If I’m going to write about The Strand during February then I’m going to do it right. So “My Funny Valentine” starts to bleed into the shortest month with the carnival giving this red month an eerie air of celebration. Yet it is love and eros that resonates in peoples’ minds. And that is why I’m writing about The Strand—my darling, independent bookstore in New York City—where on the corner of 12th and Broadway I started to fall in love.
The Strand first opened its doors to book lovers in 1927 on Fourth Avenue as yet another bookstore on the legendary Book Row. Now, in 2013, it’s the only Book Row survivor, and can be found on 12th and Broadway covering 55,000 square feet with over 200 employees and more than 2.5 million used, new, and rare books. The owner, Nancy Bass Wyden, speaks of The Strand’s “18 Miles of Books” with great pride, something that is quite remarkable for a business that was, is, and probably always will be, family owned.
I first visited The Strand during the first time I stepped foot on the island of Manhattan. That was back in January of 2012, and on the tenth day of that month, I stood opposite the bookstore for a good ten minutes staring at the numerous trolleys with all the books that were about to fall off. These bookshelves-on-wheels sit right around the entrance, allowing passers-by to flick through them before, perhaps, having a hot chocolate at Max Brenner or joining the manic and eclectic crowd at Union Square. I’m horrified to admit that I must have stayed in the actual bookstore for two minutes at most—but that is for another time, another story—yet something kept taking me back again and again and again.
Maybe it’s the four floors that are filled with aisles and aisles of floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, a magical labyrinth that will surely leave you giddy with excitement as I can only describe being in The Strand as a treasure hunt where X marks multiple spots. Wooden shelves are abundant, the crammed books beckoning the bibliophile with their index finger to their secret garden. Or maybe it’s all the sections that are too many to list, where you might find yourself with your nose inside a heavy book as the hand of your lover is placed warmly on your lower back in the American History section on the first floor or in the Ocean/Marine Life in the basement. Personally, I think it’s the atmosphere that sits between a perfectly wonderful stale smell of books, pens, and memorabilia that moans into your ear as soon as you open the door.
I suggest listening to Polly Scattergood’s haunting cover of Minnelli’s “New York, New York” as you roam around their exquisite rare book collection on the third floor. Or possibly Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Only Living Boy In New York” while you’re gearing up for one of their many intense author events—heads up, Junot Diaz on the 10th of April at 7PM—and believe you me, they’re all worth it. What better soundtrack to fill your mind when you’re in a bookstore that makes you feel as if anything can happen?
I speak of New York fondly, one of my favourite memories lying in the heart of The Strand where I tried to find, unsuccessfully, H.D’s The Gift. The staff graciously helped me search for it—I toyed with the notion of them live-tweeting the hunt—but it was one book I could not tick off my thesis reading list at that moment. I made my way to the Economics section where a number of customers strolled around like they were home, and I found solace in the catacomb. That was when The Strand became a beacon for me; my beacon, my lighthouse shining the way.
This is where Billy Joel takes over—and it has to be Billy Joel with “New York State of Mind”—as on the tenth day of July I found myself on the verge of tears in front of Bukowski, Charles, in one of the many nooks and crannies that give the reader the safest hiding place in the world. This was a bookstore that offered you a warm embrace before presenting you with your own fairytale.
Essentially, The Strand isn’t just the greatest independent bookstore in the US of A. It is a body, mind, and soul experience. A way to fall in love all over again and learn how to breathe in a ruthless city that offers no second chances.
By Eleni Demetriou
an Associate Editor for Black Clock and an MFA Writing candidate at CalArts.