Each year, Village Preservation honors the invaluable people, businesses, and organizations that make a special contribution to our neighborhoods at our Annual Meeting and Village Awards. This year, on June 16th, 2020 at 6 PM we will be celebrating seven outstanding awardees — RSVP here to participate virtually.
The Village Awards is really one of our very favorite events of the year. It gives the community the opportunity to learn about and celebrate the remarkable people and small businesses in our neighborhoods, and it give us the chance to connect everyone together; something we love to do. These 7 amazing people and places have made a big difference in our lives and the life of our neighborhoods.
Mercer Street Books & Records is one of our treasured awardees this year. The store has been a staple of our neighborhood for over 30 years. One of the last of its kind, it is a small bookstore with a great selection, offering a rich experience for both die-hard bibliophiles and browsers.
While it has been called Mercer Street Books & Records since 1990, it has been a bookstore in the same location since 1964 when it was a Libertarian book store until about 1984. At that time it changed hands to become a store called Art of Reading, which focused on used books. Wayne Conti, the owner of the store, is a writer who lived around the corner from there in the same apartment he does today and he was a regular patron of both of the stores. When the owners of Art of Reading decided to move on in 1990, Mr. Conti acquired the store and has run it independently ever since. He changed the name to Mercer Street Books and Records because people were always saying that they could not remember how to find Art of Reading, so to make it more easily identifiable, he cleverly used its address in the title.
Mr. Conti is originally from Hoboken, NJ. He originally aspired to become a space engineer. When his high school’s NASA training program became defunct, he switched to English as his concentration and then set across the river to Greenwich Village to become a writer after graduation. Moving to the Village was a dream come true, as it is and has been for so many creative people. He settled into the scene in the Village, became published, had one of his works adapted for broadcast on National Public Radio, and sort of stumbled upon ownership of one of his favorite neighborhood literary haunts. He built upon the reputation of the store as a writers’ bookstore and over the years courted such distinguished clientele as Susan Sontag, Tom Stoppard, and Patti Smith, who even recently donated several boxes of books from her private collection as inventory for the store. She signed some personally as well.
Selections at Mercer Street Books and Records range from art, architecture, and photography to poetry, literary criticism, and philosophy. Mr. Conti is delighted when his patrons drift around and browse the shelves, taking the time to explore and discover works. He said “It’s such a great pleasure to lose yourself amongst the books.” He especially encourages the younger patrons to slow down and look around. He has observed time and time again that even if they don’t buy something the first time when walking in the store, they return because it was such a unique experience these days. Wayne believes that having places to browse is critical for young and old people alike, and is a skill that is becoming lost. His mission is to find unusual books and records and have them all in one place so that people can delight in the discovery.
He is also an activist who has been fighting to stop the over-development of the South Village and the Village in general. He faces that issue every day — NYU’s mammoth 181 Mercer Street, a massive project that will be the largest building ever constructed in Greenwich Village, is being built just outside his front door.
Certain times a year like “Small Business Saturday” or “National Small Business Week” we’re encouraged to shop local to promote our independent retailers. These special days are wonderful to herald and those days give us impetus to go out and get behind the movement, however one day or week a year is not nearly enough, especially when our local small businesses are facing challenges like never before. Let’s shop “Small Business EVERY-Day” to help support the small businesses that make Greenwich Village, the East Village, and NoHo the extraordinary places they are.
Mercer Street Books is most definitely one of the kinds of establishments that gives Greenwich Village its charm and character. For his love of Village culture and advocacy for artistic expression, his community activism, his dedication to his beloved books at all times, but especially now during this crisis, we are thrilled that Mercer Street Books & Records has been chosen for a Village Award this year. Most importantly, go visit Wayne and Mercer Street Books & Records at 206 Mercer Street, just south of Bleecker Street and one block east of Broadway — it’s a unique experience you can’t replicate online.