New Jersey is often overshadowed by its neighbor, New York. When we lived in Manhattan, my husband (a native New Yorker) told me that anyone not on the island is considered “bridge and tunnel” in that they have to take a bridge or a tunnel to get into The City (aka, the island of Manhattan).
In fact, the magazine, Time Out NY, which we still get, used to rank the best of the 5 boroughs (meaning Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Staten Island). When I lived there, Manhattan was always #1 and all the Burroughs just vied for second place.
However, the times are changing in many ways. And while Staten Island will probably forever be last (sorry SI, you have some growing to do), Manhattan is no longer king of the list. Since we left The City, those bridge and tunnel areas, like Brooklyn, have started vying for the title of coolest area and now New Jersey is getting into the action.
How to “Read” a City
During our Travel with the Travelers (Spring Break Edition) trip to New Jersey, we visited Jersey City, which sits at the edge of the Holland Tunnel, obviously on the New Jersey side. But it’s so close that the sky scrapers feel like they are scraping the sky just over you.
Jersey City itself has a neighborhood vibe complete with brownstones, trendy restaurants and bars, and, of course, a local bookstore – which was the place I wanted to go! My favorite part of any town or city is finding the local bookstore. I think it tells you a lot about the place itself.
For example, I went to visit Staunton, VA last year, which, at the time, had 3 bookstores on one block, two used bookstores and one a mash up of books and a new age/spiritual shop. That told me Staunton is a town of people that appreciate history and unconventional ideas. It’s a town of people who want to explore and discover the world. It also told me it was a community, invested in each other and not just existing.
I realize it’s a lot to glean from bookstores. But I think they reveal more about the heart of a town, or lack thereof, than almost anything else. Book stores are how I “read” a town.
How to “Read” a Bookstore
1. Location, location, location
Jersey City’s bookstore, an indie store called ‘Word’ sits perched on a walking thoroughfare filled with music-infused highly stylized restaurants, boutique shops and pet grooming stores. It’s a location where you’re just a few blocks away from the latest trend, in this case ice cream rolls, which we had to get.
It’s location alone told me a lot about the city. A bookstore nestled in among these bastions of city personalities means it’s important. It’s not just a thing for a small group of outsiders.
That tells me: Books are important to this city.
2. First impressions
Word is a small shop, but it’s details are important. When you enter, you pass the customary display of highlighted books. What these books highlight is critical for understanding a bookstore and the community that surrounds it. Word had an entire section devoted to Feminism.
That tells me: This is a modern bookstore, likely servicing a modern city that embraces progressive views.
After initial book highlights I always look at the tchotchkes. Word has unicorn snot and matchbooks with book covers. There are notebooks for writers and bags with slogans for book lovers. At it’s heart, it’s a store that wants to make money and survive. Laudable and understandable in a country were money is more important than thought. But it puts it in a gray area of teetering over onto the brink of consumerism over books. I can’t blame Word though. Books alone won’t keep a bookstore alive. So, in the end, I read this as a necessary evil. And, guess what? It works. My daughter loves books and unicorn snot!
That tells me: Although this area is progressive, it’s still filled with people who make a lot of money. These are the well-off rich intellectuals or striving to be.
4. Organization and emphasis
As you move back through the shotgun house shaped bookstore, after the initial entry eye candy, you move into the real heft of the store – the books. How a bookstore is organized and it’s categories are critical to understanding it’s target audience. In Word, there isn’t just a scifi section. There is a scifi section and a speculative fiction section.
What this tells me: This is a city that understands nuance. It doesn’t just want whatever is popular and easy. This is a thoughtful bookstore, which means it’s servicing a thoughtful community.
What a bookstore recommends tells you as much about the people who work there as the people who shop there because oftentimes they are one and the same. People who work in a bookstore often live near that bookstore. They represent the area. What did Word’s recommendations tell me? It’s filled with a diverse mix of eclectic tastes. At Word, there was a Persian cook book next to March: Book One (about the civil rights movement). There were also recommendations for books I’d never heard of, which means something because I make it my job to know books of all kinds. This bookstore surpassed my book knowledge. Better stated, it enhanced my book knowledge.
This tells me: This is a bookstore for people who want to stretch out of their comfort zones.
6. Division of assets
In the back of the store, approximately one-third of the shop is devoted to children’s books. Classic and unique parenting and picture books line the walls and jut out into the aisles. Small tables with “reserved” signs that have times on them nestle in the back corner. This tells me: This neighborhood may be trendy, but it’s also family-oriented. These are the young intellectuals. The future leaders or the future mooch off my parents for the rest of my lifers. It could go either way.
This tells me: This is a city filled with families that care about books and thinking.
7. Other offerings
Word doesn’t just have books and book-related items. It also has a pastry section. This, plus the tables in the children’s section, tells me this bookstore knows that even though we read alone, books are about community. If you love books, you love to share your thoughts on books and your love of books with others.
What this tells me: This is a book city, a thinkers city, a readers city.
My Final Read
So what do I think of Jersey City based on it’s bookstore? It’s definitely a town for me – counter culture, up and coming (or on the cusp of already being there), but it still has enough personality to make it not just another hipster invasion. Jersey City is a worthy edition to the bridge and tunnel ranks. It may end up on top some day sooner than anyone realizes.