Used bookstores – and brick and mortar bookstores in general – are something of an endangered species. According to U.S. Census Bureau data, the number of used bookstores has declined by over 50% in the years between 1998 and 2019, from 12,151 to 6,045. There are a variety of factors, from rising rents to decreased profit margins, and it would be impossible to ignore the devastation Amazon has wreaked on the industry. Nevertheless, there are still those that survive and thrive, and The Strand bookstore at 828 Broadway in New York City is one beloved shop that has managed to keep its doors open through multiple precarious periods in history to continue delighting bibliophiles with unexpected literary treasures.
The Strand started out in 1927 on Fourth Avenue in an area known as Book Row. Book Row originated in the 1890s, and by the time The Strand was established nearly fifty bookstores with varying specialties lined six city blocks. If you wanted to find rare books, prints, catalogues, or research materials, it was the place to go – and prior to the availability of easily-ordered online books housed in massive warehouses, the ability to find a shopkeeper who was knowledgeable in your interests and had a comprehensive collection of books on it was a godsend. Lithuanian immigrant Benjamin Bass founded The Strand with $300 of his own and $300 from an investor, which would be equivalent in total to about $9,451 today. He named it after a London street which was known for its publishers and for being a haunt of writers like Dickens and Thackeray, and quickly went to work developing a network of contacts and clients.
The Strand became a popular hangout for Greenwich Village writers and literary enthusiasts, cultivating a community of regulars. During the Depression when many businesses were closing, Bass was fortunate enough to have rent waived by The Strand’s landlord until the store able to pay it back. Though the area recovered after the Depression, rent became an issue in the 1950s, when rent prices doubled and drove all of the other bookstores in the area either out of business or to another location. The Strand was the lone survivor, because their rent remained the same, but in 1957 Ben Bass’ son Fred decided it was time to move to another building for a more permanent home. He settled on the current location at 12th and Broadway, which they bought in 1996.
Fred, who started working at the store at the age of 13, took over the business, and eventually passed it on to his daughter, Nancy Bass, who is the owner today – although Fred still works at the buying desk. The Strand boasts that it has 18 miles of books, which is not hard to believe upon entering the store. Nancy has added games, toys, and the famous Strand tote bags to their offerings, which has likely helped them weather the onslaught of online retail. According to The Gothamist, the most expensive rare book sold there was a second folio of Shakespeare’s works purchased for $100,000 and the rarest is a first edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses illustrated by Henri Matisse. The Strand also runs a unique program called Books By The Foot, which rents out a curated selection of books to interior designers and film production crews. While there have been many famous patrons over the years, Patti Smith fans will be delighted to learn that she worked in the basement there in the 1970s (although she does not recall enjoying the experience).
Today, The Strand remains a place of discovery: it’s the perfect spot to find a gift for a loved one, to meet an author at an in-person event, or to be introduced to a book you never knew you needed. The Strand also sells books online (and patronizing independent bookstores’ online shops is a wonderful way to keep the brick and mortar locations thriving!) but if you’re in New York City, there’s really no substitute for visiting it yourself, and maybe buy one of their stylish tote bags, to carry your other purchases out in.
Matthew Christopher NY New York Jul 06, 2022 Nostalgia Places to Visit Retail Stores