It’s a nondescript Wednesday afternoon in Manhattan, but the ground floor of the Strand’s flagship store on Broadway and East 12th Street is jammed with customers. Arguably New York City’s most beloved independent bookstore, the Strand—which is celebrating its 80th birthday with a lavish party during this year’s BEA—is a pleasant anomaly in the world of bookselling. It’s an institution that has managed to maintain its authenticity while changing with the times. It’s a place rife with history that, somehow, doesn’t feel old. And it’s financially successful, too.
The store’s statistics are impressive. It has three locations—the 35,000-sq.-ft. space on Broadway; a 15,000-sq.-ft. store further downtown on Fulton Street; and three small kiosks in Central Park—and more than 225 full-time employees (all of whom have health coverage, including dental). Annual sales, according to owner Nancy Bass Wyden, exceed $20 million.
Named after the famed publishing street in London, the Strand is a family-run operation. Bass Wyden’s grandfather, Ben Bass, opened the store in its original location, on Fourth Avenue, in 1927. Her father, Fred, then took over in the late ’50s and is still on staff, buying books from estates, remainder companies and, as New York publishing folk well know, from walk-ins.
Today the Strand has a dedicated Web operation—according to Bass Wyden, 27% of the store’s revenue comes from online purchases—and profits have been beefed up from unexpected ventures like private library outfitting. Bass Wyden does “books by the foot” as a service for those looking to fill their personal libraries. She’s even done some movie sets. The store is also aggressive with in-store events, hosted on the second floor. Events manager Christina Foxley said the space can “comfortably” seat 150, but more can be accommodated; a recent appearance by Chuck Palahniuk drew 750.
Evolution aside, the basic layout at the 12th Street store hasn’t shifted dramatically over the years—new and used books on the first floor; rare, art and children’s books on the second floor; and review copies (titles sold to the store by reviewers and then resold to customers at 50% off) in the basement. Bass Wyden thinks the most enduring aspect of the store’s success is its pricing. As much as people may love the Strand’s no frills ambience and old New York feel, they keep coming back for the deals. “Almost everything in the store’s discounted,” Bass Wyden said. She then added, “Some might even say cheap.”
Cheap and expansive. Syndicated columnist George F. Will, who referred to the Strand as “the eight miles worth saving in this city” in a famed 1970s newspaper article, understood then what still holds true today: People love this store because it’s a browser’s paradise. Those eight miles are now over 18, but the thrill of getting lost in the stacks persists. “They always had what I was looking for, even if it often took hours of dusty searching [to find it],” said Christopher Buckley. Art Spiegelman, who’s been going to the Strand since he “first figured out how to use a token,” relished all the books he stumbled upon at the store. He even coined a term—”the Strand stupor”—for the sensation of getting lost there. “I’ll wander around aimlessly from section to section, harvesting a lot of books and keeping them by my side. It’s a great form of meditation and self-therapy that usually ends up with me spending more money than I planned.”
Frank McCourt has been a customer since his student days. “The Strand, for me, was Lotus Land. Back then, there were three places I cherished in New York: the White Horse Tavern; the 42nd Street Library; the Strand Book Shop. Now, because I’m older and don’t have the strength for White Horse products, I’m down to the library and the book shop.”
There certainly is something quintessentially New York about the Strand, aside from mere geography. Novelist and radio show host Kurt Andersen calls it a “great blend of New York-iness—literary, not brand new, unpretentious, idiosyncratic.”
And as McCourt says, “May it last forever.”