'A Booklover's Guide to New York' Offers Illustrated Guide to the City's Bibliophile Scene

Rizzoli

In her new book — with a chapter penned by entertainment exec Tom Freston — author Cleo Le-Tan portrays her findings (200 literary destinations) along with 26 interviews with prominent literary and media figures.

A trend for all things bookish seems to be growing. The sought-after Christian Dior Le Dior Book Tote reappeared in five new iterations on the spring 2020 runway, while French designer Christelle Kocher's collection for her haute sportswear brand Koché was described as a "celebration of literacy." Staged amid the Pompidou Center’s reference library, the show's finale drew cheers as the models paraded across the floor toting best-sellers, such as Russell Banks' Continental Drift.

This week marks the debut of A Booklover’s Guide to New York (Rizzoli, $29.95). An illustrated manual of the intellectual pleasures to which Manhattan and the outer boroughs lay claim, the lavishly illustrated, informative guide was conceived by the novelist Cleo Le-Tan. The artistry of her late father, renowned illustrator Pierre Le-Tan, beautifully portrays her findings: 200 literary destinations, along with 26 interviews with prominent literary and media figures.

"Maybe it’s cool to be smart," Le-Tan muses. "I do see a trend for nerdiness. The world is so digital. Everything is on the internet, and there is a desire to go back to the old-fashioned and the intellectual."

The project evolved organically. In 2012, when she moved from Paris to New York and embarked on her 2017 novel,The Family, Le-Tan was taken by the city’s spacious public libraries and atmospheric bookshops. Exploring the "people and places" defining its literary scene, she "became a New York bibliophile" and conjured her guide to navigating it.

Her family has always been bookish. "My dear father was extremely well-read, a real bookworm, but also an avid [book] collector," she explains. "All of his children grew up surrounded by floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, as well as piles and piles of books."

In 2009, her sister, handbag designer Olympia Le-Tan, sowed the seeds of literary chic by producing an acclaimed accessories line for the Paris concept store Colette. The clutch purses and shoulder bags were embellished with embroidery evoking the covers of classic books such as Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls and H.G. Wells’s The King Who Was a King.

Pierre Le-Tan, the son of Lê Phṍ, the Paris-based Vietnamese painter who was trained by one of Henri Matisse’s protégés, gained fame as a prolific New Yorker illustrator. “He always spent a few months of the year in New York,” recalls Le-Tan of her father's transatlantic career.

Following the example of legendary multidisciplinary Parisian artists who sidelined as illustrators – Christian Bérard and Jean Cocteau – Pierre was also a polymath who produced advertising campaigns for Hermès and fashion images for Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. He designed sets for Valérie Lemercier’s 1997 romantic comedy Quadrille, the interior of Tory Burch’s Paris boutique, and illustrations for more than 100 books. For A Booklover’s Guide to New York, his process involved rendering his daughter's interview subjects from photographs; he drew the landmarks from memory.

Chronicled geographically, the guide juxtaposes modern institutions with venerable haunts, including lower Manhattan’s Poet’s House (a poetry library occupying a Battery Park City building), Bluestockings (the retail offshoot of the feminist Bluestocking Society, which was founded in 1752), and the Fulton Street branch of Carla Sozzani’s Milan concept store, 10 Corso Como, which peddles fashion tomes.

Chelsea art book destinations include folksy 192 Books (founded by gallerist Paula Cooper and her husband Jack Macrae) and avant-garde Printed Matter, specializing in rare and limited-edition art volumes. Among the Upper East Side recommendations are the Frick Art Reference Library (imposing but open to the public) and the Carlyle Hotel’s Bemelmans Bar (the hotel is named after Scottish essayist Thomas Carlyle). The Brooklyn basement apartment in which Truman Capote penned passages of Breakfast at Tiffany’s and In Cold Blood is another intriguing pilgrimage point.

Le-Tan’s interview subjects include an array of writers, from Chicago transplant Tavi Gevinson to Richard Price and Sigrid Nunez. The guide also features her conversations with some “book lover” friends: fashion designer Marc Jacobs (whose Bookmarc shop lends vibrance to Bleecker Street), Vogue’s international editor-at-large Hamish Bowles, power couple Tina Brown and Harry Evans, and entertainment executive Tom Freston. A section of his interview is excerpted here:

You’ve spent much of your life traveling (including your early years residing in Kabul and New Delhi as a textile exporter). How does your book collection reflect your travels?

Books about Asia and everywhere else I’ve been; fiction, nonfiction and, especially, photography collections are the backbone of my book collection. In addition, I have shelves of old travel guides, going back to the 1950s. I even have the original Lonely Planet by Tony Wheeler, published in 1973, as well as guide books on Afghanistan and Kabul from the 1970s when tourists went there.

You’re a founder of MTV. What’s one of the greatest music books ever written? What’s the music bible?

There are so many in the music category. Some I loved would be Timothy White’s Catch a Fire: The Life of Bob Marley. That’s a real classic and has had many printings. I knew Tim, and unfortunately he passed away with a heart attack at a very early age. Please Kill Me by Legs McNeil, on the history of punk rock, is truly entertaining. But king is Peter Guralnick’s Last Train to Memphis about the rise of Elvis Presley, himself the king.

In your opinion, what is the best place to acquire a book in New York?

It’s hard to beat the Strand down on lower Broadway. I also like Argosy Book Store on East 59th Street. It has a pretty good collection of old and rare books. For travel books there is Idlewild Books on lower Seventh Avenue. It’s named after the original name for the John F. Kennedy airport, a place where a lot of trips begin.

What’s the most precious (in rarity, or monetary or sentimental value) book that you’ve ever acquired? Please tell me about it.

Two of my first-edition books have special meaning to me. One is Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums. Kerouac has a very big influence on me. When I got out of college, I read it in paperback and was inspired to go hiking in the High Sierra Mountains of California, like the protagonist, searching for satori up there at high altitude. One day, walking up Madison Avenue, I saw it in a bookshop window and ran right in and got it. It opens up with a great passage about him jumping on a train in Los Angeles heading north and then jumping off in Carpenteria and sleeping on the beach there. I’d forgotten about the opening. A great piece of synchronicity is I now have a house right near the Carpenteria beach. I keep that book out there.

The other book is Golden Earth, a beautifully written, dreamy travelogue by Norman Lewis about his travels in the golden land of Burma in the mid 1950s. It was a very special and peaceful time there before the Ne Win dictatorship came down like a black cloud and lasted fifty years. I have traveled a lot in that country in the last twenty years and would have so loved to have been able to be there then. I snapped it up at a street stall on Portobello Road in London one morning years ago.

As a frequent traveler, what book are you bringing on your next trip?

I always bring books about the country I’m visiting, fiction or otherwise. I also, if possible — and it sounds kind of corny — bring along a copy of the Lonely Planet guide for that country. That’s a bit of a tradition for me. I find they consolidate a lot of history, along with the usual travel information, into a nice compact format. I may be one of their best customers and have piles of them. I have four just on Morocco that span several different decades. It’s kind of fun to go back and read the old ones. Prices sure have gone up.