Strand Book Store : An Interview with Nancy Bass Wyden
Strand Book Store was born in 1927 on Fourth Avenue on what was then called “Book Row,” an area that covered six city blocks and housed…
Strand Book Store was born in 1927 on Fourth Avenue on what was then called “Book Row,” an area that covered six city blocks and housed forty-eight bookstores.
Benjamin Bass was all of twenty-five years old when he began his modest used bookstore. Ben sought to create a place where books would be loved, and book lovers could congregate. He named Strand after the London street where avant-garde writers like Thackeray, Dickens and Mill once gathered and interesting book publishers thrived.
Eighty-eight years and “18 miles of books” later, Strand is still run by the Bass family and is home to four floors of over 2.5 million used, new, and rare books, a wide array of bookish gifts and goods, and fun literary events held almost every night of the week.
From the discount carts outside, to the Rare Book Room on the third floor, and cheeky graffiti throughout the store courtesy of Steve “ESPO” Powers, there is plenty for all book lovers to explore.
About Nancy Bass Wyden
Nancy Bass Wyden is the owner of New York City’s Strand Book Store, the largest independent bookstore in New York City.
She is the third generation owner of the historic landmark, which was founded by her grandfather Benjamin Bass in 1927.
Nancy began working at The Strand at the age of 16 under the tutelage of her father Fred. She officially became a manager in 1986, eventually becoming co-owner, and finally owner upon her father’s passing in 2017.
She has overseen the creation of the Books By The Foot department, the 2005 renovations of the flagship location, and the development of the store’s popular merchandise. She is married to senior United States Senator for Oregon Ron Wyden and they have three children together.
Excerpts from the Interview :-
Q1) The Strand is considered to be one of the oldest surviving indie bookstores in New York City. The store has amassed a brilliant collection of books over it’s near century of existence .Tell us about the journey of the bookstore so far. The bookshop has clearly gone through political, cultural, technological change, and has still maintained its presence. What’s so special or unique about Strand? Who are the key people behind the bookstore?
Nancy : 93 years ago, my grandfather, Benjamin Bass, founded the Strand Book Store along the area known as Book Row, located around the corner from us along 4th Avenue. It was in the storm of the Depression and he defied the odds by surviving while all of the other 48 bookstores on Book Row shuttered. The store was passed to my late father, Fred Bass, who grew the store to a scale and popularity he never thought was possible. Thanks to my father and grandfather’s passion and dedication, and the loyalty of our booklovers, we have stood the test of time.
As far as what makes us special, I think it’s our history and the fact that we’ve always stuck true to our roots. We are always trying to stay current with what our customers want; the focus is always books — we refresh our stock frequently with both new and used books to make sure our customers can find just about anything they want. On top of that we have evolved to sell bookish gifts to build our brand, like the now iconic Strand tote.
We’re also located in the epicenter of the publishing industry and many prominent writers and artists live in the village, so the biggest names in literature are known to stop by. These days when the world feels so uncertain and many people are stuck at home all we want to do is put good books in the hands of readers so they have something to enjoy.
Q2) What do you think is the role of an independent bookstore, or the role of booksellers at an independent bookstore?
Nancy : Independent bookstores have always been about community. Book lovers are some of the most passionate people out there, and that includes booksellers. Reading is such an important part of our culture and everyone’s love for it is unique. As a bookstore we get to connect with people in a very special way. Because we’re independent we don’t have to answer to anyone, so we can carry the books that we want to and not have to kowtow to corporate interests. I love having direct contact with my employees and customers.
Q3) What’s the Strand’s bookselling philosophy?
Nancy : Our mission is simple: to get good books in the hands of readers. We believe in our employees to provide expert recommendations, and our staff picks have always been one of our top selling sections. We believe in the lasting legacy of the printed word and passing that on. Buying used books has always been a hallmark of our business so recycling books and making them and the ideas in them accessible to new audiences is something that we’re very passionate about.
Q4) Does the bookshop have an exclusive team of bibliophiles that understands reader’s expectations? How do they constantly ensure that every book Readers find or look for on the shelf is hand-picked and well-curated, how does the staff add personal touches to the book discovering experience?
