How The Strand Keeps Going.

Like most bookish New Yorkers and ex-New Yorkers, I have a love-hate relationship with the Strand; I’ve spent a tremendous amount of money there, but I’ve also done a fair amount of cursing (at lousy layout, indifferent employees, derisory offers for books I tried to sell, etc.). Thus I was glad to read Christopher Bonanos’s piece in New York magazine, “The Strand’s Stand: How It Keeps Going in the Age of Amazon.” The store has clearly changed a lot since I frequented it (in those days nobody would ever have described it as “a warmer place for readers” than Barnes & Noble), and it’s interesting to learn how it’s thrived; even if I disapprove of most of the methods (“there’s a satellite Strand built into a Club Monaco. It’s spotless, selling mostly new books plus some expensive first editions”; “In the Hamptons, a wall of white books is a popular order, cheerfully fulfilled”; “Fifteen percent of the store’s revenue now comes from merch: T-shirts, postcards, notebooks, superhero action figures…”), hey, it’s keeping the store going, and I have a friend who works there. (Thanks for the link, Aude and Paul!)

Comments

  1. I don’t really understand the love for the Strand. It’s a decent bookstore with a sizable collection, but I have many other bookstores I’d rather support than that one based on their “personalities” and my reading interests. The bookstore I most wished I live by is Eterna Cadencia in Buenos Aires, and its size is pretty miniscule compared to the Strand’s.

  2. I have a “meh-meh” relationship with it, running the gamut of emotions from A to B.

  3. I really don’t understand the Strand. I’ve always found it to be mediocre, inferior to, say, the much smaller St. Mark’s. I kept going to the Strand again and again on visits to NY, thinking from all the superlatives that I missed something and that it really is New York’s Powell’s or Foyles, but was always disappointed.

  4. The Strand is where I go for good deals on children’s books and art books, auction catalogues, etc. I just picked up a catalogue from a British exhibition of photo studio photography for about 20 bucks, much cheaper than the book was listed on Alibris or Abebooks.

    I prefer Book Culture (nee Labyrinth) and St. Mark’s for browsing new releases.

  5. I kept going to the Strand again and again on visits to NY, thinking from all the superlatives that I missed something and that it really is New York’s Powell’s or Foyles, but was always disappointed.

    Well, that’s the thing — it’s not New York’s Powell’s or Foyles, it’s its own, very New York thing: huge, annoying, serendipitous, inexhaustible. If you go there looking for a particular volume you’re likely to be disappointed, but if you just keep an eagle eye out for bargains you are unlikely to go away empty-handed. I got Makaroff’s Dictionnaire russe-français complet (11th ed., 1908), a fantastic dictionary of over 1,100 pages, for a buck there. Try finding that in Powell’s.

  6. @languagehat: To me, what you just wrote sounds very much like a description of Powell’s.

  7. Ah well, I’ve never been to Powell’s, so I was assuming it was more like Foyles (which I have been to) than the Strand. If it is like the Strand, then I’m not sure why someone used to it would be disappointed by the Strand. It is what it is, and it’s good for what it is, but it’s not The Little Bookstore Round the Corner (run by Meg Ryan).

  8. Stephen Bruce says:

    …or 84 Charing Cross Road, run by Anthony Hopkins.

    The famous Powell’s in Portland is huge, with some quirky items, so I can imagine finding that dictionary there. You might also have found it at the Powell’s in Chicago, which is smaller but with a scholarly bent.

    I think I’ve been to the Strand and Foyles, but too long ago to make an accurate comparison.

  9. I never had serendipitous experiences like that at the Strand myself.

    Powell’s is the sort of place where you’ll go to look for a 1908 Dictionnaire russe-français and have a passing chance of finding it, along with a couple of other dictionaries you didn’t know about, but at market prices. It used to be more serendipitous before online used-book sites came along, but it’s still good and enormous (and a good place to order books online if you don’t want to feed the Amazon monster).

