A Bookstore Tour in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”

Watching “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” is like a journey of bookstores in New York city.

In this neatly filmed work starring Melissa McCarthy as Lee Israel, a writer turned literary forger, she treks across Manhattan to several used bookstores to sell writers’ personal letters, which, surprisingly has a modestly remunerative market. Lee improves those epistolary record by fabricating the letters with those writers’ tone and anecdotes, which come to her at hand as a biography writer.

In order not to get tracked and suspected, and to aim for the most gullible and avaricious buyers, she goes to several different bookstores in Manhattan, most of which I have been to.

The first one where she fails to pawn her collection of books and came across her work was for sale at a humiliating discount is Housing Works Bookstore, alias Crosby Bookstore in the Film. Located exactly on Crosby Street, Soho, this bookstore is modest yet one of my favorites. The book collection is good, and there is a coffee shop with many seats, where one can read the unpurchased books over a cup of coffee. With stairs spiraling to the mezzanine floor, the bookstore provides a bird’s-eye view of itself and you feel like reading aboveground, literally and spiritually. I like going there reading with a cup of tea, sitting on the mezzanine level near the door to watch people come in and out, as well as the passers-by. I finished reading “Call Me by Your Name” there.

Housing Works Bookstore

Another one where her forgery is exposed by the owner, whose friend is a friend of Noël Coward’s, and where her partner in crime is caught, is Argosy Book Store, located on 59 street, between Lexington and Park Ave. I have been there only once, on my way to a theatre nearby. It is beautiful and elegant, decorated with antiquarian style. True to form, it collects an enormous array of antiquarian and out-of-print volumes since 1925. Walking inside, you get a noseful of smell of old books which permeates in historical libraries. I am no expert on antiquarian, but I like the immersion in the atmosphere with dim light and wooden bookshelves.

Argosy Book Store
Argosy Book Store

Still another one, which I forgot what Lee does there, is Westsider Rare & Used Books on Broadway, between 80 and 81 street, Upper West Side. It’s the smallest among the three with narrow corridors between shelves, where two people can barely pass through side by side. The shelves stretch two-story high to the ceiling, with ladders which you climb to reach books. The rickety stair located on the center of the store and leading up to the mezzanine floor, where old records and books are stored, is probably its signature. Though small in size, the Westsider overwhelms its shoppers with the height and density of its collection.

Westsider Rare & Used Books
View from the mezzanine to which the central stair leads

Lee in the film goes to many more bookstores, but I can only identify these three so far. There are too many interesting bookstores in New York City, and I am glad that “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” succeeds in discovering and uncovering the beauty in them.