Lost in New York: Peter and the Literary Merchant Queen
Peter Tatara - December 2, 2006
My name is Peter Tatara. I live in New York City. Perhaps you've heard of the place. First made famous in the 1979 film The Warriors, New York is today visited by hundreds of millions of people, but while they all visit 42nd Street, very few tourists explore so much as one block away. Enter this very travelogue, a field guide to the urban odyssey that is 43rd Street and beyond. Won't you join me as I get Lost in New York? Okay, that last sentence sucked.
There are hundreds -- if not thousands -- of bookstores in New York City, altogether containing any and every tome you could possibly imagine. While the City has its share of omnibus Barnes and Nobles, it's its smaller, independent shops that are the charm. I've spent a solid day hopping between Mandarin-language bookstores in Chinatown, I've been to stores selling only nautical books, and I'm acquaintances with the owners of an upscale Japanese bookstore in Midtown. However, of all the bookstores in New York City, I easily have a favorite. The Strand.
Founded in 1927, the Strand -- located just south of Union Square -- is a five-story literary jungle. While it sells new books commonly for 50% off MSRP, it's most known for its titanic selection of old, used, rare, and out-of-print volumes. I've never been disappointed leaving the Strand. Whenever I visit the store, I leave with what I want along with something (or things) more.
The Strand, you see, claims to have over "18 miles of books," and with so damn many, the store has pretty much thrown up its hands at the thought of organizing them all. The Strand is a snake-like, meandering store where tiny hallways twist and turn into hidden rooms and dead ends. The store has an overall layout, along with maps to help you on your way, but if you're searching for a specific title and you don't have a staff member to help you sort through the piles and piles (and piles) of books, you'll spend hours and probably still end up fruitless. Ask a worker, though, and they'll glide through the halls, scale a few ladders, comb their computer database, and ultimately tell you they have a single, remaining copy and its not on the shelves. They'll disappear into the shadows and re-emerge within minutes with iWoz or whatever odd book you'd been hunting for.
Now, while this is horrid for snagging the one book you've been looking for in a timely manner, as you search, you're going to encounter dozens of titles you've never heard of before -- but you just can't leave the store without. The Strand is made for ambling through the shelves. No matter which hall you wander down, after skimming through its racks for a few moments, something will catch your eye. And with the Strand's unmatchable prices -- with older volumes priced as low as $1 -- you'll be able to load up on new discoveries until your arms grow numb. And you should snatch books until you can't feel your fingers anymore, too, as with the number of new books constantly pouring into the Strand and steady flow of fellas in tweed jackets and ladies in vintage glasses streaming out you're likely never to see any of your left-behind gems again.
It happened to me with a book about the history of sock monkeys. It's okay, though, as while I couldn't find the sock money volume again, as I tried to fruitlessly look for it during my next Strand visit I picked up a melancholy little book on the demise of the traveling circus.
Beyond the Strand's obscene selection of books, the store regularly hosts events -- from readings and signings to live music. If you want a bakery and coffee bar, though, you'll have to head off to the Barnes and Noble around the corner. In fact, there are two. It's no secret that when New Yorkers think "books," a solid number think "Strand," and this is something Barnes and Noble can't have. Not some tiny curiosity, the Strand goes toe-to-toe and blow-for-blow with NYC's omnibus chains, and while they've caused the closing of a number of independently-run shops, these massive stores haven't been able to trounce the Strand. In fact, the Strand's thriving. It's got a second store -- "The Annex" -- in the Financial District, a mobile location in Central Park, and it just finished remodeled the second floor of its main store to make more display space for more -- that's right -- books. While the chains may be big (and well lit), their selection and character (and prices) can't touch the Strand.
The Stand isn't the only bookstore in New York City, and you should explore as many of the city's independents as you can, but I highly recommend starting this adventure at the Strand. She's the queen of New York City's literary merchants, a stunning, spellbinding, endless temple dedicated to the written word. You can lose yourself in the Strand, walk five feet, and lose yourself again.