Following a brief summer closure, City of Asylum Books at Alphabet City is reopened and offering bibliophiles more than just the routine literature findings.
By: Nick Eustis
The ambiance was more cocktail party than the advertised book reading and Q&A session; guests walked back and forth, glasses in hand between the bar and the auditorium-style seating. The room was dimly lit, hiding the faces of the crowd from the front stage where a podium and a black baby grand piano sat silently under the heat of theater lights.
As visitors settled into their seats, a short introduction video began to play. The City of Asylum video welcomed guests to Alphabet City and explained the mission of the nonprofit. City of Asylum, a community organization, provides sanctuary for artists and writers who have been exiled from their respective homelands.
After the introduction ended, Eileen Myles approached the stage. Myles is a poet, novelist and screenwriter, whose recent work was featured in the hit TV series “Transparent.”
Myles read a selection from their new book “Afterglow,” which they referred to as “the most fictional thing I’ve ever written,” despite it being a memoir.
“The thing I care most about is rhythm, and the words almost don’t matter at times,” Myles said.
Myles’ whirlwind-like presentation shared in the surrealist style quoted from their memoir. Their energetic performance was met with raucous applause, but that lively scene was only temporary.
Come morning, this space will become a quiet bookstore once more.
In the daylight, Alphabet City is home to City of Asylum’s Bookstore. A quaint reading space and cafe off North Avenue, where shelves are packed with an eclectic and international mix of over 10,000 pieces of literature. This diversity of voices is an integral part of the bookstore’s goal.
“We try to be reflective of the mission of City of Asylum … to promote cross-cultural exchange and understanding,” said Lesley Rains, the bookstore manager at Alphabet City. “We certainly carry the works of the exiled writers who’ve lived here, but then we also make a point to highlight authors from around the world, many of whom are writing under dangerous circumstances.”
This emphasis on the organization’s multicultural mission has resulted in a different kind of bookstore, one where unheard stories are the most important to tell.
“We try to highlight authors from different countries that don’t necessarily have the megaphone that American authors do,” said Rains. “Our wall mounted shelves try to highlight publishers that specialize in translated literature … so we end up carrying a lot of books that you may not see elsewhere.”
This commitment to lesser known stories is further evident in the bookstore’s expansive children’s section, managed by Jennifer Kraar. Similar to the adult reading section, children’s literature at City of Asylum places an emphasis on translated and international works and includes everything from picture books through young adult reading. Kraar said that this diverse selection of readings is important to expose children to early on in life. Adding that connecting children with books outside their comfort zones is one of her favorite parts of the job.
“[To] challenge kids to read beyond what they always want to read, just like adults,” Kraar said about the bookstore’s approach. “It’s very exciting to see more windows than mirrors.”
Kraar introduces an apt metaphor for the City of Asylum Bookstore. It is a window for grown-ups into the struggles of nations and peoples across the globe, a window for children into worlds unfamiliar, a window for readers into the minds of innovative artists – and certainly a window worth opening.
City of Asylum Bookstore is located at 40 W. North Ave. and is open Tues. thru Sat. 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Sunday 12 p.m. to 4 p.m.