The Strand and Book Row: A History

History of the Strand on Dipity.

The Strand Bookstore is now ubiquitous with the common notion of the used bookstore. Walking past the 18 mile, several building store, its imposing largeness would make you think that the Strand has always been the large, well known bookstore that every book fiend flocks to while in New York. This is of course not the case, as the Strand has a history as rich and large as the insides of its large store.

If you take the time to look around the Strand bookstore with Google street view, you can see the main area’s of Greenwich Village, full of independent stores, coffee shops and movie theaters. The Strands wrap around banner has become as well known as the store itself. It gives the book lover just a taste of how long the bookstore really is. However, what many people do not know is that the Strand’s current location is not its original location.

The Strand was started in 1927, by founded by Benjamin Bass on 4th Avenue. At the time, the Strand would have not stood out solely own its own merits, for a very good reason. The Strand was located on Book Row, a collection of streets “six blocks from Union Square to Astor Place in Manhattan, a corridor of three dozen shops selling used books” (The New York Times). Walking into the shops one by one could take over a week, as there was much to see and many books to buy. Interestingly enough, many of the booksellers on book row were not like the jovial Professor that we see in the novel Parnassus on Wheels, but had a much more unlikable temperament, as shown in the video below.

 

“They hated you,” says Fran Leibowitz in the video above, “it was like you had broken into their house.”

Sadly, yet unsurprisingly, the Strand is the last of all of these used bookstores that exists today.

“I think what happened to Book Row” says current Strand owner Fred Bass, “is that it was run by a lot of interesting, strong, self centered individuals, including my dad, and very few of them imparted knowledge to the younger generation.”

The Strand in its original location in Book Row

The Strand on Book Row

Laura Miller writes in her book Reluctant Capitalists that “a booksellers judgement about what books to carry and sell is shaped by the extent at which she sees herself as rightfully taking an active role in guiding the reading of her customers” (55). Its increasingly obvious that most of the booksellers on book row did not subscribe to the idea of guiding their readers.

“The sort of thing that goes on now at Barnes and Nobel, where they give you service with a smile and have coffee,” says Marvin Mondlind, the estate book buyer for Strand, “old Book Row people would have just scorned the whole thing. We’re selling books here, and if people don’t want old books we don’t want them here.”

The original Book Row

The original Book Row

The days of Book Row have ended, and now there are less then ten used bookstores in New York City. However, Benjamin Bass did not seem to be as overwhelmed with the snobbish attitude of his bookselling peers. Benjamin was “twenty-five years old when he began his modest used bookstore. An entrepreneur at heart and a reader by nature, this erudite man began with $300 dollars of his own and $300 dollars that he borrowed from a friend” (Strand website). Unlike his fellow bookstore owners, who would throw you out of their shops for no reason whatsoever, Ben “create a place where books would be loved, and book lovers could congregate” (Strand website).

He hired his son Fred to start working at the store while Fred was still in high school, where Fred would develop a love for the trade and selling of books. After serving a tour in Armed Forces, Fred joined his father working at the Strand, and would eventually take over the business when his father retired. Like how Christopher Morley feels, Fred Bass seems to consider it his “duty and a privilege” to sell books (46).

It would be soon after Fred tool over the Strand that the once powerful Book Row would begin to disappear. In 1958, the Strand lost its lease due to their landlord dying, and the small bookshop could no longer afford to stay in their current location.

”My rent tripled,” said Fred Bass, talking to the New York Times. ”But I bit the bullet and I made the deal. If I was 10 or 15 years older I might have quit. But I’ve got a lot of young people. I’ve got an organization here.’’

The store then moved to its current location on 12th and Broadway, continuing its progression as the only used bookstore left from Book Row. As the bookstore continued its transformation, so did the surrounding neighborhood of Greenwich Village. It would be around this time that the village would become known as an artist bohemia. After the horrors American youth had seen in WWII, a new kind of youth was emerging from the shadows.

