The Book Thugs of North 3rd Street
Corey Eastwood tells the story of how Book Thug Nation got its name. He talks about a guy named Alan who sounds like the patron saint of book thug ilk: “This guy Alan is kind of the Don of the street booksellers. He’s one of the first guys who started out on West 4th Street — a great old character. He had a store in Park Slope called Last Exit Books. I’ve never been there but I bet it was a great store because he really knows his stuff.”
Sitting in a foldout chair next to the counter inside Book Thug Nation, part owner, Corey Eastwood tells me about how the store got its name.
“We go to big book sales throughout the tri-state area, usually at libraries, churches, or schools. They generally start at ungodly early hours, which means the only sane people that go to them live in town. Everyone else, those of us that travel to get there, are the dealers. Sometimes we sleep in our van the night before to get a good spot in line. Sleepless and over-caffeinated, we wait in line in the cold and rain, then, when they open the doors, we stampede the books, sometimes literally fighting each other for the gems. The non-dealers would usually get in the way of our work. Alan would refer to them condescendingly as civilians. The opposite being the Book Thugs.”
Book Thug Nation is Williamsburg’s still relatively new used bookstore on North 3rd Street, but it’s really its own beast. Of course it sells old books just like any other used bookstore, but it was conceived as something of a community space, a home base created by a group of friends, part of a counter-culture with its own set of values and practices. You see them all over. On Bedford Avenue on a nice day, on Astor Place or West 4th Street, outside NYU’s library and on the Upper West Side. Street booksellers are a New York City institution who, after years of acquiring their wares at the same places and running in the same circles, have turned into a culture all their own.
Eastwood began selling books on the street in 2003, after a stint as a (mostly porn) dvd delivery person. “This was pre-Netflix,” says Eastwood. A friend of his who worked for a bookseller on West 4th Street was about to be fired for being unreliable, and so Eastwood took over his post. “I pretty much fell into it,” he says. A year later, he started his own table on Astor Place with his best friend Tim Mumford. Eastwood worked for four years before being forced out of his spot by the cops. Part of the criteria for being a good book thug is an awareness of one’s surroundings, and a readiness to pack up and move at a police officer’s whim. When the cops pressured him out of Astor Place, Eastwood took to Williamsburg and “never looked back.”
Working on Bedford alongside other book thugs, the idea of opening up a space started to float around between a few sellers, but none of them could afford it on their own. One day Corey, along with Josh (who’s too paranoid to provide his last name) and Aaron Elliott, decided to pool their resources and open up a store. Eastwood is also a writer who’s published in numerous literary journals and reads his work throughout the city. Aaron Elliott is known as Aaron Cometbus, a pseudonym he uses to write Cometbus, a widely popular DIY publication, which was the precedent for 20 years of underground zines. Most recently, the three added Troy Swane, formerly of Bedford Avenue’s Clovis Books, to the team. According to Eastwood, the three knew they’d found their space when they stumbled on 100 North 3rd Street.
“We really liked the direction the block was headed, with all these new, creative, and interesting businesses that were opening up.”
When Book Thug Nation moved in, the block on North 3rd between Berry and Wythe was occupied by only two bars, About Glamour Clothing Store, and Mast Brothers Chocolate. But since Book Thug’s arrival, Brooklyn Art Library and Kula Yoga have popped up as well.
I begin to ask Eastwood what it takes to be a good book thug. “You must need to know a great deal about books,” I say.
“Not really,” he replies. “Pretty much all you need to know is the authors that sell, mainly the authors on that table.” He points to a table in the middle of the store, containing books by J.D. Salinger, Kurt Vonnegut, George Orwell, and Salman Rushdie.
“In some sense, the more I learn about literature and the more esoteric my taste becomes, the worse my book table becomes in terms of saleability.” But not at Book Thug Nation. In the current landscape, where major chain bookstores thrive on selection, people look to independent bookstores to carry the cool, esoteric, authors to whom they might not be privy.
Perhaps the best illustration of the book thug lifestyle can be found in East Village native Arthur Nersesian’s 2003 novel, Chinese Takeout. The novel’s protagonist, Orloff Trenchant, is the veritable starving artist book thug, selling used books on West 4th Street, the very same place where Eastwood and company got their start. When asked about the book thug lifestyle, Nersesian comments, “A lot of the younger booksellers feel a political and spiritual imperative in their task; indeed for many you can almost read their character by looking at the books on their tables.”
According to the mission statement on the store’s website, “BTN believes that independent bookstores are an essential part of a healthy, creative, New York City. We strive to be an active community space that fosters the literary arts in Brooklyn while being a welcoming place where anyone can walk in, have a cup of coffee, and talk about books.” Sitting right beside the store’s entrance is a small table with free coffee and tea, while classical music plays on a small, old record player in the back of the room. “People like the experience of going and browsing at a bookshop,” Eastwood says.
Sitting next to Eastwood at the bookshop, it’s hard not to notice the photo of the imprisoned man hung on the wall beside him. It’s a picture of Daniel McGowan, former Earth Liberation Front activist who’s serving seven years in prison after being arrested in a sweep of American activists in 2005 known as “Operation Backfire.” When Eastwood refers to McGowan as “a friend,” I’m prompted to ask if the store has any political leanings like Philadelphia’s Wooden Shoe or Baltimore’s Red Emma’s, both considered to be “anarchist book shops.”
“We’re not an explicitly political bookstore, but we’d never invite politics that we don’t like here,” he says.
On the store window is a poster in support of Occupy Wall Street that says “Money Talks… Too Much.” Included in upcoming events is one in support of political prisoners and a discussion on 21st-century capitalism and how to resist it. But that same evening an author is scheduled to read from his book about working on the set of Pee Wee’s Playhouse. Political leanings aside, there’s a palpable sense that Book Thug Nation runs on a certain kind of philosophy, a sense that people should be able hang out, read, and be enriched without spending a lot of money. Not that money is out of the equation for the book thugs; they still buy and sell books. But monetary compensation seems less of a consideration at Book Thug Nation than at most stores. And leaves room for something else, a sort idealistic genuineness. At the bottom of the website’s “About” page is a dedication. It states that Book Thug Nation is dedicated to Tim Mumford, the fellow book thug with whom Eastwood started his first table.
“Tim was my best friend. We grew up together and lived together for years during and after college. He was the person that got me into literature. He passed away in 2006 at the age of 24 due to an undiagnosed and highly painful stomach condition. Tim was a musician, writer, artist, bohemian, and wild boy. He was a truly singular individual and an inspiration to many.”
In a sense, Book Thug Nation evokes a spirit similar to that of ABC No Rio, a performance space that doubles as a gathering place, a darkroom, and a library on the Lower East Side. The two spaces are the product of a counter-culture, but with no express political alignment. Also, both ABC No Rio and Book Thug Nation were birthed in neighborhoods undergoing major gentrification. They exist despite so many underlying economic factors against them.
They are both wonders, both reliant on the support of a small group of passionate idealists, both the last vestiges of something that once made this city great. With the streets of Bedford Avenue slowly growing the appendages of major corporate chains, places like this become all the more important to cherish. Like Clovis, Reel Life, or Read Café, Book Thug Nation is the kind of place that stands as a reminder of why Williamsburg was once a haven for those seeking a respite from the crushing rents and corporatization of Manhattan.
Book Thug Nation
100 No. 3rd Street, Williamsburg
Daily from Noon – 9pm