The best books for new New Yorkers, with Greenlight Books
Last Updated on
New York City has been the backdrop for some of the most exciting and important stories across American culture. Films like The Warriors, Frances Ha, and The Wolf of Wall Street, T.V shows like Sex and the City and Law & Order, and books like James Baldwin’s Another Country and Patti Smith’s Just Kids, all contribute in different ways to an outsider’s internal image of what life in NYC is like. But while these stories might inform our view of the city before we arrive, what stories should we look to when New York City becomes the place we call home?
Last month, we opened Common Classon just minutes away from one of our favorite independent bookstores in Brooklyn, Greenlight Bookstore. And with our members in mind (50% of them are new to the city they live in) we immediately reached out to the store’s co-founder, Jessica Stockton Bagnulo, to hear her recommendations for books for new New Yorkers.
Her selection spans from a series of cartoons about NYC etiquette to an in-depth look at one of the city’s most influential city planners. Keep reading to learn more about Greenlight and Jessica’s recommendations, and click the title of any book to purchase it directly from Greenlight Bookstore.
Welcome to Greenlight Bookstore
About the bookstore: Founded in October 2009, Greenlight Bookstore is a general independent bookstore in Brooklyn, New York, encompassing two bookstore locations, theater kiosks, a spinoff stationery store, and pop-up locations at events throughout the city. Through knowledgeable staff, curated book selection, community partnerships, and a robust e-commerce website as well as beautiful bookstore spaces on Fulton Street and Flatbush Avenue, Greenlight combines the best traditions of the neighborhood bookstore with a forward-looking sensibility. Greenlight has garnered local, national, and international press coverage for its innovative startup model and its continuing success.
About me: Jessica Stockton Bagnulo is the Co-Owner and Events & Marketing Director of Greenlight Bookstore. Prior to founding Greenlight, she started working in independent bookstores as an undergraduate at NYU, where they served as refuge and inspiration for girl from a small town on the West Coast. In 2007 she wrote a bookstore business plan that won the grand prize in the Brooklyn Public Library’s PowerUp! competition, and together with business partner Rebecca Fitting, has taken Greenlight from a company of 7 employees to nearly 50. She is a sucker for literary fantasy novels.
Recommendations for new New Yorkers
There are literally hundreds of New York guidebooks out there, including plenty intended to help you “know the city like a local”, but Nathan W. Pyle’s cartoonish, pocket-size book is the one I give to visiting family and friends. A transplant himself, Pyle grasps the basic rule of living in New York: be as weird as you want, but don’t block the flow of traffic. This book conveys so many practical ways to be a good neighbor in the most high-energy city in the world, delivered with humor and even love for our fellow citydwellers. I wish this was required reading for all New Yorkers (and it almost is, as you’ll see Pyle’s drawings on those LinkNYC kiosks from time to time).
Jennifer Egan’s wonderful historical novel Manhattan Beach was recently chosen for One Book, One New York, but this weirder and more contemporary early novel is (I think) the best place to start with her work, and a great New York novel. Yes, some sections are set in other cities, some veer into the near future, one section is the the form of a PowerPoint presentation. But there’s also the flavor of first apartments in the city, first loves, first big mistakes… and then how this will look with the perspective of a decade or two. The characters are messy and fascinating and the plot is improbably satisfying. And Jenny herself is one of my favorite Brooklynites — you’ll be glad you got to know her.
This is where your love affair with New York gets serious: you are looking into each other’s souls, taking on each other’s baggage. And you’re also learning all the names and details to drop at brainy cocktails parties when people discuss the city’s neighborhoods or history or public pools or racism or traffic. Robert Moses is a deeply flawed and fascinating character, and his 44 years as the most powerful figure in the city’s urban planning left indelible marks. This brick of a biography is not for the faint of heart, but it’s a cult classic for a reason, and will give you a deep understanding about why this city is the way it is.
If Power Broker goes deep into the city’s real, recent past, Winter’s Tale is an epic of its older, mythic past. Set mostly in the 19th century but also in a sort of shifting timelessness, Mark Helprin’s novel is a great impossible love story, and a breathless adventure. It’s also a beautiful ode to the city in winter, from an era of literal sleds in the street and ice on the river you could walk across. It’s a great world in which to get lost in a sticky contemporary August, and will make you hate the beautiful cold city a little less come February.
The moment you become a true New Yorker is the moment you say “I remember when that coffee shop was a bodega” (or insert similar substitution). Colson Whitehead’s genre-bending masterpiece is a winding meditation on that experience of the constant change of the city, and the many other micro-experiences that make up the sweep of New York life. It’s such good writing that anyone in any city could enjoy it, but as a New Yorker it’s going to mean something special to you. As James Baldwin wrote, “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read.”
New York is a great bookstore town! Many of them have a section dedicated to New York books and authors, and most have staff who can make great recommendations for whatever your reading tastes. Get out in your neighborhood and find your local bookstore — it’s a great place to meet your neighbors too. (Not sure where to find one? Plug in your zip code here for indie bookstores near you!)
Begin your own New York story
If you’re looking to start your own story in New York City, living at a Common home is the easiest way to move and get settled. All of our homes come fully furnished, include all the household necessities (from utensils to toilet paper), and give you access to awesome free community events in your neighborhood and beyond. You can learn more about Common Classon, or any of our NYC homes, here. Or follow us on Instagram to stay up to date on our latest openings!