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Book Quest Impossible: Visiting Every Bookstore in NYC
Plus! What NOT to peel!! CAFÉ ANNE Quarterly Report!!!
Welcome to Issue #67 of CAFÉ ANNE!
Happy spring, and thanks for all the sweet birthday wishes that came in over the break. I enjoyed a lovely week off here in Brooklyn.
So! Let’s get down to business of peeling fruits and vegetables. As you may recall, my Q&A with NYC supermarket billionaire John Catsimatides, in which he revealed that his mother peeled his grapes, prompted reader Mark in Minnesota to try the strategy himself. “Peeling them a colossal waste of time—and messy,” he concluded an email.
This, of course, prompted me to ask if any of you peel fruits and vegetables that most folks do not. Boy, did I get an earful.
Colleen in Queens peels her celery—which I simply do not comprehend. Mark in Minnesota wrote again to reveal that he peels cucumbers with alternate stripes!
"There is ONE grape that is worth peeling and that is the Concord grape,” wrote Rebecca E. “It is so juicy and flavorful, and the skin is just the packaging that gets in the way. It’s worth getting your fingers sticky!!”
But far more shocking were emails and comments from folks revealing what they don’t peel. Readers Georgia in Brooklyn Heights and Ann P. both wrote to announce that they eat whole kiwis. “I’d have thought biting through the fuzzy skin would be unpleasant, but not at all,” wrote Georgia. Forrest in Rhode Island emailed to rat on his girlfriend. Not only does she refuse to peel most fruits, “When eating an apple, she has been known to eat the stem, core, seeds, and all.”
All this has prompted me to launch a full investigation to determine exactly which fruits and vegetables are worth peeling. Today I am proudly announcing the launch of the CAFÉ ANNE Peeling Assessment Panel (CA-PAP).
Would you like to join? Participants will be asked to sample a half-dozen fruits and vegetables—both with and without the peel—and report their findings. I will provide a complete set of instructions and a survey form. To join, drop a note to annekadet@yahoo. Please include your location, age and occupation to ensure I get a representative sample of humans for this important analysis.
In other news, huge CAFÉ ANNE glitter-horses-dancing-at-Studio 54 shoutouts to new paid subscribers Mark G, Colleen F, Mike B, Lars and Megan H! Your kind support helps ensure CAFÉ ANNE stays free for everybody.
I am very excited about this week’s issue. We’ve got a visit with Jacob Ready, who is visiting every bookstore in NYC. Plus, the CAFÉ ANNE quarterly report for Q1, 2023. Please enjoy.
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Book Quest Impossible: Visiting Every Bookstore in NYC
In the summer of 2021, Jacob Ready decided to spend the rest of the year visiting every bookstore in NYC. Two years later, he's just getting started. New bookstores keep opening!
I learned of Mr. Ready's pursuit a few weeks ago after coming across the latest issue of his Substack newsletter, "Bookstore Quest 2021." He devotes each post to a different store.
I love the idea of experiencing every example of a given thing, whether it's the guy who walked every block of Manhattan, or my NYU roommate who made it her business to sleep with one fellow from all 50 states. (She maintained a pin-cushion map over her bed to document her progress; we spent a lot of time scouring East Village bars looking for dudes from Alaska.)
Mr. Ready's quest was tame by comparison, but of considerable interest, so I emailed to ask if I could accompany him on his next bookstore visit. I was delighted when he agreed.
I then proceeded to read all 69 back issues of his newsletter, which made me very happy.
First, the sheer variety of bookstores in this city is bonkers. There are stores devoted entirely to children's books, coffee table books, cookbooks, rare books, art books, music, spirituality, the paranormal, poetry, photography, the theater, and Harry Potter. There are stores specializing in French, Russian, Jewish and Korean literature. There are stores catering to commies, Christians and comic book lovers.
The Mysterious Bookshop in Tribeca specializes in who-done-its while Pillow-Cat Books on the Lower East Side has a focus on animals. There are several bookstores that serve booze. Mil Mundos Books in Bushwick doubles as a tailor shop while Sweet Pickle Books, which I wrote up last fall, offers dills and gherkins. Then there's Koreatown’s Koryo Books, sharing a storefront with Kosette Beauty Market, "The ultimate NYC spot to stock up on Korean style cleansing face masks."
