Those tour groups at the bookstore? They’re from Harrisburg

By Jane Van Ingen

On an unseasonably warm November afternoon, a handful of silver-haired tourists walked back to 5th Avenue and 10th Street, carrying bags from the Strand bookstore. They were waiting for the bus to take them back to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

Last summer, Larry Portzline, a professor at Harrisburg Community College, started Bookstore Tourism and has planned several trips to bookstores in the Greenwich Village area. The visitors typically leave Harrisburg in the wee hours of the morning, listen to a discussion about competition in the bookstore industry and arrive at the Washington Square Arch mid-morning.

Armed with the “Greenwich Village Bookstore Adventure” brochure, the 40-45 tourists (after the first tour in July, the tours sold out quickly) go their separate ways and visit legendary stores such as Three Lives, Shakespeare and Co. and St. Marks Books, niche stores such as Bonnie Slotnick Cookbooks, Biography Bookstore, Bluestockings, Books of Wonder, East West, Macondo, Lectorum, Skylight Books, Partners and Crime and Oscar Wilde, small stores like 12th St. Books and used book shops such as Alabaster and Housing Works Used Books & Café. Even NYU’s bookstore is listed on the brochure.

The tour attracts Harrisburg residents of all ages who have a broad range of interests, and Portzline said the group tries to visit all 18 stores on the list.

Though Portzline sends letters to the managers and owners of these stores to announce their visit, he insists they don’t make a big fuss for the visitors. On this particular November trip, Portzline and his girlfriend received compliments and were told how cool the idea was at every store they went. The manager at East West told Portzline that it was nice to know that they were bringing people into lower Manhattan since tourism has dropped.

Deb Wagner pulled out the brochure when asked which stores she went to. “I went into five stores with my husband and bought 11 books,” Wagner said. “I bought two used paperbacks at Housing Works and bought two books in Three Lives, which was a lot of fun.” Wagner had heard about the trip through friends who had raved about it.

Peggy and Megan Morris also had to consult the list—they went to Alabaster, Partners and Crime, Bonnie Slotnick Cookbooks and Shakespeare and Co. Though she didn’t buy very much, Peggy said, “Megan invited me and I had a great time. It was wonderful.”

Bonnie Slotnick herself agrees the brochure is a huge service since nothing else like it exists. Her store is a particular destination, and though not all 44 travelers are in the store at the same time, it’s a small space. Customers bought a lot of baking books, Christmas titles, German, Eastern European and Jewish books. One woman bought an individual book of the Woman’s Day Encyclopedia—she’s been buying several titles at a time.

“It’s a brilliant idea,” Slotnick said. “They really feel like they’re far away from New York City, and it’s a good way to get people to feel comfortable in the city and the village.”

Slotnick’s own travel for the last 20 years has been to bookstores and it’s the only traveling she does. Indeed, Portzline’s vision for Bookstore Tourism is that people will be so impressed with the idea that they’ll plan their own bookstore bus tours around the country. In the meantime, more trips to the city are planned in the spring.

Though Partners and Crime, Bonnie Slotnick Cookbooks and the Strand are always crowd pleasers they also went into stores that weren’t on the list, such as Mercer Street Books and the MOMA art store on Spring Street.

“All of the stores feed off each other,” Portzline said. “There’s competition but they also help each other out.”

“It benefits other stores in the neighborhood, not just bookstores,” Slotnick observed.