My first impression of The Strand bookstore on 12th and Broadway was that it seemed to be a bustling hybrid of library and yard sale. My buddy Erin (H.) and I walked in and were literally bombarded by books. There were books stacked on tables, on the walls, on the floor, on dollies being wheeled around, and in the arms of at least twenty patrons. So not fung shui. And so exciting.
As we entered, a wide-eyed employee offered us a shopping bag. When we refused, she seemed a bit taken aback. I filled in the thought bubble above her head. “How could you come here and not leave with at least too many books to carry?” In defense of my literary prowess, I explained the whole blog situation and asked if she had any interesting facts about the store that she would like to share. She didn’t. We squeezed past her and walked further in as a man with two grocery bags of books walked up to the counter behind her. “Selling?”, another employee asked, “Next counter”. I was intrigued. I found a more knowledgeable worker and learned that this was not just a bookstore, it was more like a book depot. The reason this fabulous building had so many interesting books was that they buy old books and resell them. We started strolling through the aisles and saw the used books were positioned alongside new books and were stacked from higher than we could reach to literally on the floor. Aisles and aisles. And floors and floors of aisles. I was overwhelmed. At the risk of exposing my (probably already apparent) inner geek, I will say it was beautiful.
After a little perusal, we took the elevator to the rare books collection on the third floor. We stepped off into a little corner of heaven. Here were aisles of more books, but most of these were at least fifty years old. There was a collection of Shakespeare’s works in books no more than two inches tall. There was a signed copy of Merrill Ashley’s Dancing for Balanchine. I looked down at a table where a book entitled Ventriloquism for Fun and Profit was lying next to a stack of vintage Playboys. It was the most fabulously random collection of old books I had ever seen. Every book toward the front of the room had a price lightly penciled into the inside cover. As I ventured to the back of the room, I saw a sign that told me to ask for prices of the older books. In front of it was a desk with glue, paint, towels, and other supplies. I asked the sweet older man that seemed to be in charge if he had been restoring books at the desk. He smiled and showed me a grocery bag of musty novels. “We take anything people will give us and we make it as good as new”. He was so proud of his stacks. I was, too, actually. I walked around a bit longer, found a first edition of The Lone Ranger and thought of my dad. It was published in 1938 and still had the colorful paper cover folded in the back cover. There were at least four names of little boys that had owned (and I’m sure loved) the book penciled into the front cover and scratched out. I imagined a young Dan Lookadoo curled up on his bed reading it. This book alone was worth the trip.
I picked up a really old, really heavy copy of a collection of works by Byron. It was probably the most beautifully crafted book I had ever held. I wondered why it wasn’t behind glass. Then I looked around and noticed that nothing was behind glass. I was suddenly terrified. “Someone could seriously damage these books”, I thought. Then I realized that anyone that would take the time to come to the rare books floor of The Strand wouldn’t dream of marring Byron. And, I figured, if they were behind glass, I wouldn’t be able to smell that yummy musty book smell and hear the crunch of flipping the yellowed pages. In a day and age where everything is digitalized and new, The Strand has managed to preserve the visceral joy of the experience of a book. I put down Byron, left with its smell still in my nose, and embraced my inner geek.