Nancy : One of the reasons we have such a loyal following is because of how vast and diverse our stock is. We have new, used, and rare books. Our buyers are incredibly well versed in what our customer wants to see, and our booksellers are hearing from our customers every day. Our Rare Books Manager, Vasilis, has been at the Strand for over 30 years appraising and curating books for our rare and collectibles department. Everyone that works here loves books and has a unique perspective, so each bookseller is going to recommend something different to a customer. Because of our large used and rare inventory there truly is a book for everyone at The Strand.
Q5) How does the staff do their homework or decide which book to curate or which author to collaborate with for events? How do they come up with ideas & activities With respect to the branding of the bookstores?
Nancy : Everyone that works at The Strand is a book lover, so the recommendations you get come from everyone’s personal tastes coming together. Of course our employees take advantage of their employee discount to build out their own collections. Then they get to come to work and talk about their favorite books with other employees and customers. I think that’s what makes every indie special, that unique perspective that the booksellers bring. We also have a buying team, an events team, and a marketing team that all work together to make sure we’re giving our customers what they want and engaging in innovative partnerships to move the company forward.
Q6) Tell our readers here about the Book by the Foot Concept which Strand came up with. How does it work?
Nancy : Books by the Foot was a department I founded in the 80s! The concept is pretty simple: tell us how many feet of books you want and we’ll curate a collection suited to your tastes. You can pick a book color, a genre, or a style of book and our team will put together a custom library for you. It can be anything from one foot of books as a gift to a friend or outfitting an entire home library or an office building. We also curate books for major film and TV shoots, with Saturday Night Live being one of our biggest repeat clients.
Q7) Can you shed some light on The Author’s Bookshelf? How do you decide which author’s recommendation to include?
Nancy : The Author’s Bookshelf is a program where we work with an author, usually someone with a new release, to develop a comprehensive reading list that we promote together. It’s a great way to connect more deeply with these authors and get a sense of where they draw inspiration as writers. We’ve done collections with everyone from Kevin Kwan, to Carmen Maria Machado, to Erin Morgenstern.
Q8) Few days ago I came across an article from The New York Times. It had a picture of a family in which both parents were reading books while their daughter was curled up on the next couch — engrossed in her MacBook. Should it matter that we read books in the form of a paperback or feel the history of a dated cloth edition in our hands? How do you view the role of technology and the web as the world of publishing continues to rapidly change?
Nancy : I always get asked about the “threat” of technology to the book selling world, but at the end of the day there is something so special about holding a book in your hands. I grew up here at The Strand and the smell of a book is unlike anything else in the world. Study after study has proven that reading a printed book helps with information retention. Regardless, I love to see anyone reading, even if it’s an e-book or an audio book. As a business, we use technology to build our communities and connect with our customers. Social media and the web has allowed us to tap into this global network of book lovers on a mass scale. We ship globally and have people all around the world sharing their love of printed books on our social media channels, so I’ve never seen technology as a barrier but instead a tool for us to grow our business. Especially now with the pandemic, we’ve had to lean into our digital capabilities and really rethink the way we approach ecommerce.
Q9) In an interview with Bookselling This Week, former LA based author, Luis Rodriguez said that books saved his life. As a bookseller, how have you witnessed books changing people’s lives? How important do you think bookstores are today? Do they matter to the community?
Nancy : My entire life has been built on books. The Strand has been in my family for three generations, so I quite literally grew up between stacks of books. With 93 years of history and a location in the heart of the greatest city in the world, I see the way books change people’s lives every day. From the students coming here to learn to the collectors coming to the Rare Book Room to find a rare item, people come here because they’re looking for something. Everyone is searching for that little treasure that will make a difference to them. In addition, many prominent artists have been inspired by The Strand. Patti Smith, Mary Gaitskill and others have worked here at one time or another. We’ve been mentioned in books like Dash & Lily’s Book of Dares, The Starless Sea, Just Kids, and Bad Behavior. I’m proud to say we’ve had an impact on people from all walks of life.
Q10) If you could expand your space infinitely, what would you add?
Nancy : We actually opened a new location in the Upper West Side called The Strand at Columbus Ave.
It’s a smaller space but it’s absolutely beautiful. The downstairs features an homage to space travel in the downstairs because it’s so near the Planetarium. Our main store is notoriously huge and there’s a reason one of our popular taglines is “Lost in the Stacks!” But I always had a dream of adding a coffee shop and a bar called “Fred’s Bar,” in honor of my father. There are so many creative literary things you could do; I’d feature things like Hemingway’s daiquiri and madeleines from Proust’s In Search Of Lost Time. We never quite got around to it but in the future I’d like to make that happen.
