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Interview with a Bookstore: The Strand

30 June 2015

From LitHub:

The Strand was born in 1927 on Fourth Avenue on what was then called “Book Row.” Book Row covered six city blocks and housed 48 bookstores. Ben Bass, an entrepreneur at heart and a reader by nature, was all of 25 years old when he began his modest used bookstore with $300 dollars of his own and $300 dollars that he borrowed from a friend. Ben sought to create a place where books would be loved, and book lovers could congregate. He named his bookstore after the London street where writers like Thackeray, Dickens, and Mill once gathered and interesting book publishers thrived. The Strand quickly became a Greenwich Village institution where writers went to converse, sell their books and find a hidden treasure to buy. Today, the Strand is the sole survivor of Book Row’s colorful past, boasting more than 18 miles of new, used, and rare books.

. . . .
What’s your favorite section in the store?

The Rare Book Room is truly a magical place, and the dollar carts are heaven for any thrifty booklover, but my favorite would have to be the children’s department, especially the classic and vintage sections. I really love an old book with some character or with a heartfelt dedication from a bygone era.  –Maya S., Kids Department

. . . .

I have a real soft spot for the Banned Books table on our main floor. Whenever we have school groups in the store, I always stop there and try to explain it. I’m glad we encourage readers to learn more about the fight for freedom of speech across the globe.  –Brianne S., Marketing Manager

. . . .

If you had infinite space what would you add?

I would add an off-the-beaten-path room that is semi-private to house the Bereavement section and a few others, as well as comfy chairs, so people can browse sensitive topics in a quieter, less trafficked area.  –Amanda W.

I would try to add some large, floor-to-ceiling windows either on the second or second floor and set benches beside them. I’d then come to the store on my off hours to read there for hours. There is nothing like reading a book and having the sun shine on your back!  –Brianne S.

. . . .

A lounge where you can read your book and cuddle with puppies. –Patrick F., Second Floor

. . . .

What do you do better than any other bookstore?

I honestly believe we give the best recommendations. Everyone who works at Strand has a particular section they know inside-out. We also know each other’s specialty so if you don’t know a section all that well, you know who does and they get to spread their loved books to someone who is genuinely interested.  –Zoe K., Main Floor

The Strand is part of an extinct breed of bookstores in New York City. We have the best range of used books, including recently published titles. We also have the best and most diverse art book selection in New York, and possibly in the world.  –Maya S.

What the Strand does best is find ways to get books at cheaper prices. Our owner has gone on trips to England to get super cheap British versions of books; searching out remainders from different sources; getting used books from a huge variety of places, visiting libraries, houses, and estates to get huge lots of books.  –Amanda W.

. . . .

 Who’s your weirdest regular?

Who isn’t? Weirdos are what makes New York City great! One of my favorite aspects of this job is the wonderful people that you get to meet.  –Maya S.

The dogs who know where we keep the treats. I guess it’s not so much weird as adorable and amusing.  –Cynthia G.

. . . .

I like the man who talks to himself discussing the changes we’ve made to the tables. Sometimes I think he knows the store better than I do.  –Patrick F.

Link to the rest at LitHub and thanks to Dave for the tip.

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22 Comments to “Interview with a Bookstore: The Strand”

  1. A word about “Classic” children’s books.

    I grew up reading Grimm’s Fairy tales. They were wonderful stories. I purchased a copy for my oldest child. The same stories that were wonderful to me as a child made me choke as an adult.

    I was reading a story about a woman and her daughters. They encountered a stranger. The mother and one daughter were rude. The other daughter was kind. The stranger, who turned out to be “God” cursed the rude ones and made them black. The kind daughter remained white.

    At least it brought about a discussion with my child about racism.

    So I moved on to the next story. A prince fell in love with portrait of a beautiful woman. And I guess she was supposed to be grateful that a rich guy loves her for her beauty? What about personality? And what makes rich prince such a great catch? I know, I know, but I was fuming when I read that stuff. Needless to say, we no longer read the Grimm’s Fairy tales. I had no idea they were so horrible. I honestly don’t remember them being like that when I was a child.

