An Ode to Reading in New York Bars

Terri Po / © Culture Trip
Photo of Parrish Turner
Us Books Editor18 June 2018

New York City bars are filled with people laughing with friends, looking for a first date, or even reading a good book. Yes, reading a book.

Initially, the idea of reading alone in a bar may be uncomfortable. Being alone in public, especially in a traditionally social setting, for some is a pretty vulnerable experience. But in New York City, the practice is not unusual. With crowded and small apartments and long rides on public transit, New Yorkers spend more time in public than those who live in less urban areas and that affects almost every part of day to day life.

New York City, more than other cities, is as much about performative gestures as it is about getting through the day-to-day minutiae. Some people call New Yorkers pretentious, and that label isn’t entirely undeserved. It’s probably part of the reason why reading alone at bars is not more common elsewhere, the idea that it will be perceived as a form of posturing—that one is trying to be seen with a book in hand as a way to signal to others something about status.

“I don’t think performativity is always bad,” Joseph Osmundson, a writer and scientist who shared his love of reading in bars on a recent episode of Food4Thot, says. “It takes a while to be self-aware of our own performances, and then keep only the ones that serve us well. I’ve definitely been guilty of this, reading my Foucault in a bar. I’m over that (mostly because I have so little time to read that I’m going to read what I want and need to, not what would impress strangers). Except in one case: first dates. I like to get to a first date early and I highly curate what book I’ll be reading as I wait.”

While reading is a solitary activity, bars are social spaces by their very nature. There are plenty of events at bars if one wants a social experience centered around literature, especially in New York City. Many bars host readings where authors and writers can read their work for an audience. For example, KGB Bar holds a free reading every night of the week.

But this is a very different experience from reading on your own. If you want to read in true solitude, perhaps a library is a better fit. Some bars are set up for a quiet experience, like the Burp Castle, where the bartender regularly shushes patrons who get too loud. But, maybe, the semi-social nature of reading in bars is part of the appeal.

‘No Other Gods’ by Ana Levy-Lyons | Parrish Turner / © Culture Trip

Reading in a bar can be considered to have niche appeal. It takes a certain amount of confidence to read in public, to not worry that others are reading the cover of the book and making silent judgements. Those who enjoy reading in bars find themselves making a ritual around their reading practice. Reading becomes its own activity, not something squeezed in between other moments in the day. It also takes the kind of person who can read without perfect silence.

“Bars are places that sit in the liminal space between noise and silence,” Osmundson says. “When you’re alone, conversations are all around you, but usually don’t include you. If I’m sitting in a (straight) bar with a book or my computer, folks usually leave me alone, and the noise of glasses and plates, bodies moving and touching, and conversation sort of fade in and out of my consciousness.”

It is the other people at the bar that help make the experience. Bars provide some light people watching and the opportunity to tailor the drinking experience to the book on hand. Become friends with your bartender and they may be able to come up with unique suggestions. For example, the book Tequila Mockingbird offers a number of suggestions of drinks to pair with your favorite books. Tim Federle includes recipes such as ‘The Last of the Mojitos,’ ‘A Rum of One’s Own,’ and ‘Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margarita.’

The connection between alcohol and books isn’t exactly a revolutionary notion, both in literature and in the lives of writers. William Faulkner is quoted as saying, “Pouring out liquor is like burning books.” (Of course, Faulkner was also an infamously problematic binge drinker.) Yet, alcohol has also been credited with providing the creative juices necessary for writers to execute their work. Let’s leave it at: it’s complicated.

‘Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe’ by Benjamin Alire Sáenz | Parrish Turner / © Culture Trip

Bars are places of business, so some may worry about being a bother to the bartenders or other workers. Keri Smith, who has been bartending for almost a decade, and in New York City for about three years, sets worries at ease: “When I see someone with a book, I know they can take care of themselves. I can breathe easy.”

Smith advises finding a bar that has a secondary reason for going. “If people are mostly there for the food or for video games, you are more likely to be left alone,” she says. For example, House of Wax, a bar attached to a movie theater. Hotel lobby bars also make excellent places to read, especially the Lobby Bar of the Ace Hotel New York or the aptly named Library Bar of the Hudson New York.

Give or take, there are around 10,000 bars in New York City, which means there is a bar for every taste. A low-key bar with a solid happy hour is a great way to start. Some readers enjoy loud music to drown out conversations around them. Others might prefer an old pub vibe. The fact of the matter is some bars are just better for book lovers.

If you find a vibe you like, try and be a repeat customer. As Osmundson says, “I like to have a couple of regular places, where I tip well and am friendly with the staff, where I don’t have to spend 10 minutes kind of explaining myself. And if the bartenders know when you need a moment of conversation, all the better.” Once the bartender knows you, you will be in safe hands.

Pick a book, pick a bar, and make it happen. As far as pushing yourself to try new things, reading in a bar is a pretty achievable goal. There is alcohol to relax the nerves and a great story to focus the mind—and maybe a couple good photos for your Instagram. Check out the hashtags #ReadingInBars,#BoozeAndBooks, and #BooksAndBooze for inspiration.

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