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Posts Tagged ‘Upper West Side’

upper west side view

Of all the late-nineties rom-coms featuring plucky heroines, adorable New York apartments and lives full of utter charm, You’ve Got Mail might be my favorite.

I saw it in the theater as a teenager, and have watched it countless times since – with my family, my girlfriends, by myself. I remember the days of dial-up AOL and the magic of finding new friends online before social media, though I am about 15 years younger than Kathleen Kelly. I once spent a weekend on the Upper West Side visiting some of the movie’s iconic locations: Cafe Lalo, Zabar’s, Gray’s Papaya, the 91st Street Garden in Riverside Park. (I did not see Joe and Brinkley, but you can bet I looked.) I still have the soundtrack on CD, and New York in the fall definitely makes me want to buy school supplies.

You’ve Got Mail continues to charm me for so many reasons: the witty, perfectly timed dialogue; the cozy bookshop packed with beloved children’s classics and kind employees; the epistolary love story (though I have thoughts, these days, about Joe Fox and his personal ethics). But the more time I spend with it, the more clearly I see what my friend Kari noted years ago: in addition to a classic romantic comedy, it is (in Kari’s words) “a moving portrait of a woman who is going through a crisis of vocation.”

Kathleen has always known she’d run The Shop Around the Corner; she started helping her mother there after school at age six, and never left. We don’t even know if she went to college, or entertained other dreams for her life. She has grown up shaped by this bookstore and this neighborhood, and she would happily go on selling children’s books there forever. But she is not given that choice: Fox Books moves in across the way, and its big-box appeal (coupled, no doubt, with rising rents and the lurking shadow of Amazon) forces Kathleen to make a decision she never foresaw: “Close. We’re going to close.”

I’ve thought about Kathleen a lot this past year, as the pandemic has upended so many of the jobs most of us believed would bring us stability and security. I was furloughed from my higher ed job last May, then finally laid off in January after months of waiting. This wasn’t the first time, though: my last few years in higher ed have been marked by uncertainty and change, including two previous layoffs and a few temp gigs. The thing I have been chasing – meaningful work that provided a steady paycheck and health insurance in an industry I thought was stable – has turned out not to be so reliable after all.

“What are you going to do now?” a customer asks Kathleen as she rings up books (and stuffs in a box of Kleenex) at the closing sale. She gives a vague but honest answer: she’s going to take some time. We see her doing just that in the last third of the movie: reading a thick novel at a coffee shop, buying plants and produce with Joe Fox, heating up a bowl of soup and sitting on the floor in her apartment to eat it and bask in the sunshine. I suspect she also must have done some grieving. She must have wondered – what now? Earlier in the film, she had wondered in an email if her life’s smallness meant it didn’t have value, or that she lacked courage. Now, that life is no longer available to her, and she has to figure out the next step on a road she never saw coming.

We don’t get a tidy resolution of Kathleen’s career story; we don’t get to see her take her next professional step, though she hints that she’s working on a children’s book. I hope that whatever she does next, it is rich and satisfying and allows her to use all that experience from decades of working at the store. I hope her previous life leads, in both good and surprising ways, to her next one. I hope she realizes how brave she truly is – as Birdie tells her, “You are daring to imagine that you could have a different life.” I hope she’s happy with Joe, of course, but more than that I hope she is fulfilled in her own skin and satisfied with the way she gets to spend her days.

My hopes for Kathleen, of course, are also my hopes for myself. (Isn’t that what we do with our heroines – see ourselves in them, and then project our own hopes onto them?) In the wake of an extremely difficult year, I am hoping – and searching – for a steady paycheck, for sure. But I am also hoping for work that gives me a rich, satisfying, joyful way to spend my days. I think Kathleen would approve.

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strand bookstore awning nyc

One of my favorite things about traveling alone: I can go to as many bookstores as I want. My husband is a patient man, but when we’re traveling together, he occasionally wants to see something other than the inside of a bookstore. (I can’t imagine why.)

On my solo trip to NYC in mid-August, I indulged my book-browsing habit to the tune of five bookstores in four days. I came home with a dozen new-to-me books (stuffed into the Strand tote bag I had prudently carried along), and a full bookworm heart.

three lives co bookstore nyc front

I stayed at the Larchmont Hotel in the West Village, so my first stop was Three Lives & Co., just a few blocks away. It’s a cozy, well-curated space with shelves that reach nearly to the ceiling.

three lives bookstore interior

I eavesdropped on a bookseller who was talking novels with a customer, and chimed in to second his recommendation of Where’d You Go, Bernadette. (My purchases: Robert MacFarlane’s Landmarks and Thomas Montasser’s charming novel A Very Special Year.)