    Aesop’s Fables though, can’t go wrong with those.

    • When it came time to read my kids fairy tales, I started making up my own, because I didn’t like the messages in any of the classic stories.

      I now publish them through Amazon – a new collection is going to my editor on Thursday.

      If you still want to read fairy tales to your children, you might look at mine.

      Becca Price

      • the Other Diana

        Thanks. I’ll check those out.

        I also remember reading Cinderella where they had to chop off the toes of one step sister and the heel of the other.

    • I started to re-read Peter Pan as an adult. I had to stop when they started hunting Native-Americans or something like that. Sometimes the originals aren’t better.

    • In the original Cinderella, the ugly stepsisters (each) mutilate their feet in order to fit them into the slipper, and are only found out because on their way back to the castle, the prince notices that they are bleeding.

      • Sadly, some women have actually had their pinky-toes amputated in order to fit into their designer shoes. People talk about wanting to live a fairytale life–so this is kinda what that means. Mutilating yourself to achieve a false standard.

    • Suburbanbanshee

      What edition of Grimm’s did you have as a child? If your parents gave you a version carefully selected for American kids, and you bought a folktale researcher edition of unbowdlerized German maerchen, there’s going to be a big difference. Biiiiig.

      As for the Native Americans in Peter Pan, they aren’t. They’re as much “Indians” as the “cowboys” in a cowboys and Indians chase game are authentic depictions of the American pastoral lifestyle, or the “pirates” are an authentic depiction of the hardbitten freebooters on the Spanish Main. They’re essentially fairies, or the neighbor kids turned immortal; and the Indians hunt the Lost Boys just as much as the Lost Boys do the opposite.

      Now, if you don’t think your kids can relate to playing Pirates or Indians or Lost Boys, then I suppose you could rewrite the various island groups to be Transformers or Aliens or the Sith.

      But demanding that Barrie characterize Tigerlily as a real Native American woman with worn teeth as well as a specific tribal religion, language, planting schedule, and customs; is demanding that kids also characterize Barbie and Babydoll and Stuffed Dog Ruff in some set, adult-approved pattern.

      It’s like you’re complaining because kids play Tag and don’t characterize It except as a stereotypical being of eternal chasing powers. Well, yeah, because kids don’t what to characterize It. Only Stephen King wants to characterize It, and only adults want to read his version. Kids just want to play Tag and trade off being It.

      Now, obviously, there’s a time when kids have to learn the actual facts. When the little kid St. Teresa of Avila and her brother set off to travel to the Arab lands and convert the Saracen, obviously they weren’t yet really clear on the difference between real Muslims and their Missionaries and Muslims game at home.

      So sure, kids should be told at some point that there are probably real Native Americans living in their town who have jobs just like everybody else, and that real pirates go to prison. And you might want to get a bowdlerized Peter Pan, if you don’t think you can have a conversation about the Lost Boys and the other kids not always playing nice or saying nice things. But kids’ games are pretty much always going to keep it simple; and so will a lot of kids’ books that imitate kids’ games.

      • I grew up on selected Grimm’s stories, and the Coloured Fairy Books by Lang. And the Uncle Remus stories by Joel Chandler Harris. My parents eased me into the more gory versions of the stories pretty carefully. And then I found Irish and Scottish folk tales . . . hair-curling even as an adult. My folks explained that people had different ways of looking at the world back when they wrote the stories, and so I didn’t sweat what today we call racist, sexist, or xenophobic. Fairy tale world and folk-tale world was different from here-and-now.

        The lesson I learned from all those tales was that bad people can be very, very bad and good people sometimes suffer, even if they do almost everything right. Evil can wear a pretty face, while good may be concealed by age or poverty. But good will always beat evil, even if it takes a little while (and magical or Divine help) to do so.

