McNally Jackson gains a following at new Brooklyn bookstore

McNally Jackson expanded to Williamsburg earlier this year, where it is building up an events calendar to rival the SoHo location.
McNally Jackson expanded to Williamsburg earlier this year, where it is building up an events calendar to rival the SoHo location. Photo Credit: Camp Arlo

When McNally Jackson opened the doors to its Williamsburg bookstore earlier this year on a snowy winter day, no one was expecting it.

The news of the beloved 14-year-old independent SoHo store opening a Brooklyn outpost was long buried since The New York Times first announced it in March 2014.

“Whoops,” manager Sam MacLaughlin, 31, laughs.

Housed in a former steel factory, the new bookstore is a collaboration between MacLaughlin, a former bookseller for the Prince Street bookstore, and McNally Jackson founder Sarah McNally. It’s the first retail endeavor ever in the industrial space, which accounts for some of the structural delays.

After leaving McNally Jackson to work in publishing, MacLaughlin realized he missed bookselling. He approached his former boss, and she suggested they partner on a new project.

MacLaughlin was eager to see a large independent bookstore in his neighborhood.

“I’ve lived in Williamsburg for a decade and felt like the neighborhood could sustain another big new [rather than used] bookstore,” he says. “I lived here and I wanted it to be here.”

Also, the folks strolling around his neighborhood just felt like readers and book buyers, he said.

When the duo saw the space of the future bookstore “both our jaws dropped,” MacLaughlin recalls. They signed a lease, and MacLaughlin continued to work as an editorial and marketing assistant at a major publishing house until it was time to set up the store in 2017.

Fans of McNally’s SoHo shop may notice there’s no cafe in the new space. Original plans had the mezzanine wrapping all the way around the store, with space for a cafe and the kids section. The city’s Department of Buildings did not approve those plans, MacLaughlin says, so the half-mezzanine is home to just the kids books.

“We wanted as much space as possible for the books themselves,” MacLaughlin says.

As for the books, the selection in Williamsburg is similar to SoHo.

“We took all that’s great about Prince Street and brought it here,” MacLaughlin says. “We’re still figuring out what makes this different and what people are responding to.”

One category prominent on SoHo’s shelves that Brooklyn shoppers miss is foreign language, and efforts to find space for those titles are currently underway.

Despite its quiet opening, the Williamsburg shop has found an audience, with a calendar building up to rival SoHo’s. Recently, a vegan cookbook event, poetry reading, horror writer evening and “the fiction writers you would expect” have drawn large crowds. And story time “is a baby mosh pit,” MacLaughlin says. “The whole front of the store becomes a parking lot for strollers.”

A writing group informally congregates at a large upstairs table on Wednesdays and a New York history book club has also formed in the space.

Just blocks away are Spoonbill & Sugartown and Book Thug Nation, along with a slew of others in the borough. A new bookstore isn’t so much competition, but a continuation of Brooklynites love for literature, MacLaughlin says.

“Greenlight, Books Are Magic . . . all the [independent bookstores], we’re friends, there’s no strife,” MacLaughlin says. “It’s just us against Amazon.”

Fast facts

  • Best-sellers are “The Idiot” by Elif Batuman and “Annihilation” by Jeff VanderMeer.
  • A celebrity frequents this store and always buys the same book, but we’re not allowed to say which one.
  • Another McNally Jackson bookstore is slated to open at South Street Seaport.
  • McNally Jackson Williamsburg is located at 76 N. Fourth St. For more info, visit mcnallyjackson.com.