My New York Obsession

Blink and You Might Miss the Best Bookstore in Manhattan

The seductive charms of Three Lives & Co.

Photo by Sayaka Ueno

Three Lives & Co., the bookstore on the corner of West 10th Street in Greenwich Village, is not small. It’s subtle. It’s not hidden. It’s perfectly in place. While the Strand and its 18 miles of books looms over Broadway and requires a compass to navigate, Three Lives is tucked into a crevasse of the West Village and overflows with classic and contemporary literature handpicked by some of the kindest, smartest employees you’ll find in the whole city.

There are layers to the quaintness of Three Lives. On the ground floor of a lovely red brick building is the store’s iconic name written in gold lettering against a black background. On the other side of the building in no-frills all-caps is Three Lives’s raison d’être: “BOOKS.” Beneath that are the classic red French doors, often propped open, inviting you inside. In the windows are these tall, ornate displays of new and selected books, some of the most indulgent window-shopping in the Village. Inside, there is no café, which is good because I don’t want bad, overpriced coffee with my literature. No gifts, toys, or games for sale. As the two-sided sign attests, you go to Three Lives & Co. for BOOKS. And you will not regret it.

three lives and company
Those aren’t doors—that’s a portal. / Photo by Sayaka Ueno

I have this theory: A good bookstore is defined by its corners, not by its tables. It’s the tucked-away pockets of an independent shop that separate it from a big chain. Instead of massive tables and open spaces, Three Lives is all corners; nooks and crannies ready for you to explore and return to again and again. I’m not the only one who appreciates this no-nonsense approach either. Sarah Jessica Parker—editorial director of SJP, her very own imprint at Hogarth—is a big fan of the store as well, and for good reason. Shops like Three Lives & Co. used to be all around the city but have dissipated over the decades. This is a store unstuck from the shackles of time, only modernizing by adding contemporary selections while still keeping the classics.

Everywhere you browse, there’s hushed conversation, but it’s all excited conversation. Here are the book lovers, talking about their books.

Every aspect of Three Lives contributes to the feeling that it is of another era: the wood floors, the ornate rugs, and the soft, mid-century music. There’s no wasted space in Three Lives & Co. No inch of the store is underthought and no shelf feels undervalued.

three lives and company
This is your grandmother’s bookstore, and that’s a good thing. / Photo by Sayaka Ueno

Everywhere you browse, there’s hushed conversation, but it’s all excited conversation. Here are the book lovers, talking about their books. The staff, too, is bookish and eager to talk to you about your choices. Not only can they help find the book you’re looking for, they’ve usually read it and have insightful things to say.

In an old episode of Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee, Stephen Colbert told Jerry Seinfeld that when he was younger the one thing he would never deny himself was books. I think of this every time I visit Three Lives. The store and its staff encourage this indulgence. It’s hard to walk out empty-handed.

I am still that “younger” Colbert was talking about. Still just a kid, really; I’m new to the city. New York is supposedly a haven for my demographic, a mecca for bookish recent graduates eager to write. This town is fun, but it’s expensive and can sometimes be very draining. There are some basic things, I have found, that I have to be OK with spending all my money on. Food, obviously. Rent, unfortunately. And books, frequently.

My roommates tell me that I spend too much money on books, but what they don’t understand is that my book collection is aspirational. I know I can’t get to all of my purchases, but I have a lot of time ahead of me, and a lot to look forward to.

three lives and company
Just wait until you see his smile when he’s inside the store. / Photo by Sayaka Ueno

Sure, the way we read has changed dramatically in the age of Amazon, but I’m not the only one buying books: Print sales are up in 2018, and for good reason. The physical pleasure of holding a book cannot be overstated, especially as publishers are putting more thought and effort than ever into book design. Such books as Cherry by Nico Walker or Ohio by Stephen Markley or the new bestseller An Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank Green or any release from Europa Editions can feel like more than mere books: They’re art. They’re investments. They’re yours in a way few other things can be in 2018.

Ultimately, that’s what I love so much about Three Lives: This attitude isn’t just invited. It’s encouraged. The nooks and crannies of this tiny shop are like a social network made up of the stories, and storytellers, that will keep me entertained, informed, and connected for the rest of my life as a reader. The Strand may be bigger (and Amazon, of course, is bigger still), but Three Lives & Co. is just the right size for me and located in just the right place.

Colin Ainsworth is a writer from Texas living in New York. If you want to hear him talk too much about basketball or the virtues of rap music, follow him on Twitter: @drainsworth. And hire him if you’re really real.