The Sole Survivor: From the Past and On Into the Future
Since it was founded in 1927, The Strand has had a track history of survival and does not seem to be going anywhere anytime soon. There is a statistic that says 70% of family owned businesses will fail in the second generation of family dissent and 50% in the third. (Rosen) However, The Strand, as a family owned business through and through, is one of those that seems it will succeed. Nancy Bass, the third generation and granddaughter of the store’s original owner, Ben Bass, now co-owns the store with her father Fred.
The Strand first started out on the famous “Book Row” on Fourth Avenue, which over its course of time housed at least 47 other bookstores, stretching from Union Square to Astor Place. The bookstores along the avenue had their fair share of eccentric customers, as a 1944 article from The Saturday Evening Post explains. However, even the strangest of these customers found a home among the shelves of these many bookstores and were welcomed to stay and browse. Today, The Strand remains conducive to this type of bookselling environment. With 18 miles of books upon shelves, all are sure to find something interesting, even if they only end up dusting off its cover and continuing on. “People love this store because it’s a browser’s paradise. Those eight miles are now over 18, but the thrill of getting lost in the stacks persists,” writes Rachel Deahl from Publisher’s Weekly. Art Spiegalman, a loyal customer of The Strand calls the feeling of getting lost among the rows, “The Strand Stupor.”
Today The Strand is known as the sole survivor of Book Row. What has made the store so successful when so many others around it had failed, and continue to fail? The trick of the trade must run in the family. Fred Bass started working in the store alongside his father Ben at age 13, and later, after completing a tour of duty in the Armed Forces, took ownership in the year 1956. (www.strandbooks.com) Not too long after, Fred moved the store to it’s present main location on Broadway, where it now claims around 55,000 square feet of space.
Besides this massive location, The Strand also had an Annex located at 95 Fulton Street but presently, the location has been closed for about seven years. Many of its customers were surprised and upset to see the store go, as it was seen as more convenient and, to some, even friendlier than the main store. “The numbers just didn’t add up,” Bass said in an article in The Downtown Express. “It was a great store. We sold a lot of books. I’m sad to see the store going because it was doing very well, but given the circumstances it wasn’t worth it to stay in that location.” This only goes to show how delicate the balance is for bookstores, especially independent ones in areas where rent is pricey.
On nicer days, the store continues to have a few kiosks in Central Park and around the city for passers-by to peruse. The Strand is often called one of the most “beloved” bookshops in the city by New Yorkers and non-city folk as well. Throughout its history, it has been able to route its footing throughout the East Village community of Manhattan and beyond. While some previous customers and even previous employers claim that the store environment is not always the friendliest, it is hard to believe that a store so big would not have room, and a book or two, for everyone genuinely interested in books and reading.
“…The transaction between the bookseller and the bookbuyer remains essentially unchanged as the free passage of ideas from the maker of them to the reader,” writes John Tebbel in the first chapter of A History of Bookselling in the United States. “As the middleman in this exchange, the bookseller is not only the conduit between author and audience, but in the conduct of his business he is in a position to influence that relationship profoundly, whether for good or ill.” This is something that co-owners Fred and Nancy Bass surely understand, and it was something that Ben Bass must have understood, too. In its almost 88 years of existence, The Strand has been able to establish a relationship with its customers and its community to ensure that it would be successful.
According to the 2010 census, close to 42% of the area’s population receives some type of financial help from the government. The Strand does not try to exclude these people. While their rarest of books can reach up to $45,000 in value, they have many books as low as $1, some of them located right outside of the store. They also have reviewers copies which go for 50% off their normal price. Nancy Bass claims that the store’s “most enduring aspect of the store’s success” is the good deals that a customer can find inside, or out. “Almost everything in the store’s discounted, some might even say cheap,” says Nancy Bass in a Publisher’s Weekly article from 2007. (Deahl)
“… The permanence of place and the mobility of capital are always in tension and places are constantly having to adapt to conditions beyond their boundaries,” states Tim Cresswell in chapter three of his book Place called “A Global Sense of Place.” Cresswell argues that this tension has driven the importance of a place’s identity into near obscurity, which is why chain bookstores and other businesses have become so popular and successful. The Strand has managed to keep its own unique brand and identity despite this. It did, however, begin to use technology soon after Nancy had become co-owner of the store. As so many other bookstores have developed an online presence, it was important that The Strand did, too, in order to keep up with competition.
Nancy introduced the online format for The Strand so that the store is able to continue establishing relationships with customers and its community, as well. Not only does the online format allow customers who feel uncomfortable or overwhelmed in the store setting to continue to buy books with more ease, it also provides the bookstore with a way to communicate an abundance of information about the store with its clientele. People in the community are able to rent out the bookstore for events and check the website to see what is already scheduled. In this way, the bookstore has become more than just a bookstore to its community. The online format has definitely helped to keep the store in business, as well. In 2006, around 22% of the store’s revenue was from online orders and in 2007 the percentage increased to around 27%. As online shopping has only become more and more prominent in the years since then and technology has only improved, it would be an agreeable assumption that the revenue from online purchases has only increased further.
Throughout its history, The Strand has been not only a bookstore but a cultural center where the always diverse city population could come and enjoy exploring through its many shelves, attend readings or book signings, and make purchases or sell their old books. No matter how the dynamics and population of the city had changed, the bookstore was there for its customers and ready to adapt to their needs. Today, the bookstore continues to be that place for the city’s inhabitants, and with the development of its online presence, for those outside of the city boundaries, too.
Cresswell, Tim. Place: A Short Introduction. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004. Print.
Deahl, Rachel. “At 80, the Strand Feels as Young as Ever.” Publishers Weekly 254.22 (2007): 25. ProQuest. Web. 12 Feb. 2015.
Nawotka, Edward. “Eight More Miles Of Books.” Publishers Weekly 249.41 (2002): 25. Business Source Complete. Web. 12 Feb. 2015.
Rosen, Judith. “Passing The Torch.” Publishers Weekly 253.1 (2006): 20-21. Business Source Complete. Web. 12 Feb. 2015.
Tebbel, John. “A Brief Hisory of American Bookselling.” A History of Book Publishing in the United States. New York: R.R. Bowker, 1972. 7. Print.
Woodman, James S. “Stranded by Construction, Book Store Will Close Its Doors.” Downtown Express. Community Media LLC, 27 June 2008. Web. 15 Feb. 2015.