The Alternative Libraries of New York

June 20, 2013 | Julia Dawidowicz

“I have always imagined that Paradise will be some kind of a library,” Jorge Luis Borges famously said. But did the author and librarian imagine that paradise would struggle with constant budget cuts, feel stale and municipal, neglected and slowly decaying as the world’s collective attention span is reduced to 140 characters?

Or, maybe, he imagined a rebirth — “the library” not as an obsolete resource in fiendishly digital world, but an adaptable home for creativity and revolution? From underground radical zine dens to literary island oases to small-press reading rooms that double as party venues — these are some of the most exciting ways that New Yorkers are reinventing the library as an art form.


Conceived in a dive bar by three buddies with a surplus of books and an underused studio, the Mellow Pages Library began as an intimate storage space and reading room for their crew. Four months later, it’s become a full-fledged rare book mecca, with such an abundance of small-press titles, zines, journals and chapbooks that it’s become necessary to relocate to a larger space in its arty loft building.

Walking into the space — with its plants hanging over factory windows, hodgepodge of found furniture and colorful books lining every wall — feels like entering a friend’s McKibben loft, down to the guitar and whiskey bottle on the floor. But despite its casual vibe, Mellow Pages has wasted no time intriguing the masses, from a Chinese TV news channel and the NY Times to authors like Gave Durham, who did a recent reading there, and benevolent strangers.

“Each day there are several packages waiting at the door, untold books and zines inside. People are awfully generous,” said co-founder Jacob Perkins, who called the response “remarkable and kind of weird.” In a borough that’s famously teeming with writers, publishers and artists, this reception almost seems inevitable.

“I can’t think of a better place for this kind of thing than Brooklyn,” Perkins said, adding that “Brooklyn seems like a good home for just about anything. Well, maybe not animals.” Fair enough.

Mellow Pages now has 121 members and 1,900 (mostly obscure) books, and they host weekly — if not daily — events, like release parties and secret readings. Books can be read there over a coffee or beer, or checked out and taken home — you just have to become a member by donating some cash or books. Leave your boring high school lit “classics” at home.


You’ve probably passed one of these inconspicuous little libraries without realizing it. One looks like a dollhouse. Another could pass for a mailbox. There’s one placed between the columns of the Cooper Union Library, and one with a mirrored exterior that makes it camouflage against the graffitied walls of Extra Place in the East Village.

Designed by local artists and architects, ten new Little Free Libraries were placed throughout NYC during the IDEAS CITY festival, thanks to a collaboration between The Architectural League of New York, PEN World Voices Festival, and of course, Little Free Library LTD, the three-year old organization that sponsors these mini book shelters around the world. They even have a handy interactive World Map to help you find your local LFL.

As it happens, many of the books inside Little Free Libraries/NYC are either old copies of REUTERS, books for children, or wannabe best sellers with some shiny Fabio doppelganger on the cover, but this only makes finding literary gems more exciting. Patrons are encouraged to donate books to the sites as well, so the selection will change regularly.

Following their “Take a book, return a book” mantra, Little Free Libraries operate using a trust policy: Membership is not required and no librarians monitor the sites. Unfortunately (if not inevitably), this results in theft, vandalism, and full-on pillaging: About half of the two-week old Little Free Libraries we checked out were already destroyed. But as one guy we found sitting on the once-book-filled-benches at the Henry St. Settlement in LES put it, “This is New York, of course they’re gone. It’s a nice idea, but anyone who thought it would work’s gotta be crazy.” Well, it’s the thought that counts.


Perhaps you’ve heard of ABC No Rio, home to weekly HardCore/Punk Matinees, Food Not Bombs, Books Through Bars, a public darkroom/screen-printing studio/computer lab and, finally, the holy land of zines. This legendary art collective has become a staple of LES culture.

We’ve written about the space before, and how could we not. With over 12,000 zines stashed in every nook and cranny of the grafitti covered space, the ABC No Rio Zine Library has one of the largest collections of DIY underground publications in the country.

The Zine Library joined No Rio in 1998, when the now-defunct Blackout Zine Library was evicted from a squat in the South Bronx and its materials needed a new home. Though the ever-growing collection covers everything from music to marginal cultures to travel, zines addressing political and social issues form the majority.


