Interview with a Bookstore: The Strand
Eighteen miles of books
The Strand was born in 1927 on Fourth Avenue on what was then called “Book Row.” Book Row covered six city blocks and housed 48 bookstores. Ben Bass, an entrepreneur at heart and a reader by nature, was all of 25 years old when he began his modest used bookstore with $300 dollars of his own and $300 dollars that he borrowed from a friend. Ben sought to create a place where books would be loved, and book lovers could congregate. He named his bookstore after the London street where writers like Thackeray, Dickens, and Mill once gathered and interesting book publishers thrived. The Strand quickly became a Greenwich Village institution where writers went to converse, sell their books and find a hidden treasure to buy. Today, the Strand is the sole survivor of Book Row’s colorful past, boasting more than 18 miles of new, used, and rare books.
What’s your favorite section in the store?
The Rare Book Room is truly a magical place, and the dollar carts are heaven for any thrifty booklover, but my favorite would have to be the children’s department, especially the classic and vintage sections. I really love an old book with some character or with a heartfelt dedication from a bygone era. –Maya S., Kids Department
I love the Literary Non-Fiction section the best. I was an English major in college and it is fantastic to have author biographies, memoirs, letters, essays, and critical theory all in one spot. –Amanda W., Visual Merchandise
I have a real soft spot for the Banned Books table on our main floor. Whenever we have school groups in the store, I always stop there and try to explain it. I’m glad we encourage readers to learn more about the fight for freedom of speech across the globe. –Brianne S., Marketing Manager
My favorite section is the dollar carts because of the variety of stuff out there at any given moment. I’m a firm believer that any book you’re looking for has been out there at least once, you just have to wait for it. Also, I am cheap! After that it would be photography. –Jane K., Rare Books Manager
My favorite section is the history section. There’s so much I don’t know about the world that I think I may get a little distracted when I shelve there because I’m writing down titles of books to read later. –Cynthia G., Main Floor
Fiction! I’m constantly trying to catch up on modern classics that I should’ve already read. I’m also a big fan of the music section at the Strand. There’s nothing more inspiring than a great musician’s biography. –Omar A., Web Department
My favorite section is probably the Modern Library wall, in the classics section on the main floor. I work in this section a lot and sometimes they drive me crazy, but I can’t stay mad at these little babies. Modern Library has been publishing classics at good prices since the early 1900s (and they’re still doing it), but my favorites that we sell are from the 1930s, 40s and 50s when he cover design was so so great. When you pick one of these up, you know you’re looking at something someone could have found in, in the same store, decades and decades ago. –Sky F., Main Floor
If you had infinite space what would you add?
I would add an off-the-beaten-path room that is semi-private to house the Bereavement section and a few others, as well as comfy chairs, so people can browse sensitive topics in a quieter, less trafficked area. –Amanda W.
I would try to add some large, floor-to-ceiling windows either on the second or second floor and set benches beside them. I’d then come to the store on my off hours to read there for hours. There is nothing like reading a book and having the sun shine on your back! –Brianne S.
A bigger children’s section as well as more magazines and books in foreign languages. Also, not related to books, but I really wish we had a shop cat. Or two. –Jane K.
More books! Rows and rows of books! And maybe some more seating, though it’s kind of nice to see people sitting on the wooden floors absorbed in a book. –Cynthia G.
Besides a full-service deli in the break room, I’d love to see our already immense monographs section on the art floor expanded. –Omar A.
If we had the space, I’d want to step up our comics game to match the books. Not that we don’t have a pretty dope comics section. But I’d really go underground with it. Buy stuff from some of those dealers. A whole section of longboxes. –Uzodinma O., Shipping Department
I would add an entire wing devoted to new releases from independent presses. –Cassandra B., Main Floor
A lounge where you can read your book and cuddle with puppies. –Patrick F., Second Floor
Italian Ice Stand. –Joe M., Second Floor
What do you do better than any other bookstore?
I honestly believe we give the best recommendations. Everyone who works at Strand has a particular section they know inside-out. We also know each other’s specialty so if you don’t know a section all that well, you know who does and they get to spread their loved books to someone who is genuinely interested. –Zoe K., Main Floor
The Strand is part of an extinct breed of bookstores in New York City. We have the best range of used books, including recently published titles. We also have the best and most diverse art book selection in New York, and possibly in the world. –Maya S.
What the Strand does best is find ways to get books at cheaper prices. Our owner has gone on trips to England to get super cheap British versions of books; searching out remainders from different sources; getting used books from a huge variety of places, visiting libraries, houses, and estates to get huge lots of books. –Amanda W.
We cater to every lifestyle across the board with no exception. –Omar A.
We’re still, I think, a prime example of a non-corporate, classic used bookstore. Dusty stacks, we still have the weird types, characters, the vibe, as well as some hard to find books I doubt you’d find anywhere else, even online. –Uzodinma O.
Who’s your weirdest regular?
Who isn’t? Weirdos are what makes New York City great! One of my favorite aspects of this job is the wonderful people that you get to meet. –Maya S.
The dogs who know where we keep the treats. I guess it’s not so much weird as adorable and amusing. –Cynthia G.
Most of our regulars are unique. My favorites are the ones who strictly shop the bargain carts outside. There’s nothing wrong with being thrifty. –Omar A.
