The Strand: NY's Iconic Book shrine

The Strand: NY

'I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library,' said Nobel laureate Jorges Luis Borges. He might have found that paradise at The...

"I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library," said Nobel laureate Jorges Luis Borges. He might have found that paradise at The Strand bookstore in the heart of vivacious Manhattan, the cultural hub of New York It is one of the nine amazing bookstores in the heart of Greenwich Village, often called simply "The Village" by veteran New Yorkers. The Village is sometimes compared to Paris's Left Bank, as poets, playwrights, and novelists carved out spaces for themselves. It was the East Coast birthplace of the Beat movement. The term "Village" struck me as out of place, as we drove to Manhattan to introduce the historic Strand to readers of Sunday Hans.
It was a perfect spring day. At 86 years young, The Strand is a year younger than me. The proximity of our births appears to give me a special connection to the store. It is located at the corner of Manhattan's East 12th Street and Broadway. New Yorkers were out in strength enjoying the weather and there was a loud street fair right outside the door of the store. The store was packed with bibliophiles like me who walked in to forget the world outside and immerse themselves in the books. From street level, the store looks like a nondescript retail grocery. But the well-lit interior is cavernous, with 55,000 square feet of space. The store occupies three and half floors, with books neatly arranged in floor to ceiling shelves. Books referred, but not shelved back, new and old books that are yet to be catalogued and numbered litter the aisles between the shelves and slow your scholarly journey at every step. There is so much to read and enjoy. If you line up all the 2.5-million book collection, you will have to walk 18 miles to reach the end of the line. The 200, unfailingly polite, employees doing different chores seemed not adequate to cope with the surge of book lovers, some of them looking for two hundred year-old books. Discount books are in the basement floor and the rarest volumes in the top floor. The Strand is by no means the biggest bookshop in the US. The biggest bookshop is the Powell's Book City in Portland, Oregon. The oldest is Moravian in Bethelham, Pennsylvania, which dates back to 1745. The Strand derives its uniqueness from its location in Manhattan, the aesthetic heart of New York. It is hard to think of another borough in any other city in the world that compares with Manhattan. It is home to so many iconic places of interest: Central Park, Wall Street, Madison Ave, Park Ave, Columbia University, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Empire State and of course The Village ! The Strand's geography endows it with a specialness and aura that is difficult for other store's to match.
The book, being a print medium, shares dwindling patronage along with newspapers and magazines. Bookstores across the US are closing shop. The Borders Group Inc., a big book chain, filed for bankruptcy recently. The Internet and the growing attraction of e-books have bookstores falling by the wayside, even in literary New York. Gotham Book Mart closed in 2006; Coliseum Books in 2007. But The Strand is still going strong, thanks to excellent service and creative efforts to stay relevant in this digital economy. Nancy Bass Wyden, who owns The Strand along with her father, Fred Bass, told "The Daily Beast," 'We try very hard to give our customers the best service and best shopping experience possible. If we don't have a certain title in stock, we can easily order it for pickup in two days. We are about to add stationery "store" within the store, as stationery is very popular with our customers.' The Strand hosts a weekly event featuring some of the biggest names in art, politics, fiction. Names like Salman Rushdie, Chuck Palahniuk, David Foster Wallace, Jeff Koons, Chuck Close have graced its hall. Ben McFall, 64, has been with the store for 35 years managing the vast fiction section. "If you really know what you need you go to The Strand and ask for Ben," said a frequent visitor. McFall, the dean of clerks, can from memory blindly pull off the shelves of the fiction section any book you're looking for. The store has recently acquired a computerised inventory system, but McFall relies mostly on a mental map of the tens of thousands of books in his section. The Strand is addictive. I feel like returning to it every time I am in New York. A Strand Bookstore bag in your hand may even be a status symbol that competes with a Louis Vuitton fashion accessory. Outside the big store is a mini Strand on push carts where I always find an interesting book for $1 or $2 dollars. I would not be surprised if there is overwhelming support for a campaign to declare Strand as a National Landmark. There are thousands of visitors who come to New York every year from India. I am not sure how many of them even know that this treasure exists. In addition to paying homage to the usual tourist sights, they should add The Strand to their plans. They will not regret it. (The writer is a senior Indian journalist who now lives in the US [email protected])
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