  2. I hear through social media this is the NYC A-list’s preferred bookstore. If I ever travel there, I’ll check it out & report back to TPV.

    • The Strand is easily the best bookstore in the world. I think it’s either eight or eleven miles worth of used books? Something like that. It’s not a bookstore like Barnes & Noble, or even the small local corner one. It’s a bookstore. Like, it’s not just that there’s nothing else in the store, it’s like there’s not even room for anything else.

      The selection is magical in a way that deliberate ordering could never achieve. You never know what you’ll find. Most of the stock is used, and say what you will about Manhattan but its citizens are well-read — and when they finish their books they bring them to The Strand.

      It’s not easy to browse. It’s not a place you’re going to find a spot to sit and sip your coffee with a prospective purchase. It’s very utilitarian. You need a ladder to reach the highest shelves in the fiction section along the very back wall, and sometimes perusing them rewards you; a buddy of mine once found a limited edition copy of Crichton’s The Lost World in an acetate cover, and signed by the author — and priced at half the cover the price.

      Most of the books are. The Strand is where many of corporate publishers’ advanced reading copies they sent to various publications end up — usually for a fraction of the price. In the basement you can find the latest bestsellers on shelves in stacks of easily fifty at a shot.

      In short? Brilliant. I hope you get the chance to visit. Really I hope everyone does. Totally worth it.

    • It’s an excellent bookstore. You could spend all day in it. I was just taken aback at how diverse and ‘complete’ the selection was; when I went I managed to find an L.F. Celine’s novel Death on the Installment Plan, which is somewhat of an obscure book in the US.

      As a historian I was also impressed by how many hard-to-find or out of print books there were. Many histories on ‘small’ wars or very specific topics related to major conflicts go out of print quickly.

      I wish I could have been in there longer, because I only bought three books.

  3. Man, I’m confused. I thought cheap books were destroying literature.

    • Only when done by the wrong sort, David. Cheap books in Manhattan are the very essence of literature if they’ve been approved by the people who live there.

  4. Love THE STRAND.

    Being German, I grew up with Grimm’s Tales. Yes, we got the occasional shudder, but we were spellbound. It has to be remembered that these tales are extremely old and based on oral folk traditions. The Grimm brothers traveled around recording the stories from the old people who still recalled them. As for the violence: it doesn’t hurt children to learn about the real world, which is, in any case, much worse nowadays. As for racism, it’s doubtful that “black” in this case refers to negroes. The sort of people who started such tales were not very aware of race.

    • “It has to be remembered that these tales are extremely old and based on oral folk traditions….As for racism, it’s doubtful that “black” in this case refers to negroes. The sort of people who started such tales were not very aware of race.”

      Very true.

  5. We lived on 1st Ave & 12th St during the late 1970s, just around the corner from what then survived of Book Row. What a pleasure!

    You could also buy LP and 78 treasures, long out of print, in the area.

    Too bad we were young and poor at the time.

  6. Aaaaaagh! I’m going to NYC next week and had no idea this gem existed. When one of my friends asked why I had to visit Powell’s in Portland, I said, “For me, this is the closest thing to a church.”

    I’m already going to The Mysterious Bookshop, but I should’ve known NYC would have more than one fabulous bookstore.

    Thanks, TPV!

    • However, I must point out that you missed the most audience-pertinent answer to the question of what they’d do if they had infinite space?

      I would add an entire wing devoted to new releases from independent presses. –Cassandra B., Main Floor

      Thanks, Cassandra B!

    • Just a quick note to also try to include the Cloisters in your itinerary, if there’s room. Take a train on the ACE line up to 190th street (research it; only one of them goes all the way up), meander through the garden at Fort Tryon park, enjoy the view overlooking Englewood Cliffs, and then explore the medieval monasteries that house the world’s largest collection of art from that time (manuscripts, wood carvings, you name it).

      It’s jaw-dropping.

    • Along with a group of writer-buddies, I hit The Tattered Cover in Denver for very similar reasons. It was not quite a religious experience.

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