As profiled in a 1951 TIME magazine profile on American youth:

“Some are smoking marijuana; some are dying in Korea. Some are going to college with their wives; some are making $400 a week in television. Some are sure they will be blown to bits by the atom bomb. Some pray. Some are raising the highest towers and running the fastest machines in the world. Some wear blue jeans; some wear Dior gowns. Some want to vote the straight Republican ticket. Some want to fly to the moon.”

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Many of the more artistically and book inclined youth were coming to Greenwich, clashing with the original Italian neighborhood. The “image of the Village as the heart of New York subculture, the neighborhood still retained a significant immigrant element. Though the Italian immigrant population of the Village experienced a steady decline starting after World War I, by 1960 there were still nearly 9,000 persons of Italian birth and parentage in the South Village.” Conflict between the Italians and the new bohemians was very common, with many fights breaking out.

“I had seen plenty of [racism] in the Village of 1953-54,” said Diane Di Prima, “when Italians would swarm up MacDougal Street en masse from below Bleecker to threaten or wipe out a Black man for coming to the Village with a white woman”

The new bohemians, also known as the Beat generation, helped the Strand create its notoriety as a mecca for book lovers. As the bohemians grew is size, so did the store. by 1973, plans to remodel the store to make it bigger, growing total space to 21,000 square feet. By 1979 the major remodels would be completed, and by 1997 the Bass family would buy the building for $8.2 million, cementing their place forever among Greenwich village as one of the few used bookstores that was not going to disappear.

Nancy Bass and Fred Bass

Nancy Bass and Fred Bass

Around 1987 the Strand tradition of keeping the business in the family would continue when Fred’s daughter, Nancy Bass, would join the business to co-manage the store with her father. Nancy, like her father, grew up in the bookstore, her fist job being sharpening pencils for the Strand Staff at the age of six. Though she tried to work at a different place of business then her father after college, “books were in her blood,” and eventually she followed her father to start working at the Strand. She now oversees the behind the scenes business at the Strand, while Fred remains mostly up front, interacting and forming relationships with customers, both long time and new.

The Strand bookstore has made a truly remarkable transformations, being once a small bookshop among many to the largest used bookstore in the world, carrying over 2.5 million books, as well as other merchandise. Its obvious, looking at the history of the Strand and other stores on Book Row, that the Strand knew what other booksellers did not: that forming a relationship with ones customer is more important that ones snobbery when it comes to books.

Sources:

Images:

The Strand on Book Row: http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2007/06/the_strand_turns_80.html

Book Row: https://nyhistorywalks.wordpress.com/2012/02/20/the-books-of-new-york-past/

Greenwich Village: http://www.heartofavagabond.com/things-new-york-counter-culture-bohemia-greenwich-village/

Fred and Nancy Bass: http://www.zimbio.com/photos/Nancy+Bass+Wyden/Fred+Bass

Maps:

Google Maps: The Strand Bookstore

Text:

Print: Morley, Christopher. Ex Libris Carissimis. New York: A.S. Barnes & Company, Inc

Print. Miller, Laura J. Reluctant Capitalists: Bookselling and the Culture of Consumption. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006.

Book Row Is Gone, But Used Bookshops Aren’t: http://www.nytimes.com/1988/03/13/nyregion/book-row-is-gone-but-used-bookshops-aren-t.html

The Late 20th Century (1950-1999): http://creatingdigitalhistory.wikidot.com/late20thc

STRAND BOOKSTORE: Crain New York Business: http://go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?id=GALE%7CA208046463&v=2.1&u=susqu_main&it=r&p=ITOF&sw=w&asid=cfecb3922c81bed86bf2ad2d93ccb4fd

Strand History: http://www.strandbooks.com/strand-history

Timeline:

History of the Strand on Dipity

Video:

Book Row: The history of the Strand Bookstore with Fran Lebowitz: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-Wl9zhC-snY