Last time I visited Idlewild Books, they were in a second-floor storefront near Union Square, but they have moved to a spacious ground-floor shop in the West Village. I went in for a browse and picked up a quirky New England travel guide. The a/c was on the fritz and the box fans were blasting, but I loved nosing around the stacks and dreaming of trips I’d love to take.

idlewild books nyc interior

Up on Bleecker Street, also in the Village, bookbook provided another break from the heat and a fascinating place to browse. I picked up some good nonfiction at 50% off, including The Empathy Exams and H is for Hawk.

bookbook bookstore bleecker street west village nyc

I spent a good portion of my Sunday wandering the Upper West Side, and Book Culture on Columbus Ave. was a must. I love their huge ground floor full of gorgeous fiction, fascinating nonfiction and beautiful gifts, and their cozy children’s section in the basement is perfection. I came away with a whole stack: fiction, nonfiction and a couple of children’s books. And I loved this display toward the front of the store.

book culture women display

The Strand, with its 18 miles (!) of bookshelves, wasn’t far from my hotel, but I didn’t make it there until Sunday night – too busy wandering. I slipped in for a browse just before closing time and bought The Art of Slow Writing, which Addie had recommended. And then – because I could – I went back the next morning before my train left, and came away with a journal and a couple of gifts.

strand bookstore nyc exterior

I’m heading back to NYC later this fall, and a couple of these stores will definitely be on my list. If you’ve got other favorite NYC bookstores, let me know – I’m always looking for more bookish places to enjoy.

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72nd broadway nyc

Recently, I took off to New York City for three days by myself. My husband was headed to a conference in Texas, and I needed a change of scenery – which New York always provides.

I’ve been to New York several times before, to visit Allison when she lived in Queens or for long weekends with J. But I’d never taken an entirely solo trip there, and I had never stayed in Manhattan. So I took advantage of this trip to rent an apartment on the Upper West Side, and spend three days pretending I was Kathleen Kelly.

silver flats striped skirt

I have a longstanding love affair with You’ve Got Mail – my favorite Nora Ephron film, and one of my favorite movies ever. I love everything about it: the witty dialogue, the gorgeous neighborhood, the whimsical soundtrack, the charming Shop Around the Corner. I love the minor characters: sweet Christina, clueless George, quippy Kevin, wise Birdie. Most of all I love Kathleen Kelly herself: brave, quirky, thoughtful, utterly human.

Although I’d visited a few You’ve Got Mail spots on previous trips to New York, I took the time to visit them all – and linger – this time around. On my first afternoon in the city, I walked down to Riverside Park.

riverside park benches

“There’s a place in Riverside Park at 91st Street where the path curves and there’s a garden,” Joe writes to Kathleen in his last email. “Brinkley and I will be waiting.”

91 street garden riverside park nyc

The 91st Street Garden is lush with late-summer flowers right now, and though I didn’t see Brinkley and Joe, I saw plenty of dogs and their owners (as well as runners, cyclists and nannies with strollers).

91st street garden fence nyc

Cafe Lalo, scene of the famous book-and-a-rose encounter in the movie, is on West 83rd Street, just a few blocks from where I was staying. I’d been there for dessert once before, but on this trip I went for breakfast every morning.

cafe lalo table berries teacup

Delicious pastries (croissants and pain au chocolat), fresh berries, cheery yellow mugs. There’s a whole wall of French windows, and fresh flowers on all the tables. Every time I walked up, I couldn’t help but smile, thinking of Joe Fox: “She had to be! She had to be!”

Zabar’s, the famous deli, also appears in the movie, and I popped in to browse the displays of gourmet treats and buy some Earl Grey. I also grabbed a hot dog at Gray’s Papaya, and spotted a eucalyptus candle at a housewares shop on Broadway. (As George knows, they make an apartment smell “mossy.”)

eucalyptus candle

I didn’t find the Shop Around the Corner, of course, but I did stumble onto Book Culture‘s newest location. The children’s section, in the basement, is a wonderland, and the entire store is enchanting.

book culture childrens department

Mostly, I spent hours wandering the West Side, stopping often to snap photos of beautiful brownstones and light through the trees.

upper west side brownstones nyc

On my last morning in the city, I bought a chai latte and wandered back to Riverside Park, under a bold blue sky. I could almost hear the Cranberries playing as I walked down West 86th, toward the park.

upper west side view

(Then I slipped and fell on some stairs and spilled my chai everywhere, proving that my life is not a romantic comedy after all. But at least it makes for a good story.)

I relish the love story in You’ve Got Mail, of course, but more and more I also appreciate its other main plot thread: an unexpected career turn and what happens afterward. That storyline doesn’t resolve neatly, but that, too, rings true – many careers are not a straight line, and most of us have a few bumps we didn’t choose along the way. I like to imagine that Kathleen found happiness in another book-related career, even as she found personal happiness with Joe Fox.

I had other adventures in New York – including visits to several (more) bookstores, of which more soon. But for now, I’ll leave with you with a few daisies from Central Park – because, after all, they are the friendliest flower.

central park yellow flowers nyc

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