On one of the first warm days in New York last week, I decided to go on a walk and join the hordes milling around the city, finally seizing an opportunity to emerge from the hibernation necessitated by the merciless winters of the east. I found myself wandering through Union Square, so I made my way to The Strand, an institution in the city and one of the bookstores I visit often.
Its location is primo, E. 12th and Broadway, in the heart of Greenwich Village. The Strand is one of those bookstores that seem to emanate a love of all things literary. It supposedly houses 18 miles of books – a claim that seems entirely plausible once you’ve combed the aisles. Shelves are floor to ceiling – I’ve actually pulled the muscles in my neck trying to read titles. The aisles wrap around each other, meeting at odd angles, changing directions. Losing track of time entirely is unavoidable if you find your way to the more secluded sections of the store.
What may be The Strand’s most notable characteristic is its sense of history. Benjamin Bass opened the store in its original location on Fourth Avenue in 1927. In 1956, his son took over and moved the store to its current location, and it has been owned and operated by the Bass family ever since. The family’s longstanding and continuing commitment to literature and quality writing is still felt there. The smell of old paper hits you when you walk in. The Bass family also has a history of employing local artists, including Patti Smith, who worked at the store as a clerk in the ‘60’s.
The Strand boasts an enormous collection of rare, used, and out of print books. I found a copy of I Have Tried to Tell The Truth, a collection of Orwell’s letters and essays, which is surprisingly difficult to get your hands on, given the author. It’s nowhere to be found in Borders or Barnes & Noble, and even the other independent bookstores I’ve been to lately haven’t carried it. The last time I checked Amazon, only hardcover copies were available, starting at $70. At the Strand, though, I finally found a used paperback copy for $8.95.
Even New York fashion has been influenced by The Strand. The store carries canvas shoulder bags with its logo in bold red and white. The bags are available in different styles and colors and are practically a wardrobe staple among young New Yorkers. I’ve seen women wearing Chanel and toting Strand bags. It’s heartening to think that our ideas of what’s trendy don’t have to come from beauty magazines.
The Strand is among the world’s largest used bookstores. Its primary competitor is Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon. Since I’ll be moving to the west coast soon, and I have a friend in grad school near Portland, I’ve added Powell’s to my bucket list. As for anyone visiting or living in New York, I highly recommend a stop at The Strand. You’ll find whatever you’re looking for and even if you don’t buy anything, it’s worth the trip to soak up the ambiance.