One Grand Builds Buzz With Celebrities’ “Desert Island” Reading Lists

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If one has ever desired to know the 10 books Neil Gaiman, Carrie Brownstein, or Gloria Steinem would pack for a trip to a deserted island, the answer is on display at One Grand Books.

What began as a pop-up shop in New York City during the summer of 2015 has become a permanent, 550-square-foot bookstore in the small, upstate New York town of Narrowsburg, which is situated along the Delaware River. Inside the store, shelves present the desert island lists of 100 notable people, such as Tilda Swinton, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Alison Bechdel, and Neil Patrick Harris.

One Grand is a passion project for owner Aaron Hicklin, the editor-in-chief of Out magazine and founder of the editorial agency Grand Editorial, who reaches out to the figures he finds most interesting to invite them to create desert island lists.

His idea for “getting people to think about books in a slightly different way” had been percolating for years, Hicklin said, and though his original concept was for an online-only store, he came to the realization that a physical bookstore was a critical component of his dream.

“Just sitting there in a space that I’ve created, surrounded by books and with great customers coming in who love the idea, is why I wanted to open a bookstore,” said Hicklin. “It’s to experience running it myself, being in it, selling books, and pointing things out to people.”

Another part of Hicklin’s motivation in developing the desert island lists was the ability it gave him to showcase interesting books in locations outside of bookstores, as a way of hooking new readers. “One of the things about the lists is they really lend themselves to being placed in atypical environments,” Hicklin said.

One Grand recently debuted a pop-up shop in the Shinola store in Palo Alto, California, where customers can see the desert island lists of Lena Dunham, Miranda July, Gia Coppola, Bret Easton Ellis, and Alice Waters. The store will also host Waters for an event later this month. In Culver City, California, Blue Bottle Coffee will feature titles on five desert island lists when its shop opens later this year.

Closer to home, Hicklin is eyeing an old steamship as the possible home for salon-style readings from the desert island lists. “It’s really fun to map those things out and think about thematic literary events,” said Hicklin, who hopes to have some of the lists’ curators in attendance to read from their picks.

Right now, Hicklin is the sole staffer at One Grand, which is open on weekends. He clearly loves spending time at the shop, which he said has windows on three sides and overlooks the Delaware River at a particular point known for its bald eagle sightings. “There’s something really perfect about it,” he said.

Hicklin and his husband spend a lot of time in the Catskills, and Narrowsburg is fast becoming a hot spot for young people looking for weekend homes or an alternative to living in New York City. Between the up-and-coming community and the strong arts scene in the town, Hicklin felt a lot of energy in Narrowsburg and saw it as a perfect home to launch his unique bookstore.

The shop was constructed to highlight the store’s specialized inventory with the help of architect Jon Buono. Books are displayed on white ash shelving with built-in lighting and magnets hold up placards explaining the choices of each desert island list’s curator. “There was a lot of attention to having the space work specifically for the concept of the store. Everything was designed for that,” said Hicklin. “When people come in, they are really engaged in this space and how it’s been designed as much as they are in the books.”

The desert island lists have garnered quite a bit of publicity, both online and in the store, and the shop itself has proven popular among customers seeking to browse the collections in person. “People are returning to the physical experience,” Hicklin said.

In addition to its shelves of desert island titles, One Grand carries a general selection of new books in hardcover, as well as coloring books, stationery, cards, paperweights made by a local artisan, and birdcalls from France to complement the shop’s river overlook.

In focusing on the desert island lists, Hicklin acknowledged that he “was taking away some of the privilege of being a bookstore owner by not being allowed to curate my own favorites.” In an effort to broaden the scope of books featured at the store and online, Hicklin recently instituted a featured staff read, currently What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).

Following the death of David Bowie in January, Hicklin arranged a table to feature 10 titles that had appeared on Bowie’s list of favorite books back in 2013, a table that will soon be switched to Scandinavian noir. “I love mysteries and mysteries don’t often make their way onto the desert island 10 — they tend to be a little more lofty,” said Hicklin.

The world of retail, much less bookselling, is new to Hicklin, who said he felt confident that “while there’s a lot of anguish about the state of the bookselling industry or book buying industry, there’s a huge and enthusiastic audience for books. You can curate a really nice space to inspire you to pick up a book you might not have considered.”

Following a soft opening on Black Friday and a grand opening celebration at the beginning of December, the store had a busy holiday season, with sales adding up to twice what Hicklin had anticipated.

“I do feel people are fine with paying more than they’d pay on Amazon if it’s local and the experience is pleasant,” said Hicklin, who noted that the ambience of the store, the selection, and the way purchased books are wrapped add to One Grand’s offerings. “They choose to support you because they have a fidelity to the idea of what the independent bookstore means. I’ve really been taken aback by just how supportive people are.”