Stranded among books, literally

second take

Stranded among books, literally

The experience of being inside one of the largest secondhand bookshops in the world makes me feel, strangely, uncomfortable.

One immediate reason for this could be the obnoxious bookshop assistant I had the misfortune of asking for help, the other is the sight of literally hundreds of people foraging in the store, falling on books as if books were going out of style. It’s the only time I’m uncomfortable with my reading and book collecting addiction. Here you meet thousands like you, and it is not always a comfortable sight. And there’s nearly something shamelessly exhibitionist about this bookshop.

The bookshop, of course, is the Strand in New York on 12th street and Broadway. With 2.5 million books as its inventory, it is a staggering used bookstore: there are entire floors not open to the public, which act only as storehouses for hundreds of unopened boxes with books as yet not inventoried. Its owners, the Bass family, have often pointed out that it’s just possible that Strand’s staff may never even get to it, and that they may remain unopened forever.

Many of these boxes contain rare books that should go to their Rare Book floor, but may never see the light of day. What treasures are stored away in these boxes? Perhaps no one will ever know.

When I leave the bookshop, I always buy their T-shirt which says 18 miles of books. Ten years ago it used to be 8 miles of books. The books come everyday in the form of entire private libraries and estates that Strand acquires. Umberto Eco, the great bibliomane, has said this is his favourite bookstore in the world because he always finds something here that he has not seen or known of before. And this is true. That’s part of my scary experience here: I’m always coming upon books and writers I never knew existed.

That’s a common enough experience in large bookstores but what Eco meant, and what I am vouching for, is that these unheard of books that come your way are books you immediately feel you can’t do without. And you didn’t know they existed. Strand is so cluttered at times that even browsing can be a chore here instead of being a pleasure. It’s not a book hunt as much as a book riot. Here you don’t feel any of the cosy intimacy you associate with old bookstores.

It’s a cavern-like place, and you roam ravenously like a hungry zombie from shelf to shelf. It’s really quite defeating at times. You walk out with nothing at the end of it. There is so much to choose from, so what do you buy?

When you walk into the bookshop, it’s not bookshelves that you see first, but tables and tables of books on display: the best fiction, the best non-fiction, the store manager’s best picks — all of it on discount. Your confusion begins here. Should you browse at these tables (you see others attacking these tables as if it is all going to disappear in ten seconds) or walk in further and look at the books on the shelves? The shelves, you decide, and ignore the tables. But before you get to them, you’ll have to deal with the numerous carts of books on the way, all of whom seem just the books you want.

There have been times when I straighten up from these carts after an intense browsing session to realise that my time is up and I hadn’t even got to the bookshelves. A few blocks away from the Strand is the famous Union Square. And near it is Barnes and Noble, the super bookstore with five floors. This Union Square branch is housed in a nice, heritage-like old building. It’s a nice place to browse, but I seldom buy here. What I do is write down the names of the new and noteworthy books on fine display in their neat and orderly shelves and tables and then dash across to the Strand and buy them at half the price.

Strand is especially famous for its underground floor which houses reviewer’s copies. It works this way: book reviewers from all over the country turn in their review copy of a latest or recent release to Strand, which buys them at 25 per cent of the list price and sells it to you — the customer — for 50 per cent of the list price. This practice is frowned on by some in the book trade as unethical, but apparently it is not illegal. Reviewer’s copies are not in abundance, so you have to be fast and lucky to get to a new title before it is quickly snatched up.

Strand’s gigantic stock and book expertise is sought after by celebrities who simply hand over a check for a large amount and ask owner Nancy Bass Wyden and her team to assemble their private library for them. The bookstore also features in movies often as backdrop, and handpicked staff assemble authentic looking private and public libraries as props for films that feature books.

In my last two visits to this bookshop, I found myself skipping the first two floors entirely and heading straight for the Rare Books floor. Here everything is quiet and orderly. I never thought I’d actually be thankful for a used bookstore being neat, but Strand is one place where book chaos — always welcome otherwise — is too overwhelming. Here I browse at leisure, occasionally looking up to nod at others, as if in recognition that we — a community of book collectors — are a cut above the riff raff browsing downstairs.

The truth is I can seldom afford to buy most of the books here but I enjoy being among these first and rare editions. And I once made a find of sorts here which was not as expensive as it could have been: a signed edition of Umberto Eco’s The Mysterious Flame of Queen Leona. Any signed copy of an Eco book is scarce, so it was a nice little thing to come upon. Thus, out of the book-chaos of Strand, a delicate triumph.

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