Learn about the Strand's Books by the Foot program for TV and film

The massive bookstore's rental program is used by set designers to outfit TV shows, films and more with books.

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  • Photograph: Nadia Chaudhury

    Stand Book Store's Books by the Foot program

  • Photograph: Nadia Chaudhury

    Stand Book Store's Books by the Foot program

  • Photograph: Nadia Chaudhury

    Stand Book Store's Books by the Foot program

Photograph: Nadia Chaudhury

Stand Book Store's Books by the Foot program


If you’ve ever wondered how bookshelves on TV shows and films like The Following, Smash and American Gangster are outfitted, wonder no more: Thanks to Strand Book Store’s Books by the Foot program, clients can either rent or purchase libraries for various uses, including movie or television sets, fashion shoots, apartment stagings, hotels, corporate chains and personal libraries.

Strand co-owner Nancy Bass Wyden started the program 20 years ago after noticing that decorators would try to assemble large amounts of books in the store, measuring them by the length of the shelf space they needed to fill (hence, by the foot). Since then, the shop has created set dressings for The Royal Tenenbaums, You’ve Got Mail, Saturday Night Live and Law & Order; editorial shoots for Real Simple and Elle Decor; and more.

Clients come to head designer Jenny McKibben, who previously worked in the store’s rare-books department, with requests as vague as “golf books,” or as specific as “leather-bound, six-inch-tall, red psychology books from the 1930s.” It’s up to the team at the Strand to hunt down tomes that fit the theme. Television shows and films tend to rent books from the program for use in set designs, including characters’ offices and apartments. Once a show is finished with the props, they’re returned to the store’s stacks.

Recently, McKibben worked on The Americans, which premieres on FX on January 30. “It’s fun because it’s a challenge for us to try and find books from that period and be character-specific,” she says. “These [characters] are Russians who are infiltrating American society. We had to find books from the 1980s that were also very stereotypically American. You just have to think, If you were trying to appear as American as possible, what would be the kinds of things that you would do, listen to or read? What kind of personality would you try to portray? Books that they picked include biographies of Karl Marx and Charlie Chaplin, The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe and Soul on Ice by Eldridge Cleaver. Working on the CBS Sherlock Holmes adaptation, Elementary, is also thrilling. “They’ll get antique leather books that they’ll rig up with a camera hidden on the inside,” explains McKibben.

Martin Scorsese is also a fan of the Strand's program, and has used it for films like The Departed and Shutter Island. McKibben and her crew worked on the director’s latest film, The Wolf of Wall Street (out later this year), for which they found 1980s books on superyachts; this helped the crew create a yacht for Jordan Belfort (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) to sink in the film. “It’s a creative process; it’s not a science,” says McKibben. “It’s just drawing on your own experiences.” She frequently works with interior designer Steven Grambrel, who will request books in certain colors, like titles about Impressionism in light hues. “I like it when set decorators really want to customize a set and they don’t just have books in the background,” she notes.

The Strand's purchasing program customizes personal libraries to individual interests, although there are still universally popular books. McKibben has certain vintage classics pulled aside due to high demand, as well as titles that people tend to hang on to rather than give to used bookstores, and copies with gorgeous book jackets. These include hardcover titles by William Faulkner, John Steinbeck and George Orwell. The most requested author is Ernest Hemingway, followed by J.D. Salinger. On average, people request between 20 and 30 feet of books, but some clients—such as hotels—have requested up to 1,000 feet.

To fill orders, McKibben goes behind the buying desk and into the store’s shelves to pull titles. If the requested tomes are obscure and it would take some time to collect them, clients can place an accumulation order. As the titles come in, the store will ship the books out in batches of a dozen. Dan Doctoroff, CEO of Bloomberg L.P., utilizes the program to build his personal library. It’s been a couple of years since they started on his list of 100 titles; now, less than 40 books remain to be found.

Sometimes the store gets odd requests. McKibben recounts the time a client requested 12 books of certain heights, starting from four inches. After the order went out, the client sent her a photograph of what they did with the books. “They had arranged [them] like a mobile from the ceiling,” she explains. “They were spread open and glued open into wings—it made one gigantic bird hanging from the ceiling. They used it in their baby’s nursery. Even though these books are now glued and won’t be read, wow, that’s a pretty incredible use of books.” As for McKibben, she’s working on gathering her own list of her favorite children’s books, to be used by her soon-to-be-born child.


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