By Benny Carmazi and Lenore Fedow
Many New Yorkers consider the area just below 14th Street where NoHo meets Union Square a playground filled with entertainment, boutique shops, cafes, and bars.
But the area was once known as Booksellers Row, or Book Row, where 48 bookstores were crowded within the six-or-so blocks spanning 14th Street to the north, Astor Place to the south and bracketed by Fourth Avenue and Broadway. While the number of booksellers dwindled during the course of the 20th century, it continued to be a vibrant hub for scholars, students and, of course, book lovers.
Nick Tishler, who has frequented the area since his college years, stood recently in Union Square peering down Broadway. “I remember when it was bookstores all the way down to Astor Place! Now it’s movie theaters and restaurants,” said Tishler who had just stepped out of the Barnes and Noble on 17th Street and Park Avenue, where the café is always more crowded than the stacks.
“Technology is changing everything,” added Tischler referring to the way e-books have displaced books and book-and-mortar bookstores. “So it makes sense that all those bookstores would close. Today, this area seems like miniature Times Square.”
Yet the Strand Bookstore, the last remaining family-owned bookshop on Book Row, seems determined to survive. To do so it is both maintaining the traditions that have fostered a loyal customer base while expanding beyond Book Row. Last fall, the Strand even opened an outlet in the trendy Monaco’s clothing store on 21st Street and Fifth Avenue.
Inside the sprawling store at 12th Street and Broadway, not much has changed. The Strand, founded in 1927 by Benjamin Bass on Fourth Avenue, was named after the London street where writers congregated and book publishers thrived. The New York store became a literary hub for New York artists and writers. Bass’s son Fred took over the business in 1956 and moved the store a block to its current location. The Strand remains one of the largest, most well-stocked bookstores in Manhattan, occupying three-and-a-half floors and boasting more than 2.5 million books. The store carries everything from new titles to rare books.
“The fact that we also buy and sell used books gives us an edge over competitors who sell mostly new books,” said Jordan Cohen, a clerk at the store.
Might the Strand open a café? While Brianne Sperber, the marketing manager, doesn’t rule out the possibility in the future, she said: “For now, we intend to stay first and foremost a bookstore.”
But the Strand is branching out far beyond its home on Book Row. While the store has long had a kiosk outside Central Park at 60th Street and Fifth Avenue, last fall the Strand opened its first mini-outlet inside a retailer, at Club Monaco’s New York City flagship store. Tucked into a corner of the store, the small “shop-in-a-shop” is adjacent to a Toby’s coffee shop. It is stocked with a variety of books ranging from classics like John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” to humor books like Ron Burgundy’s “Let Me Off at the Top!: My Classy Life and Other Musings,” an autobiographical parody.
Club Monaco’s shop-within-a-shop has a cozy reading area, complete with a fireplace and lounge chairs. The books are not mere props, according to Sperber. “Our partnership with Club Monaco has been a terrific retail and marketing opportunity, as we do sell books and a few of our signature totes through the shop,” she said.
The Strand also helps Club Monaco host book signings and special literary events. Emily Schuman of the blog “Cupcakes and Cashmere” greeted fans last December. Actress and comedienne Mindy Kaling stopped by in March to sign copies of her new book, “Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?”
Although, the Strand does not have plans for another shop-in-a-shop, Sperber said, it set up a pop-up shop as part of NYCxDesign Festival at Industry City in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, in May. “It was great exposure for us to be a part of something so art and design centric,” said Sperber.
The Strand also has a website that allows buyers to browse the store’s vast inventory of books and to order online. As the world slowly shifts toward digital readers, such as Kindles, iPads and Nooks, the Strand is trying to make sure that at least one bookshop survives on Book Row.