How the Strand is Disneyland for book lovers
For hip-hop fans, eight miles may bring to mind the stretch of street in Detroit’s Mile Road System referred to in the 2002 Eminem movie of the same name. But for a generation of readers, it’s a direct reference to the amount of bookshelves Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist George F. Will was alluding to in a ‘70s column he was writing about the Strand, the venerable Manhattan-based bookstore. Originally opened with a $600 investment and a personal book collection by Ben Bass back in 1927, the original Strand was located on Fourth Avenue between Union Square and Astor Place as part of Book Row, where it was one of 48 other bookstores that made up this area. On its third site following a brief stint on Ninth Street, this retail institution is on the corner of Broadway and 12th Street, the sole survivor of Book Row.
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Ben Bass may have passed away in July 1978, but ever since son Fred was discharged from the military in the early 1950s, the younger Bass had been at the helm for a number of decades before handing the reins over to daughter Nancy Bass Wyden, who co-owns the store with her father. But the elder Bass’s involvement with his father’s business dates back to when he was 13 and would come in to sweep the floor and do whatever was needed around the shop, which was then located on Book Row. Nowadays, the fastidiously dressed Bass comes in from Monday through Friday, from 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., where he can be found in the back purchasing tomes from customers looking to sell books to the store. It’s a role he continues to relish.
“To me personally, working here is a treasure,” the dapper 85-year-old explained. “I never know what’s coming over the counter at any given minute. Or what I’m going to find in any library or when I go out buying stuff.”
It’s a sentiment shared by legions of book junkies. Occupying roughly 42,000-square feet, (which doesn’t include the 20,000 square feet of warehouse space out in Brooklyn), the retail space is spread out over four floors of this 12-floor building. Arts and fiction are the two largest sections, although Bass is quick to point out that the latter doesn’t necessarily skew towards the New York Times best-seller list.
“The kind of fiction we sell, although we sell a lot of popular fiction, is mostly the intellectual titles that our customers want,” he pointed out. “We sell the classics like Dickens and Hugo and writers like [Jerzy] Kosinski or [Kurt] Vonnegut. Beatniks like [William] Burroughs and [Jack] Kerouac always sell with us but that’s because of our proximity to Greenwich Village.”
As you meander through the Strand and take in the enormous sprawl of shelves bursting with tomes, displays with everything from “Real Books Priced Lower Than eBooks” and the “Banned Books Table” to “Staff Picks” catch your eye. There’s also an artistic bent to the store’s ambiance that encompasses distinctly non-book merchandise, including T-shirts and the store’s many popular tote bags, many of which contain designs by both famous artists (Art Spiegelman, David Hockney) and members of the Strand’s in-house designers, many of whom are aspiring artists/authors during their off-hours. Equally eye-catching are the many murals and works that were painted by Richard Powers, a street artist in the vein of the reclusive Banksy minus the anonymity. Powers recently spent a week as a Strand employee, during which time he left whimsical notes and other odd vignettes sprinkled throughout the store including a mini-mural on a basement wall of a red pen with two captions: “Hold the pen” and “See what the pen holds.” All this coupled with many of this retail outlet’s events that include speed dating with a literary theme, writing contests and trivia game nights make the Strand more a community center than a mere bookstore. One of the most popular ongoing happenings are artist appearances and panels that take place on the fourth floor in the Rare Book Room. During these events that take place around three or four times a week, you’ll be surrounded by a number of wondrous tomes including a $45.000 copy of James Joyce’s Ulysses signed by Joyce and Matisse, who did the illustrations. (And is also one of Fred Bass’ favorite books in the store.) In order to go to most events, attendees are asked to buy the author’s book or purchase a gift card (that never expires). It’s one of the facets of the Strand that is near and dear to Bass Wyden’s heart.
“Chuck Close is coming and we have had major authors like David Sedaris,” recalled the blonde book magnate. “It’s great for us because it’s community building. We also get all these signed copies that we put in our store. They’re sitting around all our tables. Lots and lots of Strand authors sign things.”
And despite the notion that modern day conveniences like Kindles, eBooks and the web have threatened the supremacy of the printed word, the split for revenue has plateaued to 70 percent published book, 30 percent eBook split according to Strand Marketing Manager Brianne Sperber. And with all the technological upheaval of the past two decades, the Strand has managed to coexist with the Internet be it via a website that enables customers around the United States and the rest of the world to order or reserve books, solicit art submissions for the store’s tote bags via Instagram or advertise a recent warehouse sale through an email blast to the Strand customer list. It’s the combination of having quality books at the right price and a willingness to embrace the new that Fred Bass says has helped the Strand’s longevity.
“We sell a lot of books over the Internet and a lot of our customers come in with printouts from the Internet about books they’re looking for. We’ve also got a lot of international and national customers that every time they come to New York, they come to see us,” Bass said. “With computers, people can go up to the information desks and be told exactly where the book is and whenever possible, we have someone go pick the book for them if we can. So we’re trying to give that bit of service and people come back because they’re taken care of.”
To find out more about the Strand, please visit www.strandbooks.com or call 212-473-1452
Book As A Four Letter Word
By Courtney Allison
“Where books are burned, people will next be burned.” — Heinrich Heine
One of the Strand’s most popular displays is the Banned Books Table. On it are numerous titles that have all been labeled taboo at one point or another. The following is a list of the Strand’s bestselling titles from the Banned Books Table.
1) Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
2) The Giver by Lowis Lowry
3) Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
4) Wildwood by Colin Meloy
5) In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
6) Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk
7) A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
8) Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin
9) The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
10) Dubliners by James Joyce
11) Where’s Waldo? by Martin Handford