Imagine walking down 4th Avenue in Manhattan in the 1920s, gazing at some of the 48 used bookstores that line the street. Customers are browsing and chatting with booksellers both inside the stores as well as along the sidewalk, where piles of books are also displayed. While this description may seem absurd in today’s world of bookselling, it was very much a reality during this time period. This was Book Row, and from the 1910s to the 1960s, this six-block stretch that ran from Union Square to Astor Place in New York City represented the golden age in bookselling. Today, the Strand Bookstore is the lone survivor of the stores on Book Row. But why? What made the Strand continue to thrive while the other 47 stores ultimately failed?
The Strand was founded in 1927 by book lover Ben Bass (pictured to the left), 25 years old at the time, by using $300 of his own money and $300 that he borrowed from a friend. Bass began to fill the store’s inventory with his personal collection of books. The name of the bookstore was based upon a street bearing the same name in London, where book publishers thrived and the writers Thomas Carlyle, Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray and John Stuart Mill gathered to converse. Like the street in London, the Strand quickly became rooted in and connected to its community, where writers, scholars and book lovers visited to converse with one another (Strand).
Following in his father’s footsteps, Fred Bass began to learn the family book trade when he was 13. After a tour of duty in the Armed Forces, he returned to work with his father at the Strand, and eventually took over the business. In 1957, he moved the store just around the corner to its current space at 828 Broadway at the corner of East 12th Street, due to the family’s lost lease of its previous building. The Bass family purchased this 3.5-story building in 1997 for $8.2 million after renting it for forty years. The family bookselling tradition continued when Fred’s daughter, Nancy, joined the Strand team after graduating college. Today, she co-manages the store with her father (Strand). Pictured below is a street view of the Strand in its present form. As you can see, its famous carts of books on the sidewalk have circulated into the present. Other significant events in the Strand’s history can be seen on the timeline above.
Right from its start in the 1920s, the Strand connected with its surrounding communities: East Village, West Village, the Flatiron District and NoHo. Beginning by selling only used books at highly discounted prices, the store attracted the bohemian middle class, mainly college students at nearby New York University. Artists, actors and writers also inhabited this part of the city, adding to its bohemian vibe. Today, the Strand advertises its vast inventory with the slogan “18 Miles of Books,” claiming that if all of its books could be lined up, they would stretch to this length. As seen to the right, this was not always the slogan of the store. Once boasting “8 Miles of Books,” this shows the Strand’s development and success over its lifetime (Strand). Located in a highly cultured, academic area, the Strand was able to establish a solid customer base in these neighborhoods that continues to follow it to this day.
Yet what about the other stores that operated along the street of Book Row? It’s as if the histories of the Corner Bookshop, Schultes Bookstore, Arcadia Bookstore and Fourth Avenue Bookshop, to name a few, seem to be buried deep in the past. In fact, many people (including myself before researching the topic) do not even know that Book Row existed – that 48 bookstores once inhabited one street that stretched six blocks. How could we forget about this massive hidden gem, especially since its location is famous for bookselling and publishing? While I don’t have an answer to this question, I think it is a very important one to explore. Even a quick Google search yields limited results, with only a few images and websites. With not even a Wikipedia page about Book Row, it seems as if it never existed at all. However, the Strand is the last living link that connects to this seemingly-forgotten era.
While the general importance of a bookstore is to supply the public with knowledge, the concept of a street full of dozens of bookstores suggests much greater implications. The video below offers a brief history of the Strand and other bookstores on Book Row. The video mentions a poem by Eli Seigel titled Hymn to 4th Avenue, which states, “In books, you’ll find what you are looking for./In books is that which makes existence more./Our hopes in life are often in an old book store.” Just these few lines show the positive implications that Book Row had on its surrounding communities. It was an accepting place where people from all walks of life could build relationships through literature. In his essay “Bookstores, Communist and Capitalist,” Jack Perry writes, “The bookstore…made us feel at home, convinced us that literature was alive, and left us with the uplifting feeling,” (107). This is the aura that Book Row had, and what the Strand continues to embody today. Another slogan of the Strand is “Where Books are Loved,” which suggests the store’s feelings towards its inventory run much deeper than those of a grocery store or super center. The Strand builds a trust with its customers by conveying an emotional attachment to its inventory of books.
However, one small part of Book Row still lives today, and it is very much alive and well. Noticing how the Strand was able to adapt and remain in motion showcases how it moved through time, relocating its social and cultural identity to the present. Christopher Morley’s essay “Escaped into Print” and novel Parnassus on Wheels offer interesting insights that may suggest the implications of this movement. As he describes the “first deep-sea bookseller” (“Escaped” 63) and a horse-drawn traveling bookstore (Parnassus), it is apparent that he believes the bookstore is constantly in motion. He writes that this movement enforces “how all these interlacing roots of association wind together” between literature, people and place (“Escaped” 64). With these ideas in mind, this suggests that even though Book Row no longer exists on the six blocks of 4th Avenue, this part of history hasn’t died – it has just been relocated into one single surviving bookstore. Perhaps the Strand acts as a symbol of Book Row, a place where book lovers can wander and explore down its narrow aisles of used books as they previously would down 4th Avenue. Like the street in London in which the Strand was named after, the bookstore continues to act as a border; a place where people can come together, take shelter and converse. The continued mobility and success of the Strand Bookstore attests to the notion that its past continuously flows into its present.
The Strand on Book Row. https://nyhistorywalks.wordpress.com/tag/strand-books/
Photo of Ben Bass. https://nyhistorywalks.files.wordpress.com/2012/02/ben-bass1.jpg
8 Miles of Books. http://pds.exblog.jp/pds/1/200709/20/43/b0081843_19513188.jpg
Map of Book Row. https://nyhistorywalks.files.wordpress.com/2012/02/book-row-map.jpg
Where Books are Loved. http://levysuniqueny.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/strand-logo-red.jpg
The Strand Bookstore. http://www.strandbooks.com/strand-history
Downtown Express. http://www.downtownexpress.com/de_269/strandedbyconstruction.html
Book Row: The History of the Strand Bookstore with Fran Lebowitz. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-Wl9zhC-snY
Google Maps: 828 Broadway at East 12th Street, Manhattan, New York
Timeline & Timeline Photos:
Present-day Strand. http://indulgy.com/post/umVclvWRI1/the-strand-bookstore-great-mix-of-new-and-ol
Strand on Book Row. http://privatelibrary.typepad.com/.a/6a01156f7ea6f7970b0120a557bc76970b-800wi
Schultes Bookstore. http://wexler.vaesite.net/__data/ab4fe651f416237c04de0360edadcceb.jpg
The Strand Annex. http://s3-media4.fl.yelpcdn.com/bphoto/0tL7caJ2acIIDStF0bdjSw/ls.jpg
Strand Rare Books Room. http://www.strandbooks.com/resources/strand/images/uploads/Styles/RentRareBooksSlider/rbr1.jpg
Morley, Christopher. Parnassus on Wheels. New York: Avon Books, 1983.
Morley, Christopher. “Escaped Into Print,” in Ex Libris Carissimis. New York: A.S. Barnes, 1961.
Siegel, Eli. “Hymn to Fourth Avenue.”