  10. Yeah, the trouble with Powell’s is they absolutely know the value of their stuff 🙂

  11. I do tend to forget that the time when I used to hang around Powell’s City of Books regularly is almost twenty years past, and I haven’t been there at all in six or seven years. There were certainly more bargains to be had back before everything was digitized. They didn’t always know what old volumes were worth back then, and if you thought the price on something was too high, you could actually bargain with the used book buyer to get the price down.

  12. “Fifteen percent of the store’s revenue now comes from merch: T-shirts, postcards, notebooks, superhero action figures…”

    At one of my local bookstores, nearly half of the space now is dedicated to what I can only refer to as hipster accoutrement: fancy Japanese tea sets, Moleskine etc. noteboks and novelty notepads, ECM on vinyl, organic granola bags, Kimmidoll figures, etc. I’ve noticed the beginnings of this same process in another bookstore, which got rid of one wall of shelving and replaced it with fancy tea. Clearly books are less and less a profit driver, though I’d like to think that people are just buying online, not that we’re plunging into a post-literary society.

  13. John Emerson says:

    “Derisory offers for books I tried to sell”

    Isn’t this a human universal? Powells too, in any case. One bookstore owner explained “Do you hope to get a good price for your used underwear too?” and while I was annoyed, that made some sense.

  14. John Emerson says:

    In 30 years shopping at Powells I have bought 1 bargain book there, volume 2 of the Ch’u Silk Manuscript. I presumed that they were selling it as a broken set, but Vol. 1 was never published.

    I also got a Uighur primer there which later became valuable because it was suppressed in China.

    The Strand equivalent in portland would be Camerons, which basically buys books by the pound after weeding out obviously clunkers. You can find bargains there, but Strands would be much better, if only because larger.

    http://www.amazon.com/Chu-Silk-Manuscript-Translation-Commentary/dp/0708100996

  15. John Emerson says:

    You could not bargain with old Walt Powell. “Well, why do you want this book so much?” Unanswerable.

  16. 84 Charing Cross Road, run by Anthony Hopkins.

    Try as I might, I can never persuade my brain that this is different from “10 Rillington Place”, run by Richard Attenborough.

    Foyle’s is still good and a lot less quirky (ie irrationally confusing) than it used to be. I was lucky enough to experience it when it was still being run in a completely insane way; an interesting visit.

  17. Foyle’s is still good

    I adored the old Dillons across the street. Five cluttered floors, each wondrous in its own way, and all creaky because they were wooden. Must be gone about ten years. I believe it’s a Blackwells today.

  18. ECM on vinyl

    Electronic countermeasures on vinyl? That’s a serious breakthrough.

  19. Isn’t this a human universal?

    Indeed, as is cursing about it.

  20. For older New Yorkers the Strand is a sort of last-of-the mohicans representative of the sea of bookstores which lined the 4th Avenue book district. It represents a lost world. It’s a footprint
    on a beach in which all the other footprints have been washed away. Sic transit………

  21. 'As You Know' Bob says:

    Oh , the Strand.
    I’ve been going there for forty years or so – – and my trip this past weekend was the very first time that I FOUND NOTHING AT ALL TO BUY.

    Because they’ve transformed themselves from a HUGE, wonderful ‘used’ bookstore (one that was fed by Manhattan’s steady stream of review copies…) into NYC’s sorta funky version of a ‘new’ bookstore.

    – Right up until early this year, they were selling like-new review copies of mmpbs for 50% off; but this weekend, they were trying to sell me like-new pbs for 10% off cover price.
    – They were asking *cover price* for that new bio of Sam Wagstaff.
    – They used to have a couple miles of shelving devoted to ‘new’ review copies; today, it’s down to 500 feet or so.

    I find it bizarre (and sad…) that the Strand’s formula for survival in today’s competition with Internet shopping has been to *raise* their prices.

    I’m glad it’s working for them, I’m glad they’re surviving – but the Strand is now no longer a destination for me.

    (Plus: those kids should get off my lawn, I guess.)

  22. Oh, dear. I can’t tell you how sorry I am to hear that; I guess it’s one more reason not to regret having left the city. (The demise of Gotham Book Mart is, of course, a much bigger reason.) And I agree about the kids and the lawn.

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