OUR FAVORITE BOOKSTORES: At the Strand, in New York, It's All About the Words

By Michael Landes

As a New Yorker, I’m spoiled for choice when it comes to favorite bookstores. Off the top of my head, I can think of five independent stores within walking distance of the apartment where I grew up. But of course, no conversation about bookstores in New York can ignore the Strand (its article, “the,” gives it a certain New York authenticity, much like “the Bowery” and “the Bronx”). My next visit to the Strand is never more than a week away––even when I rush through the neighborhood, I always spend an extra second to locate the red and white flag from blocks away.

Someday I would like to test my knowledge of the Strand’s layout by drawing a map, as I’m sure I could locate almost every table on the first floor accurately. My favorites are the “Best of the Underground” and the always-humorous “Banned Books” table, with Ulysses and Lolita next to The Very Hungry Caterpillar (banned by an elementary school due to a miscommunication) and Mein Kampf. This equal-opportunity shelving of books is a theme throughout the Strand, one that becomes visible farther from the entrance. As true Strand-o-philes know, the banquet of the first floor is barely the beginning, and practiced Strand shoppers can be identified by how quickly they aim for the staircase or better, the elevator.

This elevator is easily one of the best in New York because, like a wardrobe or a Tardis — the time machine in the British TV show Doctor Who — it transports visitors into a (perhaps not at all) secret realm: the rare books room on the third floor. Stepping off the elevator, you are welcomed by first editions protected by glass, carpeted floors, sparsely distributed tables, and four wingback armchairs, the only seats in the entire store. This floor is where I found one of my favorite books and possessions: a first-edition copy of John Ashbery's (who signed it) and James Schuyler’s collaborative novel, A Nest of Ninnies, for what I thought was an incredibly low price of $30. But this is what makes the rare books room so exciting: a book that to one shopper may seem like a priceless find is here for sale as if it was an ordinary vegetable.

The third floor may be a cathedral of books, but the basement feels more like a dangerously radical hide-out. Here, academia and philosophy have no time to look pretty for you: either you’re interested, or you’re not, and they aren’t about to put on a show. My new favorite spot in the Strand is down here in the basement, where four enormous boxes live, stuffed so full of paperback books that all you can see are densely packed yellow and white pages. The four genres that they are sorted into (Romance, Mystery, Sci Fi and Literature) blur constantly, and I’ve frequently found Isaac Asimov in Romance, or essays on contemporary art in Mystery. Flipping through the paperbacks is like opening a present every few seconds: you don’t know what you’re going to find. The next book could be Austen or Zane, Baldwin or Grisham.

Like the third floor, the basement bins remind me whenever I visit them that the significance of a book is in how I treat it, not in how famous the name is or how pristine the cover may be. At the end of the day, every book ever written is in those bins with a tattered cover and half-hearted endorsements on the back, begging to be picked up and consumed. All books are on an equal footing, selling for the exact same price, often the exact same size.  The only difference, the thing that makes me select one book over another, is the actual contents.  In this, the bins are the most Strand-like part of the Strand, upholding the ethos of a great bookstore: that in the end, it is all about the words.

Michael Landes is a New York-based writer.