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Business of the Month: Mercer Street Books, 206 Mercer Street

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Mercer - facade
The tiny facade contains worlds.

In the world of bookstores, each reader has her favorite kind. Some people seek specialization, like a shop focused solely on travel or architecture. Others go for new releases, or cheap remainders. Perhaps you’re after a bookstore that carries greeting cards and coffee.

Or you may prefer a thoughtful selection of used books and LPs in good condition, a worn-in kind of place that gently envelops you in intelligence and soul. I didn’t quite realize I was looking for such a place, but I’m so glad to have found it: Mercer Street Books and Records, our Business of the Month for September.

“It’s like a little oasis for your brain. Or like a temple,” says Wayne Conti, who has owned the shop for a quarter-century. The 25th anniversary is this Sunday, September 19th. “This is a place where you can just relax.”

Mercer - wayne wide
Writer, reader, Villager and bookseller Wayne Conti.

“It’s a service, of putting all the good books together in one place. It’s very important to find that book you didn’t know existed,” Conti said.

A published author of fiction and essays himself, Conti remains confident, in the changed bookstore landscape, about the role of his store. “We’re cheaper than the ‘Net,” he says, “and you get the book right in your hand.”

Although even some seasoned Villagers are unaware of this “oasis,” on Mercer between Bleecker and Houston, there was a steady stream of customers coming into the store one afternoon this week. Number 206 has a literary lineage: Before Conti came along, it was a bookstore called The Art of Reading, and before that it was a libertarian bookstore. (And before that, it was an outpost of the Canadian food chain, Chicken Delight.)

Mercer - pulp
Carousels at the front of the store feature pulp novels.

The location also faces a looming threat: Construction of a massive new building just across narrow Mercer Street, on the site of NYU’s Coles Sports and Recreation Center. It will be one of four new NYU buildings that GVSHP and a host of other civic groups and community leaders have been fighting for years, with some success, until the state Court of Appeals ruled in NYU’s favor this past June.

Conti has long opposed NYU’s expansion plans in the Village. Now, with groundbreaking imminent, he sees more of a potential downside from a construction mess outside his door, then a potential upside from increased foot traffic. The latest publication by NYU Faculty Against the Sexton Plan, “The Art of the Gouge: How NYU Squeezes Billions From Its Students,” is offered for free on his front counter.

Mercer - book buying
A store employee examines used books offered by a regular seller.

Conti considers the expansion of “the corporate university” one part of the real estate trends that are eroding the neighborhood’s personality. He lives with his wife on Morton Street, and is blessed with reasonable landlords both at home and work. “I like the Village, but it’s getting destroyed,” he says. A native of New Jersey, he came to New York not long after graduating from Drew University with a degree in classical literature. “I wouldn’t move here now. It’s not the place to move as a writer.”

As long as Mercer Street Books is here, though, it’s still a good place to be as a reader.

Mercer - sticker inside cute
Look for the Business of the Month sticker as you shop around the West Village, East Village and NoHo. Photos by Karen Loew.

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