The Struggle for a Strand of Independence
An icon of New York City and a refuge for book lovers, Strand Bookstore is a mecca for all things books. The Strand is one of the largest bookstores in America and makes millions of dollars every year, something that other indie bookstores only dream of. But as the expression goes, fame and money change a person, and the Strand is no different; the Strand now covers an entire city block and three floors, larger than some chain bookstores. The Strand’s history and tradition is rooted in the mystique and comfort of the small bookstore. But its present is faced by a “corporatization” in its management and treatment of both new and decades-long employees. Can an independent bookstore still be considered “independent” when it merchandises and makes as much yearly profit as the Strand does? The Strand is a bookstore that can only exist in New York (or any large, major city, but not Nowhere, Kansas). As much as it tries to be a bookstore for everyone, it is ultimately a niche New York bookstore which reflects the city it inhabits in the way it operates.
“New York is made up of millions of different people, and they all come here looking for something,” writes Lindsey Kelk in her novel I Heart New York. Perhaps she’s right. New York City is known as one of the greatest cultural centers of the world, offering spectacles of history and art for both residents and tourists. However, not all of the city’s gems dazzle. The Strand is one that attracts certain types of people – the ones that seek to dig their teeth into a book. Lucky for the Strand, many New Yorkers are avid readers.
In fact, the Strand is located in an impeccable location for New York, as demonstrated in the above map. It sits at the intersections of East Village, West/Greenwich Village, NoHo and the Flatiron District, home to many different types of people. Though this area struggles with gentrification, it still remains a cultural ground zero. It’s close to New York University as well as other centers for academia, coffee shops such as The Bean, restaurants, antique stores, and poetry and music venues. In that regard, the Strand imitates this diverse area, stocking all types of books, (seriously, 18 miles worth) for all types of readers. The Strand is an integral part of the many communities it brings together in a place “Where Books Are Loved” (Strand). Pictured below are charts describing different demographics of the neighborhoods, which can be enlarged by clicking on them.
At the intersection of diversity, the Strand has capitalized on its residents’ desire for uniqueness. People love New York because it possesses a type of peculiarity, and the same principle applies to bookstores. You could go to a Barnes & Noble in New York City, but what would be the point when there’s one back home? Plus, some consumers regard chain bookstores as too standardized and un-homey, while others enjoy the consistency and are indifferent to friendly atmospheres. Edward Relph, a geographer, states that “a communal identity is strongly connected to a particular landscape” (Miller 110). In an area such as New York City, the Strand must bend to fit the desires of as many people as possible while simultaneously trying not to overstep the bounds and draw others away. The store is attempting to create an identity that everyone in its surrounding “landscape” can enjoy. But how did the Strand get to become an almost Wal-Mart-esque bookstore in the middle of the historical melting pot of America? Like this city, have its roots been buried by this corporatization?
Many would be surprised to learn that the Strand started out as one of many small, independent bookstores located on 4th Avenue, known as Book Row. Founded by Benjamin Bass in 1927, the Strand was a part of the “six blocks from Union Square to Astor Place in Manhattan, a corridor of three dozen shops selling used books” (The New York Times). Other significant moments in the Strand’s history can be seen in the timeline above. Exploring the shops could take over a week, as there was much to see and many books to buy. Unfortunately, the temperament of the store owners was not as pleasant as the shops they owned. “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.”
Laura Miller writes in her book Reluctant Capitalists that “a bookseller’s judgment 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” (Miller 55). It’s increasingly obvious that most of the booksellers on Book Row did not subscribe to this role, as seen in the above video. “The sort of thing that goes on now at Barnes and Noble, 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 days of Book Row have ended, and now there are less than ten used bookstores in New York City. However, Benjamin Bass did not partake in the snobbery of his bookselling peers. Bass 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). Unlike his fellow bookstore owners who would throw customers out of their shops for no reason whatsoever, Ben “created a place where books would be loved, and book lovers could congregate” (Strand). He hired his teenage son, Fred, to start working at the store, where he too would develop a love for the book trade. After serving a tour in the Armed Forces, Fred returned to the Strand and eventually took over the business when his father retired. Like Christopher Morley, Fred Bass seems to consider it his “duty and a privilege” to sell books (Morley 46). This strategy of inclusiveness to the customer can be pointed to the Strand surviving in a shifting landscape that caters to the customer.
Why did the Strand start to become more like the Barnes and Nobles other independent bookstores so actively shied away from? Like a big-box store, tables are stacked with merchandise, the Strand’s famous totes and souvenirs line its walls, and books are scattered throughout the store and on towering bookshelves. The first floor acts as a public sphere and is usually crowded with a line stretching from its registers. Due to the nearly ceiling-high bookshelves, this floor’s layout does not encourage heavy traffic flow beyond the front of the store. Others may travel to the back of the store, in search of a particular book. Whatever scenario, the first floor of the Strand is a space with convenience and a purpose. Pictured below is the layout of the first floor.