Rensselaer County is a more diverse region than some might think, with dynamic city centers of Troy and Rensselaer hugging the Hudson River and long commercial corridors of Route 4 and Columbia Turnpike connecting them. As you spiderweb out from there, reaching further east, north, and south, you’ll find smaller towns, villages, and crossroads of all sorts, from Schaghticoke and its broad fairgrounds to Grafton and its beautiful ponds and lakes, even down to dots on the map like Petersburg and Pittstown. Each is unique and interesting in their own way. And just as disparate as these places are from one another, the bookshops of Rensselaer County offer a diverse range of experiences and literary adventures.
I grew up in a lot of places throughout the county, from an apartment in downtown Troy to a trailer out past Nassau, but the last place I lived before going away to college was Averill Park, and I still consider that my “hometown,” or as close to it as I’m going to come. Just a little further east along Route 43, just before you get into Stephentown, you’ll find a bright red house with a big sign that says BOOKS out front, and when you come to that, you’ll know you discovered Braveheart Books.
This shop used to be called Down in Denver Books for ages, and at one time it felt a bit gray and cloistered, but with a new owner and a new spirit, the shop has transformed into a vibrant, fun book browsing destination.
On a sunny day, you’ll find books on display outside on the front porch, great deals on hardcovers and paperbacks alike, and always something different. Just inside the front door is a rotating seasonal display along with politics, sports, and women’s studies. Over by the front desk you’ll find free coffee, tea, and biscuits, along with candy and lollipops to keep you energized while browsing. There’s also an array of memoirs and biographies, Beat-era literature, art books, vintage and rare titles, and the children’s and YA shelves.
Other sections downstairs include the bulk of the fiction along with nonfiction displays, mystery, a nook for horror, sci-fi, and fantasy, and a section for religious titles (more than I expected). Upstairs you’ll find vintage Hollywood memoirs, biographies, and historical examinations, along with other unique nonfiction titles covering everything from counterculture journalism to psychology, cooking, history, true crime, literary studies, and animals, as well as poetry, noir, classic literature, and a tiny bit o’ erotica for saucier readers. It’s rare I leave empty-handed, but even if I do, I’m always happy I made the drive out.
From this point we’ll turn north on Route 22, which serves as the spine of the county, running north/south along the entire eastern border. You’ll pass Berlin and Petersburg, and eventually hit Route 7. Turn east again toward Vermont and you’ll discover two more excellent used bookshops, the first of which is a massive barn hidden in plain sight.
Dog Ears Book Barn has a little sign out front, but is hidden behind trees and bushes. When I finally walked back there and stepped inside, I realized that this place is HUGE, with three floors of books. It has everything. The sheer volume of books here and the quality in each section is stunning. I had an armload before I made it a third of the way through the first floor, which contains a children’s section, mystery/crime, general literary fiction, horror, poetry, essays, biographies, writing-related, literary nonfiction, a section of first editions, so many books that it was hard to move around, row after row, piled and stuffed into every possible space. It was like a playland and there were a lot of people there having the time of their lives scouring for books to take home.
And that’s just the first floor. There’s a whole basement of mass market paperbacks, and upstairs I found history sections broken down by era, nation, and region (I thoroughly investigated the Scottish section) and all kinds of books covering chemistry, biology, animals, gardening, math, engineering, travel, maps (like old road maps you’d buy in gas stations in the 40s through the 80s!), politics, books about books, just on and on. You won’t leave without a smile on your face. One caution—bring cash or a checkbook. They don’t take cards.
If you get off the main road and take one of the winding country lanes down into Hoosick Falls, you may be able to locate Red Well Books. I needed to look it up a second time once I parked on Main Street, but if you look for the little red well out on the front yard of a quiet residential home, you’ll be set.
The shop is just one room, but there are long rows full of books, almost from ceiling to floor, and they’re all packed with titles wedged in sideways and stacked on the floor here and there. But it doesn’t feel messy. It feels like an adventure. Most books were in the $5-ish range, and another mass market section had books at $2 each. I made a couple passes through, looking at the memoirs, the cookbooks, the children’s titles, and they had loads of fiction, romance, gardening, sports, etiquette, and so on.
The books are used and run both new and old, and you’re likely to see recent paperback bestsellers right next to hardcovers from the 1930s, 40s, 50s, and the like, all mixed in together. It was a fun visit and I definitely see myself stopping by again soon. If you’re cruising along Route 7 between Vermont and Troy, NY, I highly recommend stopping in.
Since we’ve now reached the furthest extent of the bookshops out in eastern Rensselaer County, let’s head back to the bustling downtown section of Troy, where two very different shops sit just a block from each other.
The Troy Atrium Book Outlet is another hidden store, tucked away inside the mostly empty atrium building. Walking inside was like walking into the Latham Circle Mall before they took it down, with silent storefronts left and right, but the Book Outlet was jam packed with books in room after room, with lots of true crime, history, strange occult type explorations, biographies, autobiographies, fiction galore, fantasy and sci-fi, on and on. Books were stuck into shelves every which way, piled on chairs, sitting in baskets, loads and loads of them. If you have the time, this place will keep you busy. It might not look like much at a glance, especially being located in a strange empty atrium, but it’s worth a look if you don’t mind the effort of snooping.
Just across the street is the only bookstore in the whole county exclusively offering brand new books, the wonderful Market Block Books. When you first go in, you’ll find staff recommendations and new hardcover displays greeting you, with handsome shelving units and the quintessential bookshop ladder on wheels offsetting rows of literary and general fiction all along the right wall. You’ll find a modest selection of the classics and bigger name authors here, and in the square units dotting that front area, the shop has a small collection of mystery, crime, fantasy, and sci-fi books.
To the left when you walk in is an area dominated by a huge bay window, chairs, and a table displaying a selection of timely fiction and nonfiction, covering recent hits, hot political topics, social issues, and other unique contemporary offerings, as well as music and biography titles. It’s clear that this area makes for a great space for readings, not too big but it has the feel of a cozy stage area. And the shop does hold reading events, so look for that.
Down the ramp to the back you’ll find a larger area with all manner of nonfiction—history, reference, business, pets, style, cooking, and more—and a nice children’s section too, with picture books, chapter books, YA titles, gifts, and toys, and finally a small poetry selection, which features a lot of local titles and authors. If you’re a local poet, you should check in and see if they’ll carry your books. The shop is comfortable and very well curated, so be sure to stop by when you’re in downtown Troy!
And while our journey comes to an end here on the banks of the Hudson River, I do wonder—have I missed anyplace? Some hidden gem up in Eagle Bridge? A new shop to replace the one that closed a few years near Hampton Manor? Or are the unconfirmed rumors true about some quiet little book barn out in New Lebanon? You’ll have to tell me. In the meanwhile, I’ll be hunting, and I’ll let you know what I find.
For more reviews, visit www.thebookshophunter.com.