New York City is home to what is probably the biggest used book store in the world. Strand is a real New York institution. A giant two level store in a pre-war commercial building on 12th Street and Broadway always drew me in with its outdoor book carts. Every time I entered the store proper I was already burdened with a good stack of 1 dollar hardcovers and 25 cent paperbacks. Even though I was rather poor at the time, I spent a disproportionately large part of my income on books written in a language that was still new to me. But at the Strand I got a pretty good bang for my buck.
In my many shopping sprees there I noticed an unsettling fact. I almost never went home with the books that I was planning to buy, but still my hands were crisscrossed by red marks left by super heavy plastic bags. In fact, in the area that I was most interested in, golden age sci-fi paperbacks, the Strand was strangely lacking. So when I learned about bibliofind.com, (which is a part of Amazon now) from a little ad in New York Times), I stopped going there altogether. Why waste my time in a cramped non-air-conditioned labyrinth of bookshelves blocked by frequently smelly bibliophiles and snarky Strand employees with crazy tattoos and piercings, when I could simply go online and order exactly what I wanted at similar prices? All hail long tail!
Just a few days ago I popped up from subway near Union Square and decided to see if the siren’s song of Strand’s outside book bins would still draw me in. Next thing I knew I was inside, checking my bag in and holding a stack of weird books. Inside the changes and forgotten details overwhelmed me. Even though they were slow to get on the whole web bookselling train (to this day when I order at abebooks.com or Amazon that have thousands of vendors, I am yet to get one book from Strand), the store thrived. They opened an Annex on Fulton St, another one which I never visited at 57th st and a tiny little booth almost the size of a porta-john in front of the Pierre Hotel, right next to the train stop. Rupert Murdoch chose a good location for his apartment.
And the original location began a slow barnsandnoblefication. No, they don’t have a cafe yet (and if they will I hope it’s going to be Joe’s and not Tarbucks). But they added 3rd floor, an elevator (so now you don’t need to walk outside into the side entrance to get to the rare editions department) and demolished the horrible little bathroom on the first floor. It was kind of weird standing where it used to be. The funny notes and cartoons were still taped to the bookshelves and columns, and the basement still had many antique pipes and old electrical cables (I noticed what I think was a cut pre-war high voltage cable the thickness of my arm in the wall). I saw – gasp – fresh cat5 runs.
When I paid for my books and went to get my bag from bagcheck, I commented on my relief to the fact that the old duct tape encrusted boxes where not replaced. The bagcheck guy laughed and said – hey, dude, this is the Strand. We don’t replace stuff until absolutely necessary. I hope they don’t change too much, although I welcome air conditioning, the elevator and the extra floor. I need to get a new camera and go and take some pictures there before everything changes again.
One of the books that I bough in the outside bin cracked me up because I am such an avid fan of Joel on Software:
My wife asked – “Timesharing of what?”. He heh, back in the 70s (when I was born) time sharing was a hot buzzword. And not the real estate kind.