The Strand Book Store Fights Back

The Strand Book Store displays Kindle price on price tag If you’re a book lover who lives anywhere near the Mason-Dixon Line, you’re probably familiar with the Strand. The legendary new-and-used bookstore in Manhattan’s East Village is famous for its claim of being home to “18 miles of books.” (Full disclosure: A little over a decade ago, I briefly worked as a Strand employee.)

I can’t remember where I found this photo, but it strikes me as admirable. Instead of simply wilting beneath the power of Amazon, the Strand has apparently decided to strike back by revealing its cheaper-than-Kindle Store prices, of all things.

Obviously, this is a bit of a gimmick. And as anyone who has even been there can surely tell you, the real benefit of buying books at the Strand isn’t really the price, but rather the experience. Still, I think there’s a lesson here for brick-and-mortar bookstore owners: Change is inevitable in this world, and having the right attitude—not to mention a good sense of humor—usually helps.

7 Comments on The Strand Book Store Fights Back

  1. Love it! I usually check the Kindle price anyway, so this would eliminate any trepidations I’d have about buying the book that I already hold in my hands … instant gratification.
    I also like the attitude. These days, whenever I go to a B&N store, I find the employees pretty sour faced, which makes me miss Borders that much more. Maybe they know that many people ultimately leave the store with one present and the intent of buying x ebooks after seeing their paper versions in store.

  2. “These days, whenever I go to a B&N store, I find the employees pretty sour faced, which makes me miss Borders that much more.”

    That’s interesting. I haven’t been inside a B&N for a long time, but I don’t think I’ve ever noticed that. Maybe it’s just the result of really poor management at a few stores in your area? Regardless though, that’s a shame.

    As for the Strand, that place is just fantastic. It’s filled with characters, including the owner, Fred Bass. He sort of comes across as a grumpy ol’ guy, but I always liked him. When I worked there, the inside baseball was that Fred and his daughter, Nancy Bass (now Nancy Bass Wyden; she’s married to Sen. Ron Wyden), had a little bit of power struggle going on. Fred didn’t really want the Strand to change, because he respected the fact that it was a very important literary institution. (Fred’s father, Ben, opened the store in 1927; Fred has been working there since he was 13 years old.)

    But Nancy’s from a different generation, of course, and she was always afraid the Strand would lose too many customers to the nearby Barnes & Noble flagship store in Union Square if they didn’t do something to bring the Strand into the modern age. From what I understand, Fred and Nancy’s biggest struggle had to do with the fact that Nancy wanted to open a cafe inside the store – again, to compete with the nearby B&N – but Fred thought a bookstore with a cafe wasn’t a real bookstore (or something along those lines).

    I was able to respect both their opinions, although my jaw dropped during my first visit to the Strand in years, after I’d stopped working there. This was years ago – I really don’t remember when – but Nancy had clearly won the war. There was a cafe on the top floor, and they host their author readings there now. There was also a new mezzanine level filled with tons of really nice Taschen coffee table books, and a ridiculous amount of ancillary merchandise – everything from keychains to refrigerator magnets to pencils, and even candy bars, I think, with the Strand logo on them. There’s also an elevator now.

    I actually like the store better now, and in terms of the inventory they carry, that really doesn’t seem to have changed. The completely anarchic shelving of the books on the main level hasn’t changed either – a smart move, since whenever people talk about the Strand, they talk about getting lost in the stacks for hours. Also, the basement level, where all the cheap review copies are sold, doesn’t seem to have changed very much either.

  3. Dan, I know exactly what you are talking about when you speak of the “experience” of being in a bookstore like the Strand. I absolutely love our American independents, but some changes need to take place in order for them to survive. For example, Mr. Bass’ reluctance to add a café to compete with B&N is typical of most older-generation bookstore owners. They legitimately worry about “selling out” their store’s heritage to more modern trends. Cody’s Books in Menlo Park, CA is a Bay Area/Stanford institution, but it almost closed down in 2005 due to online competition. In order to supplement their fledgling book income, they had to sell more gifts, food, trinkets, and toys. Whole sections of the store are taken up by these non-book items, but they are managing to stay alive, and will soon complete further renovations.

    I miss the experience of being able to walk into a bookstore and see only rows and rows of books, but if you have to start selling coffee and Tickle Me Elmos to keep your doors open, I will just have to live with it. I think more independent bookstores should exploit the harsh agency pricing model for as long as possible. Show the comparison price, and maybe customers will realize that paying $12.99 for a proprietary computer file that they don’t really own isn’t as wise as picking up a $4.00 used paperback.

  4. I haven’t been to the Strand in over eight years since moving to the West Coast. I’m not sure I’d like the coffee shop in there.

    I miss the old bookstores. I used to work for Borders before Amazon, the Internet, or even computer terminals to look up titles. What a great place to look for books it was. It became a poor husk of what it once was in its final years as a store.

    I hope the Strand can stay the wonderful maze of books I remember it to be if I ever get the chance to go back.

  5. The Strand was the target of an Occupy Wall Street-supported action in May.
    http://mikecanex.wordpress.com/2012/05/02/occupy-wall-street-may-1-2012/

  6. Dan, I only go when I need a present for someone, or a stylish nook cover that may fit some new gadget I bought. Their covers are absolutely gorgeous.
    The only independent book store around here is a christian one, so not my cup of tea.

  7. “Hundred Secret Senses” was released in 1995. I should damn well hope that a seventeen-year-old hardcover would be hitting the four-ninety-five remainder bin by now. The Kindle price ought to be compared to the “new hardcover” price.

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