Sometimes it’s just physically impossible stay pent up inside — even with the most addictive page-turner on hand — when the great outdoors beckons. Luckily, the Uni Project has teamed up with all three of NYC’s public libraries to create an outdoor library and “reading room” on Governor’s Island, open every weekend for the entire summer.

Whether you want to get spooked by a horror story anthology in an abandoned war fortress, or chill out in a grassy meadow with sangria and some classic Kerouac, the diverse collection — modest, but growing — is bound to have something that strikes your fancy. Run by city librarians and Uni Project volunteers, the library holds books for all ages and interests, which visitors are free to check out and take with them anywhere on the island. All they ask is that you return the books by 5 PM — but don’t expect a warrant out for your arrest if you lose track of time.

“If someone loves a book so much that they feel the need to keep it, let them have it,” one BPL librarian, who was preparing to conduct an impromptu “adult story time” on the riverside lawn, said.

The structure was built by volunteers in Brooklyn and follows the standard Uni library blueprint, used for all their portable libraries. Kickstarter-funded in 2011, the Uni Project brings pop up libraries/classrooms to different street-level locations all around NYC several times a week. Read more about the project here.


Housed alongside the Cabinet of Curiosities, Museum of Matches, Brooklyn Observatory, and the other weird wonders of the Proteus Gowanus Complex, the Reanimation Library is a treasure trove of discarded and “obsolete” print. Scavenged from thrift stores and library reject piles, these books open up a wild world of possibilities to artists, historians, the kitsch-loving and the anachronistic.

Walking past the toxic specimens and nineteenth century maps of the Hall of the Gowanus, and into the Reanimation Library is like being transported back in time. Misinformed pedagogical aides and otherworldly world atlases.

Beautifully illustrated retro anatomy textbooks and superstitious studies on the mystical powers of cats. These books are no longer considered relevant (or, often, P.C.), but they show us how reality was once defined, and it’s honestly fascinating.  There’s also a smorgasbord of ornate vintage graphics, which artists (and whoever else) are free to scan, take home, tear apart, and have their way with.


A hilarious seven-year old’s vision of the apocalypse, fortune cookie-inspired anime, paper crane pop-up books, stunning macabre ink illustrations from Romania…

At the Brooklyn Art Library, you never know what you’re going to get, which is what makes a visit there so much fun. You know that each of the 47,500 sketchbooks lining the walls is the same size (so it fits on the shelves), and that it has toured around North America with the Sketchbook Project’s mobile library. But other than that, anything goes.

Your fate is determined by a special computerized system that’s like choose-your-own adventure meets sketchbook roulette. You can choose a theme, keyword, mood, or, if you’re feeling choosey, artist. From there, you’re randomly assigned two sketchbooks to feast your eyes on, which you’re encouraged to swap with table mates. Each time a sketchbook is viewed, its creator — from whichever of the 130-or-so countries they may be — is informed.

The Sketchbook Project began in 2006, when recent art school graduate Steven Peterman, unhappy with the elitism of the gallery world, decided to start a more inclusive outlet to allow artists to create something with a purpose. The project blew up right away, and in 2009, the Sketchbook project went mobile. This year’s tour is the biggest ever, with 4500 sketchbooks stopping in 34 cities before settling in at airy Williamsburg library space.

“The main goal is to just share the collection as much and with as many people as possible,” founder Steven Peterman told ANIMAL. “It’s a very interesting slice of the artistic world right now. These are all creating, living artists who are creating right now, and that’s something that’s hard to find, that big of a resource. When you’re in art school everybody shows you the old masters, which are great and exciting, but when do you get to look at thousands of people who are creating right now with you and you could collaborate with and speak to, and I think that’s really exciting.”The Brooklyn Art Library is free to join, and periodically holds theme-based curated collections and interactive events. Be warned: after you visit, you will be manically inspired to make stuff.

“It’s so funny, when we travel people just come up and go, ‘Oh, you guys are from Brooklyn, aren’t you? You can just tell,'” Peterman also added.

“All these exciting and creative things are all coming from the same place. It’s almost like we’re living in Paris in the 1920’s; I think this is going to be a really historical time for New York City cause it’s going through this amazing artistic revolution.” (Photos: Julia Dawidowicz/ANIMALNewYork)