The woman who comes in every week and asks for books related to Pharma and Biotech; then claims that she owns a biotech company yet only ever purchases half-priced mass markets. –Sean C., Basement Manager
The concentration of characters, I’d say, nowadays, is in the back, mainly the cats who come through to sell to our book buyers. The people who come in to sell run the gamut. There’s owners and dealers from other bookstores, college students, writers, university professors, homeless dudes. As you might imagine, some real raconteurs. –Uzodinma O.
I like the man who talks to himself discussing the changes we’ve made to the tables. Sometimes I think he knows the store better than I do. –Patrick F.
What’s the craziest situation you’ve ever had to deal with in the store?
Crazy situations are stories best told in person but I will mention the drunk man who was escorted out while “Heil Hitler”-ing me. And the reality show episode that never aired. –Jane K.
When I first started working here Russell Brand came and did a signing. Earlier we had set up an area for him to do his signing, but when he arrived he announced to the line that he changed the location to the second floor and was now going to do a reading. It ended up working out alright, but it was chaos. –Cynthia G.
I once had to calm two customers down who were fighting over a book. –Omar A.
One summer there was this huge fight between a couple of employees that spilled out through the book carts on the sidewalk and onto Broadway. Middle of the afternoon, books scattered all in the street, everyone’s screaming. It’s a lot different now, but when I first started working here it was like the wild west. –Uzodinma O.
One time a wealthy foreign customer bought half of our art monographs and I spent the day putting the books into 56 boxes so they could be shipped around the world. –Patrick F.
What’s your earliest/best memory about visiting a bookstore as a child?
I remember being ten or so and hanging out in the bookstore of whatever mall my family was shopping in. Those are the places I discovered poetry, wondered endlessly who Rebecca was and why Daphne Du Maurier wrote a book about her, and learned all about my body. Thanks, books! –Jane K.
When I was growing up in the early 1960s there were no bookstores (or much of anything else for that matter) nearby. Instead I got books from book fairs at school. They were held in the All Purpose Room. A large room filled with tables stacked with books. They had such inviting covers. There were so many of them. My parents would only buy me one or two of them. It was tragic. There is so much promise in a roomful of unread books. –Dave, Customer Service
There was a local bookshop in Lancaster, CA whose name I can’t remember anymore. Hell, it’s probably closed down by now. I used to go there when I was a teenager with no cash just to sit around and read books. I read mainly Stephen King novels as I was a bit of a horror junkie at the time. I always told my dad I was looking for a job. But I wasn’t. It’s probably a mix between that innocent teenage rebellion and the welcoming atmosphere of the shop that makes this a good memory. –Brian S., Rare Book Room
There were not any bookstores in the town I grew up in but taking out the maximum amount of books allowed per week, I think it was 12, from the local library is my fondest book-related memory from childhood. Second place is ordering scads of books from the Scholastic Book Club at school and winning a large gift basket of books after my entry in the 4th grade poetry contest won first prize. –Sean C.
I have a kid, a son, so this is something I think a lot about. I was about my son’s age now, maybe seven or eight and the only thing my parents consistently bought me was books. Every couple of weeks. As soon as I’d finish a book they’d buy me another. We’d go to the mall and they had a B. Daltons and I want to say, a Waldenbooks. I know everyone in New York says they hate chain bookstores, but I logged in a lot of hours there just sitting on the floor reading comics and sci-fi books. –Uzodinma O.
I would visit my brother working in the shelves and talk to him from the other side trying to freak him out. –Joe M.
If you weren’t working at a bookstore what would you be doing?
I’m a painter, so if I could paint full-time I would. But the Strand is a great place to work if you are an artist seeking inspiration. –Maya S.
Probably teaching, which I did for a short period of time overseas. Never have I ever loved my teachers more than when I was on the other side of that desk. –Jane K.
Writing, man, writing . . . I mean I don’t necessarily go around calling myself a writer, but my first book is, in fact, coming out at the end of the summer. –Uzodinma O.
Dreaming of working in a bookstore! I have a second job at a year-round haunted house, so I’d just be working there more, but I’ve always wanted to work at a book store. I’m glad I get to work here. –Cynthia G.
What’s been the biggest surprise about working at a bookstore?
I love how receptive customers are to my recommendations. When I did clothing retail, no one cared what I thought! –Cassandra B.
The biggest surprise is you don’t get a lot of reading done. Instead, you make yourself into a book hoarder and make your to-read list into Mt. Everest or possibly K2 (especially since K2 it is the more dangerous mountain to climb). –Zoe
Working in the children’s department has opened my eyes to how amazing and strange all children are. I mean strange in the best way. –Maya S.
(This is going to sound cheesy) I am surprised daily by the quantity and quality of the interactions I have with customers and co-workers alike. Being around so many people to talk about and share books with. Showing someone a book to help them through grief, having a customer recommend a great fun read to me, debating poetry versus prose with a co-worker. I grew up in a small rural town in Pennsylvania. No one read books but here, at this bookstore, are my people. –Amanda W.
I am most surprised by how much I look forward to interacting with customers and helping them, chatting with them even when I can’t find the book they’re looking for. Even though we’re all about books at Strand the books wouldn’t be here without the folks to buy them! –Jane K.
There’s always someone who is a bigger geek about any topic than you are. –Omar A.
I’m sure for all of us it’s a little shocking to have to factor the realities of a business into something we love. –Uzodinma O.
How much I’ve learned! Just in shelving books I’ve learned of many more authors and great works in various fields and getting to do tech for our events taught me how to work a P.A. system. –Cynthia G.
SLIDESHOW: The Strand Staff Recommendations