When I was growing up on Long Island in the 1980s, weekends meant coming into the city, and once there, I had two choices: record shopping on St. Mark’s with my dad or Strand with my mom. I almost always chose vinyl, but every now and then the books beckoned, and I’d find myself among Strand’s famed eight miles. (And by the by, it was never “the Strand”—that’s a dead giveaway of being one of the uninitiated.) There, among spiffy front tables touting the more-expensive new releases and dusty, musty aisles of used books, I’d get lost—sometimes pulling Nancy Drews, other times finding a place to perch and reading just a few pages of more grown-up titles like Crime and Punishment and Fear of Flying. Once, outside by the $1 shelves on the sidewalk, I ran into a schoolmate, he there with his mother too, as if the few cool parents in our suburb knew that though we could probably find what we wanted at a Borders on the Island, we probably wouldn’t have as much fun doing it. And I remember once flipping through the pages of a Mary Gaitskill book back home and stumbling on a scene that perfectly described a character who worked at a gritty NYC bookshop watching a rat skitter across her feet. I knew instantly—Strand! (I’m not sure how, pre-Internet, I confirmed that Gaitskill had worked there, but I did. I hardly needed confirmation—it couldn’t have been anywhere else.) Just back there a few weeks ago, I delighted that it hasn’t changed one bit. Truly, it is the least-changed place in New York that I can think of, though perhaps it sells more tote bags and T-shirts now, most certainly for tourists who want to brag about having gone to “the” Strand. That’s okay—I too was a tourist there once, and I’m so happy that it’s just as it was, an Ellis Island to all those who still like the feel of an actual book in their hands, who just before reading, hold the pages to their nose to inhale that smell so particular to books, so particular to Strand.
An ode to Strand
Time Out New York Editor Carla Sosenko looks back on New York City’s most iconic—and unchanged—bookstore