This month’s featured bookstore post might be one of our shortest yet, not because the store doesn’t deserve a lengthy description, but because it is one of the more mysterious businesses I’ve encountered. Located on Vanderbilt Avenue in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, Unnameable Books certainly lives up to its name — so much so that when I asked the man working behind the register if he knew the name’s origin story, he told me that he wasn’t really allowed to say. This man, my unofficial source for this blog post, told me I could refer to him as “the old guy who isn’t the owner.”
According to The Old Guy, the actual owner of Unnameable Books is very secretive. At first, a part of me thought that The Old Guy might have actually been the owner and was just fucking with me. Then I did some creative googling and found this 2010 interview with the store’s actual owner, Adam Tobine. The article states that he was 35 at the time of the interview, which means he’s roughly 45 now — decidedly not old — and features a photograph of Adam, who is definitely not the person I spoke to in the store. The interview also includes a kind-of-explanation of the store’s name, so perhaps Adam has only become an international man of mystery with age. Either way, the information I have to share about the history of Unnameable Books is as sparse as the store’s shelves are full.
And they are full — brimming to the point that there are straight-up piles of books on the floor, stationed in corners throughout the charmingly cramped shop. For its size, the store houses an impressive number of used books in every genre imaginable, organized in such a way that every alcove feels like a treasure trove, an opportunity to find something special. New releases are featured towards the front of the shop, and as always there’s a shelf dedicated to the staff’s choices, but the rest of the store feels a bit like a curated library that you stumbled into and aren’t technically supposed to know about (and I mean that in a good way.) You’ll find books here that you might not be able to find anywhere else, whether it’s a well-preserved vintage edition of something out of print or a poetry collection published by an independent press.
The Old Guy told me that when it opened in 2006, Unnameable Books was called Adam’s Books, but was renamed after a dispute with another bookseller of the same name (which may have actually been a scam operation, but you didn’t hear it from me). Originally located on Bergen Street, the store moved to Vanderbilt in 2009 and has been there ever since. Surrounded by ice cream parlours, coffee shops, and boutique vintage stores, Unnameable Books is a welcome reprieve from the noise and stroller-heavy sidewalk traffic of Prospect Heights.
Despite having a pretty minuscule web presence compared to some of the other New York indies we’ve covered in the past — their only website is a blogspot — do a quick search for Unnameable Books on Twitter and you’ll see many people citing it as their favorite bookstore in the city. Its popularity is certainly buoyed by the many readings and other events hosted there; in the same week you might attend a book release soiree (featuring live saxophone) and a queer & anti-captialism education discussion. Another bonus: the store makes it clear that it is a safe space for marginalized communities, with Black Lives Matter and Refugees Welcome window signage visible from the outside at all times.
More than anything else, I think what draws people to this store is the possibility of discovery. So many stores focus on what’s popular right now and what sells best, directing you to this table or that and overwhelming you with recommendations, but Unnameable Books invites you to figure it out on your own. To pull something from a shelf based on the spine alone, wander through nooks and crannies until you find something different and truly special. Something unnameable, if you will. (I had to do it.)