Strand Bookstore: How Past Influences Present

Imagine six blocks of New York City lined with a grand total of 48 bookstores. Begun early as 1890, Book Row was the bookseller and the book buyers paradise. The Fourth Avenue strip fortified the community of readers and writers of Greenwich Village. Though there is still some promise in the independent book selling business, such as that of McNally-Jackson, Book Row is now mostly extinct. Throughout the late twentieth century, bookstores lining the sidewalks have closed down. Few secondhand bookstores are left in Manhattan, including only two in Midtown. For those that have shut down, the list is long—Skyline on West 18th street, New York Bound Bookshop in Rockefeller Center, Gotham Book Mart on West 47th street—all closed. Although Book Row did not survive the late nineteenth century, the Strand bookstore has.

Benjamin Bass was 25 years old when he began the Strand. He started with only 300 of his own dollars and 300 he borrowed from a friend. He sought a place where books would be loved, where there could be a community built between readers and booksellers and all the books in between. The name of the bookstore was reminiscent of the London street where avant-garde writers like Thackeray, Dickens and Mill once gathered and publishers thrived. Ben Bass’s son Fred learned the family business by age 13. After a tour of duty in the Armed Forces he returned to New York City and worked alongside his dad. Fred took over the business in 1956 and soon moved the store to its present location on the corner of East 12th Street and Broadway. Fred’s daughter Nancy went to college in Louisiana before returning to New York City and joining the Strand team at age 25. Now she co-manages the store with her father. She is married to U.S. Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon. Through the years, the Strand has been passed down through the hands of family members. The store is to this day owned and managed by Fred and his daughter Nancy. It is yet to be seen whether Nancy’s children will want to continue the family business when they are older.

There is a significant loss in the switch between the family members. The Strand today is a bookstore that caters not only to readers but also to tourists and college students. There are more travel books in the front of the store than used books. Alongside the books, Nancy has chosen to include things like journals, bags and action figures. Some independent bookstores are meant to have other products, but not so much that they feel less like an independent bookstore and more like a chain bookstore. That is what has been lost in the translation between Benjamin Bass’ beginning Strand bookstore, and the one that is around today. It has become less like an independent bookstore and feels more and more like a chain. In A Free Man’s Books, MacLeish writes that “Books—true books—do not sell themselves. There is nothing about the externals of a true book, not even the most persuasive jacket, to make the readers who should read it want to take it home. True books are sold by the enthusiasm of those who know them and respect them.” (MacLeish, 13) The Strand, with Nancy and Fred as co-owners and over 240 unionized workers, has definitely lost that feel that began with Benjamin Bass, who started the store not as a place for tourists and making big bucks but as a place for book lovers to build a community. Though I do think this image of the bookstore can still be seen, it is slowly being more and more lost the farther the bookstore strays from its original intent.

Strand Central Park Kiosk

Owners Nancy and Fred have tried to spread the business to other places in New York City. Besides the main store and the Central Park kiosk, there is a satellite Strand built into a Club Monaco. It is selling mostly new books as well as some expensive first editions. Fred Bass says “Not a home run, but it’s working.” Nancy Bass Wyden says n”We now have this expanded customer base—people who are Club Monaco shoppers who may not have been to the Strand before.” Additionally, in the 1980s there was the Strand Book Annex on Front Street in the South Street Seaport complex. In 1996 it moved locations to Fulton and Gold Streets. It finally closed on September 22, 2008 due to rent increases.

Strand workers fighting for a fair contract

In the recent past, there has been bad blood between the Strand owners and their unionized workers. The Strand has had a unionized workforce for over 35 years. On April 5, 2012, unionized workers at the Strand rejected a new contract. On June 15, 2012, workers ratified a new contract. There are employees like Patti Smith, who claimed working at the bookstore was an unfriendly experience, who felt like the managers were not treating its employees fairly. After Borders closed, Nancy and Fred hired previous Borders managers to be managers of the Strand, which allowed for less advancement towards the upper ranks for people who had worked there for years. The Strand has never laid off an employee, but in the early 2000s they offered a deal to most of the oldest employees who had been working there for many years. Strand offered them a weeks pay for every year they had worked at the Strand if they would willingly leave. This offer made certain that most of the senior employees from Strands history would be gone, and the store would be run by a younger generation. This younger generation of higher ups are pushing to get the unionized workers out of the store. As of 2011, only 5.4 percent of the employees were part of the unionized workforce. But perhaps the biggest issue between employees and those in the higher positions is the new two tier wage system, where anyone having started after that past September would receive fewer paid sick and vacation days as well as lower raises. Though this is not the first time Strand has faced severe labor issues, it is perhaps the most vital.

In Excaped into Print, Morley talks about how only a small bit of published works are remembered after a certain point. He also argues that there is a entire group of literature that does not get published, and in turn, does not get remembered. He writes how “It is our duty to sometimes to enlarge those rather meager escapes into print which are all that the official view of literature is likely to let us have.” (Morley, 53) This relates to the Strand and the way the bookstore has survived for so long even though its competitors have all died out. The Strand has a slogan—18 Miles of Books—because it is said that is the 2.5 million books in the store, if lined up domino style, would cover 18 miles. This ties in to Morley’s argument because since the Strand began back on Book Row, they have added books that are not only new but also used. Though almost 40 percent of their sales are with new books, most of the bookstore is still comprised of used books. This helps to keep literature alive that has escaped into print, literature that would otherwise have been lost.

 

Sources

Readings

  • Morley, Christopher. “Escaped Into Print.” Ex Libris Carissimus. New York: A. S. Barnes. Print.
  • MacLeish, Archibald. A Free Man’s Books. Mount Vernon, New York: Peter Pauper. Print.

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