A stranded brainy tourist.” That’s Drew Cohen’s unexpected answer to a question about the archetypal customer of the Writer’s Block, the independent bookstore he co-owns in downtown Las Vegas. One might’ve anticipated a taxonomy of local book nerds, but really this makes just as much sense. Not all of the millions of annual visitors are here for a Sin City bender. Some are nongambling conventioneers or people visiting retired parents, and they’re looking for a different indulgence. “It’s something that’s probably unique to us, somewhat unique in the country,” Cohen says.
This article appears in the Summer 2022 issue of Alta Journal.
He does offer a partial taxonomy of local book nerds who patronize his store: downtown hipsters, young families, students and faculty from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, kids from the nearby performing arts school, emissaries from deepest suburbia. What locals and out-of-towners share is, first, a profound relief at finding a refuge of literary culture in a city better known for its endless distractions. And second? Good taste.
“I didn’t expect Las Vegas to be as literary-minded and highbrow as it is,” says Cohen, who runs the store with his husband, Scott Seeley. Not long after they opened (in a different location) in 2014, Cohen saw that his bestselling book was Albert Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus. It was an early sign that he wouldn’t need to bait the shelves with mainstream fare to keep the doors open.
Success was by no means ensured—most previous attempts to establish a truly independent bookstore in Las Vegas had foundered; the city wasn’t ready. Cohen recalls hearing a few “dire predictions of failure” prior to opening. But years of steady population growth seem at last to have deposited enough high-end readers to sustain such an eclectic place. “We consistently sell esoteric fiction and super-new stuff,” he says. “I think our selection can stand shoulder to shoulder with bookstores in New York or Seattle.”
Along with its vanguard and small-press fiction, the store’s 20,000-book inventory includes robust sections devoted to essays and memoirs, history, and poetry. It’s all nestled in a visually arresting space that eschews the standard Vegas mood board in favor of a sophisticated whimsy. This is thanks largely to Seeley, who brought his previous experience with the McSweeney’s retail arm to bear—ersatz birds fill the rafters; quirky toys, games, and puzzles are everywhere; and in a witty twist on the bookstore cat, the Writer’s Block has a beloved bunny named the Baron.
This makes canny business sense—“People love a bookstore with personality,” Cohen says—but it has also made the Writer’s Block a hub for a literary community that hasn’t always had one. Local writers hang around, jockeying their laptops in the coffee shop, chatting up the young, bookish staff. There are reading groups—a toast to the Bourbon Book Club!—and free writing workshops for kids.
“In many ways, the Writer’s Block is literary church,” emails Kim Foster, a James Beard Award–winning writer and frequent habitué of the store. “On any given night you can hear literary giants like Leslie Jamison and Claire Vaye Watkins read their work there, next to a young Mexican poet doing his first reading, or watch a formerly incarcerated Egyptian activist read his work after seeking literary asylum in Vegas.”
“Even if I just lived in Las Vegas and had another job,” Cohen says, “I would probably hang out at our store.”•
The Writer’s Block
519 S. 6th St., Ste. 100, Las Vegas, thewritersblock.org
Is your favorite indie bookstore missing from this list? Fill out this form or drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org to let us know whom we missed and why they should be included. Visit altaonline.com/bookstores for frequent additions.