In a time where one can instantly download any book to their phone, the fact that this city still supports so many bookstores feels miraculous. By some accounts, there's more bookstores in NYC than ever before. It's by far the US city with the most book establishments—245 book dealers and 146 libraries, by one count. That's nearly twice that of second-ranked Chicago.
I was also delighted with the newsletter itself. Mr. Ready, a self-described nerd who lives in Crown Heights, wears interesting glasses and is about to turn 30, keeps it simple. Each issue includes a one-paragraph bookstore description along with an account of his purchases, which tend toward contemporary genre fiction and obscure finds like Pronghorns of the Third Reich. ("It's a mystery novel about this dude fighting Nazis while snowed in at this crazy hunting lodge," he told me later. "It was super great. I loved it!)
A sharp observer of the NYC bookstore scene's pretensions and charms—including its raging tote bag fetish—Mr. Ready’s accounts are breezy and punctuated with the occasional "dang," his cuss word of choice. He also asks the hard questions: "Do I really need to drop $20 on an eight-page risograph-printed zine of 70s cigarette company logos?”
We met late afternoon last week at Argosy Book Store, a Midtown shop known for its antiquarian volumes. (You can read his account here). Mr. Ready had just ended his day working as a special ed assistant at a private school near Gramercy Park.
We started with a tour of store's first floor crammed with rare leather-bound books. "They've got a bunch of old stuff in here that I definitely can't afford, but it's cool," said Mr. Ready, pulling a first edition off the shelf. "Look at that. Nabokov's Pale Fire. He's one of my favorite authors."
Mr. Ready, who grew up in Atlanta and came to NYC in 2015 to pursue sketch comedy, is a long-time bookstore nut. But he didn't start his ambitious quest until, mid-pandemic, he bicycled past Manhattan's Bluestockings Cooperative and saw the lefty bookstore had shuttered. "It lit a fire,'" he recalled. "I said, 'I've got to do something!'" He later learned Bluestockings had merely relocated. But the incident prompted him to launch the newsletter to support the city's independent book sellers.
He thought he'd nail every store by year's end. "That was crazy ambitious," he said. In addition to his full-time job, he's earning a master's in education. He got so busy last year he had to take six months off from his bookstore tour. "It was a sad time in my life,” he says.
While perusing Argosy's Shakespeare section, Mr. Ready asked me my favorite book shop. I had to reveal: I don't really like bookstores! I'm a big book reader, but prefer the library, where you can collapse in a chair and read all day for free. Plus, you can eavesdrop on the interesting conversations your fellow patrons are conducting with themselves.
Another point of difference: when I do visit a bookstore, it's about the store. What does the curation and subject organization reveal about the owner's world view? As I followed Mr. Ready around Argosy, however, it became clear that he was interested mainly in finding books to buy. Weird! He spent an hour browsing titles, finally settling on The Overton Window, a thriller by conservative commentator Glenn Beck ("This the kind of thing I gotta buy just to see how kooky it is!"), and a sci-fi novel.
We did get some bookstore talk in afterward, over coffee. First question: Why is it important to support bookstores?
"There are so many businesses that are trying to take advantage of you or just provide what's needed," he said. "But books are a special, magical thing, to transport you to somewhere else."
"It's a place where you can kind of explore and have fun," he continued. "I had so much fun just now!"
I asked what he thought of Argosy Book Store.
"Oh my gosh, I loved it!" he said. "It had so much interesting stuff. The store itself had a very stately vibe, but it was cozy. There was like, jazzy classical music going on in the background. Everybody who worked there was kind of old and cozy. I was like 'Yeah, this is great. this is the dream!'"
Like me, Mr. Ready is partial to used bookstores, which typically offer more surprises and reflect the tastes of the surrounding neighborhood. Among his favorites: the venerable Unnamable Books in Prospect Heights ("Musty, old school, floor-to-ceiling shelves").
He aims to support rather than critique, but occasionally visits a shop he dislikes—highly curated stores that feel like book museums, where the expensive reading selection serves mainly as a highbrow setting for the adjoining coffee bar.
He's also wary of stores that "don't know what's up."
