almost as much as the damn printed book, and you also have to buy the reader. You would have to buy an awful lot more books than I actually do to make this pay off. 2) Living out here in the sticks, I drive to work – so all my reading is done at home, where portability isn't an issue. 3) I like the look of books.

Again, nothing against Kindles – my wife has one and loves it. It's just not my thing.

cbmilton (#8,492)

I love my Nook. I love my books. Sometimes, when I really love a book, I buy both the ebook for convenience and the physical book for preservation.

You're welcome, publishers.

bazilli (#5,189)

I'm just happy people are reading. Also, if you do want to get rid of your books, you should give them to ReLIT NY

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