Thirty years ago Mercer Street Books & Records, a cornerstone of the original atmosphere of NoHo’s authentic neighborhood, opened and left its mark on the streets of NYC. This cozy independent business is unlike any other in the area, and it provides a rich and traditional feel to the community. To celebrate Mercer Street Books’ thirtieth anniversary, we sat down with Wayne Conti, the owner, to learn about his time in the neighborhood as a used bookstore owner and his experiences during the pandemic. Read on to further your understanding of this small business and browse through the endless bookshelves of some of New York City’s richest history.
When one steps into Mercer Street Books, most likely the first thing they will see is the friendly face of Wayne Conti. Wayne likes to emphasize the importance of browsing: when one comes to his store, one must browse his heavily curated collection instead of coming in with a particular book in mind. Most of the books on Wayne’s shelves were either donated or exchanged over the years, so he essentially sells only used books. This fun trait is what makes Wayne’s bookstore different from others, for he not only sells the content of the books to his consumers, but he shares the stories that accompany each and every one of them. This fact alone makes the Mercer Street Books & Records a unique, authentic, and remarkably personal operation. Even though his collection contains a vast range of books he has acquired over the years, if one were to shop for a specific book in the store, it would be a challenge. Yet, Conti believes this adds to the excitement for readers when they find a book that they would normally neglect or overlook. It is this unconventional philosophy of retail that makes Conti and this particular used book store so special.
To add even more charm to Mercer Street Books, its current location has a rich and colorful history. Wayne Conti interestingly bought Mercer Street Books from the previous owner who was also in the business of selling books. While it may seem coincidental for two bookstores to inhabit one store location over the span of forty years, Wayne actually confessed that the previous owner was his inspiration for building this bookstore into what it is now.
It is no doubt that Wayne Conti takes immense pride in his small independent business, and so it is no surprise that he himself was a customer at the previous bookstore, The Art of Reading. When it went out of business, Conti hoped to maintain its legacy– he believed it could still succeed as a bookstore and business. So, he and a few associates decided to open Mercer Street Books. Now, here Wayne is– thirty years later– celebrating its anniversary and all it has contributed to the neighborhood. It is a reliable establishment in a world that is constantly changing over time.
When asked how the store’s name came to be, Wayne’s response was genuinely refreshing. He stated, “I think the main reason was that it had been a bookstore for years and years and people were saying I like the bookstore, but I couldn’t remember where it was. It’s not hard to find a bookstore on Mercer Street cause it’s not that long a street.” In addition to the store’s never-ending charm, Wayne prefers to keep the store open way past most bookstores in the neighborhood, sometimes even as late at 10:00pm. This feature was designed to attract the later crowd of people that would leave the Angelika movie theatre located at the end of the block (closer to Houston), so that even well into the evening they feel welcomed to enter and browse before heading home for the night.
But even with all it has to offer, Mercer Street Books & Records faces many issues in 2020 as it struggles to stay open during a tumultuous economy following the COVID-19 outbreak. Even before this year, Mercer Street Books was facing a sharp drop in foot traffic because of a large construction project on the block, and was already at a disadvantage due to a rapidly increasing dependence on online book services– Mercer Street Books is forced to compete with major companies like Amazon and Barnes & Noble. But, lest we forget, used bookstores like Mercer Street Books continue to offer an authentic and unique atmosphere to the NoHo community and the New York City community as a whole.
Please come down to Mercer Street Books & Records to help support Wayne and his business as they continue the fight to stay open during these difficult times. Go grab your mask, and come head over to the corner of Mercer and Bleecker (without a specific book in mind!) to help Wayne out. You can also support Wayne and his staff by donating to their GoFundMe, or for more information check out this post by @newyorknico on Instagram.
STORY BY KATHERINE ELY