"They're trying to build a brand, but the substance isn't really there," he said. "They have amazing tote bags and very generic books."
The best bookstores, he said, have a point of view: "It's exciting when a place has a really clear vision and a passion." One example: Spoonbill Books in Williamsburg, with its "racks of ferocious feminist zines, arresting art books, sensational stationary and a phenomenal fiction system."
"If I had enough money," Mr. Ready wrote in his newsletter, "I would buy this whole store and turn it into my apartment—who needs a kitchen when you have books?"
I asked if he'd like to open a bookstore.
"I'd love to inherit an old, run-down bookstore and take it over," he said. "Something that's been there forever."
"What if forced you," I pressed, "and gave you unlimited money? Go crazy!"
I loved his imaginary shop: a store with lots of room to sit and read, which you don't see much in NYC because the rents are so high—The Center for Fiction in Downtown Brooklyn being a notable exception. His store would be dense with books and offer a backyard, like Community Bookstore in Park Slope, or Book Club on the Lower East Side.
And the name? He'd might do a tribute to a favorite author. "Atwood's," he mused. "Maybe she'd come, and I could meet her!"
He hasn't written up The Strand yet. "I kind of want to save it for last," he said. "Because it's very famous and I feel like a lot of people have opinions about it."
"Do you think you'll ever finish?" I asked.
"Yeah, I think it's accomplishable," he said. "There's always more opening, but I can't imagine there's more than 100."
It wasn't until I got home and did some research that I found there's more than 200 bookstores in New York City. I emailed to let him know what he’s facing. And I loved his response.
"That number is exciting and also a tad overwhelming!” he wrote. “I’m not too worried about ending the quest, I’ve been having a ton of fun with it."
“I will probably skip the Hudson News type spots at Penn Station or LaGuardia,” he added, “despite my love of $20 M&Ms.”
I’d love to know, what’s your ideal bookstore? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or drop a note in the comments!
Like any publicly-traded company, except that it’s just a goofball blog, CAFÉ ANNE keeps its stakeholders (haha, did I just use that word?) updated quarterly as to how the entity is performing. I am always curious to know how the newsletters I read are faring, and figure you might be too!
Q1 2023 was a fine quarter. CAFÉ ANNE added 750 new subscribers, bringing the total to 6000—a 15% increase since January 1, and a 600% increase from this time last year, when it had just 800 readers. To all the newcomers, welcome! Whether you live in NYC or elsewhere, I hope you join us in our effort to make this the most fun newsletter in town.
Paid subscriptions also grew 15%, to 233, which is also very good. As you know, CAFÉ ANNE has no paywall, so the folks who pay do so purely to support the newsletter and keep it free for everyone. THANK YOU.
My hourly rate is also increasing. It takes about 20 hours a week to produce CAFÉ ANNE, and I publish 46 issues a year, so I am now earning $14.23 an hour. This is a lot better than the $4.14 an hour I was earning twelve months ago.
As far as page views, nothing went viral this quarter, but two issues did particularly well. "The Last Man Without a Cell Phone” got more than 15,000 views, as did “Meet NYC’s Most Charming Food Shop!,” a feature about a strange grocery store in Bushwick. Those two issues also got the most likes, with 93 and 116 respectively.
The worst performing issue was “Billionaire's Secret: My Mother Peeled My Grapes!” a Q&A with NYC supermarket magnate John Catsimatides. It got just 66 likes and 6,700 views.
I can never predict which stories will perform best. But there is one thing I can promise: I will never let this sort of feedback influence what I write about next.
My favorite development this quarter was the growth of the comments section. Seven posts generated more than 100 comments. Typically, nearly half are my responses, but still! It’s been fun to see this little community grow.
I am also pleased to note that CAFÉ ANNE is now being recommended by 100 other Substack newsletters on the platform’s recommendation system, which brings many new subscribers.
Yay! Good job everybody! I am grateful for your likes, shares, comments, story ideas, recommendations and of course just that fact that you’re along for ride. As always, you are very welcome to share your ideas and feedback: email@example.com.
CAFÉ ANNE is a free weekly newsletter created by Brooklyn journalist Anne Kadet. Subscribe to get the latest issue every Monday!