Q11) What’s the book you want to bring back into print?
Nancy : The Sot-Weed Factor by John Barth. It’s such a fantastic book, marking the beginning of his postmodernist approach to fiction. I wrote an essay on how overlooked it is as a modern classic and stand by that firmly to this day. I have also always wanted someone to print a complete collection of facsimiles of classical works in the form of original manuscripts complete with any handwritten notations for old and contemporary writers.
Q12) Do you have favorite books and authors, or a genre that you’d like to share? What are your favorite books to consistently recommend to customers?
Nancy : Personally, I love memoirs, especially those about strong and interesting women. Sontag by Benjamin Moser is a recent Pulitzer prize read that I absolutely fell in love with.
I also enjoyed Shoe Dog about Nike’s Phil Knight and Me by Elton John. The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion is also an all-time favorite of mine. I also am a huge proponent of the classics. One can never get enough Austen, Twain or Dickens. But above all I encourage everyone to go on their own reading journey. There truly is a book out there for everyone.
Q13) When you saw that the coronavirus was spreading quickly, were you worried about what was going to happen to the bookstore?
Nancy : It’s been the toughest challenge we’ve ever faced and it has changed our business forever. New York was the center of the pandemic and it’s thrown the entire city for a loop. We had to shut down operations completely for a month and then try to reinvigorate sales via our website. With no tourism, no instore events, people staying home, and people leaving the city in droves business is really hurting. This is now the new normal, so we’re all thinking of creative ways to encourage customers to come visit us in person and shop with us online. It’s painful to see how empty the store is and all I can do is hope that we’ll be able to bounce back. We are reaching out to the community for support by encouraging sales. We will not give up without a fight.
Q14) So many individuals are hurrying to order books on Amazon, but what can you speak to about how essential independent bookstores are in comparison to huge conglomerates? How can brick-and-mortar bookshops cope with the competition from fast-growing e-books and achieve sustainable growth?
Nancy : Local, independent businesses are the heart of our community. New York would not be New York if it weren’t for our bodegas, local restaurants, museums, and bookstores. Indies are part of our culture and reflect our local community in a way that a huge conglomerate just can’t. Times are tough and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t worried. All I can do is encourage people to support the businesses they want to make sure are around next year, because local businesses like mine don’t have the resources of a giant corporation to survive much longer. But we have curated collections, staff that love books and a strong community spirit.
Q15) Any challenges or surprises you’ve encountered in your years of experience in bookselling? What’s the craziest situation you’ve ever had to deal with in the store?
Nancy: As a business owner every day is a challenge, especially now. Because we’re in the heart of New York City every day is crazy! But the store really has seen so much. From the depression, two world wars, 9/11 to Hurricane Harvey and now the pandemic — The Strand has stood the test of time. But with the pandemic things quite literally changed on a dime and no business could have been prepared for what has happened. Every business was really left to figure out how to try and survive. We’re relying on our holiday sales to stay afloat, so I’m hoping people start their holiday shopping early and continue to support us through the holidays and beyond. My dream is to continue my family’s legacy and keep the Strand in business for as long as I possibly can, and maybe even pass it on to my children.
Q16) Any trends or predictions for the bookselling industry? Are there any plans for The Strand’s future that you would like to share with our readers here?
Nancy : Everything is so unpredictable now. Right now we’re focusing on the holidays and helping our customers with gifting ideas. We’re encouraging people to buy gift cards and enroll in our subscription box that comes in nine different genres. We want people to use the Books by the Foot team to gift curated collections to friends and family. And we want people to support and represent us with our Strand beanies, totes, and clothing. We’re relying on the community to keep shopping and supporting us so we can keep our love for the printed word going for years to come.
Thank you all for reading and a big thanks to Nancy Bass Wyden for collaborating in today’s post!
If any of my readers here , wish to know more about the bookstore and their work. Do open the links mentioned below . They have a wonderful informative , articulated and well-curated website.
Website : https://www.strandbooks.com/
Facebook : https://www.facebook.com/strandbookstore/
Instagram : https://www.instagram.com/strandbookstore/
Twitter : https://twitter.com/strandbookstore
Medium : https://medium.com/@strandbookstore