Strand: More Than a Bookstore

Like so many other book lovers, my breath caught when I heard of the passing of Fred Bass. Strand is a special place for me, and it was sad news.

When you live in a big city, especially one like New York, it’s always a good idea to have a place or two of your own, to paraphrase my girl Virginia Woolf. Strand was one of those places for me. Though I lived uptown in Morningside Heights, and Strand was all the way downtown in Union Square, I often made the trip on a whim or when it wasn’t convenient for me, for the simple fact that Strand was a survival tool for me.

It was not my first time living in Manhattan, but the last time I lived there, I was in my early 20s. And as Joan Didion once famously said in her essay “Goodbye To All That,” “…It is less often said that New York is also, at least for those of us who came there from somewhere else, a city only for the very young.” Nearly 10 years later, in my early 30s, while in an MFA program, the city grated on me: the dirtiness, the unfriendliness, the constant rush, the noise—I couldn’t wait to leave. Having lived for nearly 5 years down South before moving back North, I had serious culture shock, and never quite got used to the city again. Whenever it started to get too bad, I would hop a subway to Strand, where I could push through the crowds to the lower floor and look at all the ARCs they had and peruse the literary nonfiction. Or I would head upstairs, to the YA and children’s sections, in search of something for my nephew. Later, I would look in the parenting section for books on infertility, becoming a mother through assisted reproduction, and eventually, books on pregnancy and parenting. Or I would make a beeline to the side of the store, where I could sift through all the cool socks, or get a new journal or 7-year-pen. And of course, those totes. Touristy, yes—but damn, they were so darn cute.

The first time I went to Strand was a few months into my MFA program. My aunt hadn’t been doing well (she had been diagnosed with Stage IV ovarian cancer a year and a half earlier), and I was supposed to meet a new friend for coffee downtown. I stopped at Strand to kill some time, and ended up with a bag full of books, happily surprised at the cheap prices. Stepping onto the sidewalk, I took out my phone to see if my friend had texted, and saw that I had a bunch of missed calls from my dad. Long story short, my aunt had been taken to the hospital because of pain, and things had gotten a lot worse. Sobbing, my dad said, “Jaime, it’s the beginning of the end.”

I didn’t go back to Strand for months after that.

When I finally did go back that day lingered in the back of my head, and to this day I think of my aunt every time I go there. But Strand became a sort of refuge for me. On a super hot day, I’d step into Strand, and though it would likely only be marginally cooler, at least I was out of the sun. On blustery cold Manhattan days, the store was nice and toasty, and I’d take my coat off as I lost myself in the stacks, scanning the spines of the books. If I was having a bad day, the thought of trekking all the way down to Union Square exhausted me, but I would somehow force myself to get to the subway station. If I could just get on the subway, it would be okay. Sometimes I’d treat myself to a coffee from The Bean, across the street. Their dirty chai was awesome.

It wasn’t all bad. I went to a reading of my favorite authors and admired physicians, Atul Gawande, and met one of my childhood crushes, Corey Feldman, at Strand. I once won a Strand contest, and when I went to pick up my prize, got to meet and hold Gizzy (see her Instagram below). I had countless conversations with strangers that one can only have in Manhattan (if you’ve lived there, you know what I mean) while browsing the stacks. I always, always felt better leaving Strand than when I went in.

During the last few months that I lived in Manhattan, I was miserable. I knew my time with the city was ending, and for my own physical and mental health, I had to leave. Many times I’d get an iced coffee and sit in the summer sun as it was setting, on a bench outside The Bean, facing the book carts of Strand, people-watching, mired in my sadness and frustration. One moment in particular stands out to me. I was on the phone with my grandparents, trying not to cry, swallowing the lump in my throat, wondering if things would get better. My grandfather kept telling me that it would be all right, that I would be moving soon, and to keep my chin up. My iced coffee cup dripped water on my bare leg, and all I could do was nod, keeping my eyes on the striped Strand totes in the windows, the orange glare from the sunset making me squint.

My grandfather was right, of course. When I lost him a few months after that, it is that day that I often come back to in my memories. It is these visceral moments that have made Strand a part of my being. It isn’t just a bookstore to me; it contains all of the bodily senses, houses memories of loved ones, and was a panacea for my depression. In a city that stopped feeling like home for me, Strand was my place. While I don’t live in Manhattan any more, every time I visit, I make sure to stop at Strand. I think it will always, on some level, be my place. And I’m okay with that.

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