By Isa Covo
Thanksgiving is over. I joined friends and family at the table, and it was nice. Of course, there was so much food, so much good food, so many leftovers, but that is expected—look at the number of recipes for how to use them!
Now to the next act: shopping for gifts. This year Hanukkah and Christmas fall at the same time, and practically everybody will be making lists. Alas, unless you know exactly what the giftee (is that a word?) wants, many of those gifts will be returned, stuck in a closet never to be seen again, or eventually end up at a thrift shop. The other, and very serious problem is packaging. When buying online there are the cardboard boxes, the plastic wraps, and then the fancy wrapping papers and ribbons. Bags and bags of them line the sidewalks in front of our houses following Christmas Day.
If you want to help the planet, use brown paper, that you can decorate yourself if you like, to wrap your gifts; and instead of ribbons, tie them with string.
The best and more lasting gifts are books, which satisfy all interests and tastes. As for children, books are better gifts than the cheap plastic toys they probably already have and which barely hold their attention for longer than a day or two.
I don’t like buying books online unless I cannot find them anywhere else, which is rare. When I walk into a bookstore, especially the independently owned ones, there is such an unparalleled feeling of community. The customers linger at the displays, leafing through the books, smiling at each other, sometimes starting conversations.
There was a time when New York was awash in bookstores, almost all independent. Fourth Avenue, between Union Square and Astor Place, was the mecca, with its 48 small bookstores, earning the title “Booksellers Row.” Unfortunately, by the 1960s, because of rising rents and perhaps the decline of readership, Bookseller’s Row was no longer.
Of the stores at Booksellers Row, and after some changes of location, Strand is the only remaining one, located at 12th Street and Broadway. Strand opened its doors on Fourth Avenue in 1929, right in the middle of the Jazz Age and its famous writers. The owner was Benjamin Bass, who had immigrated from Lithuania at 17. After working around New York at various jobs, he rented a small space on 8th Street near Greene Street in 1927, a year before his son Frederick was born, and opened a bookstore he named Pelican Book Shop. The store did not thrive and he was forced out two years later.
With an investment of $600, half of it borrowed, he moved his store to a property owned by the heirs of Peter Stuyvesant and built on what had been Stuyvesant’s farm. He renamed the store Strand. He saw his store as the place where booklovers like himself would congregate and converse, but he also found that in order to make a living he had to work hard. Strand stayed at the same location on Fourth Avenue until the building was demolished in 1957.
Bass’s son Frederick started working at the store after school at age 13, and except for a couple of years of military service he worked there all his life. After he became manager in 1957, he expanded it to the entire ground floor, and in the 1970s took over the three floors above and added an antiquarian department next door. His Father died in 1978 at 72. Fred Bass’s slogan was “18 miles of books,” and indeed he needed the space as he gradually expanded the number of books from the original 70,000, already a large number, to around 2.5 million. Buying books became his passion. He bought entire libraries, books from critics, books from readers who needed money—anybody who wanted to sell their books.
Bass made other additions to the business in the form of book kiosks in three locations: on 5th Avenue and Grand Army Plaza; in the Flatiron District; and, during the summer months, at Times Square. In 1986, his daughter, Nancy Bass Wyden, joined him in the business and expanded it by adding merchandise such as book bags, t-shirts and more. She also had air conditioning installed, and an elevator, and streamlined the floors.
In 2017, Fred Bass retired, and Wyden, an elegant and charming woman and the mother of three, became the owner. In the tradition of her grandfather and her father, who died in 2018, at 89 she is committed and brings new ideas to the store where she has worked since she was 16.
Strand has a fantastic collection of children’s books, and Story Time on weekends. In the antiquarian branch there are readings, book signings, and related events four hundred times a year. I’m glad I live within walking distance from Strand because I love to visit. When I have visitors from out of town I try to take them there, not only for the large choice of books but for the atmosphere. The staff is always very helpful, and is well-informed and passionate about books. And so were, and still are, all the members of the family that owns it.
If I’m in the area—even if I have only a short time—I cannot help looking though the carts for good bargains, where I am joined by other passersby. A few days ago I was at the children’s section on the second floor and saw a man carrying several books to the checkout, not all of them for children. I remarked that it was satisfying buying books at a store. “There is no other way,” he answered. And that’s the tize our bookstores, because if we don’t they’ll become a chapter in the book of “Vanishing New York.” So since it’s cold outside, have some tasty soup, maybe a nice drink, wrap yourself in something warm, and enjoy a good book.