Competition from tablets and ebooks have shaken the stability of many bookstores in New York and across the United States in the past few years. While a shift in the bookstore landscape started years earlier, with large chain booksellers forcing lesser-known independent stores out of business, the new digital shift is pushing those very chains, like Borders, into bankruptcy. Strand Book Store on Broadway, which first opened in 1927 and moved to its current location in the ’50s, stands as the sole survivor of what used to be New York’s legendary “Book Row,” which consisted of 48 bookstores that ran from Union Square down to Astor Place.
Occupying 55,000 square feet of space—it famously bills itself as “18 miles of books”— Strand stands as a “fiercely independent” family business. It’s currently run by the founder’s son, Fred Bass, who started working in his father’s store at the age of 13, and his daughter, Nancy Bass Wyden. In the early 1990s, the bookstore went online and customers can now browse its entire collection at strandbooks.com.
While tablets of all kind, from the Amazon Kindle to Barnes & Noble’s Nook and the Apple iPad, are making digital books accessible to people, Andrew V., who has worked as an operator at Strand for over a year and a half, noted that Strand stands apart from other sources. He said it maintains its strength due to its rare collections.
“I like to read classics and more obscure things that they might not carry on Kindle—they tend to carry more mass-market books,” he said.
Wyden, the founder’s granddaughter, has previously noted that serious collectors visit the store and that its collection is the envy of major libraries.
For the average shopper, Andrew noted that there are certain challenges that come with being an independent seller. “One of the biggest challenges is that a lot of people want to go to the bigger name bookstore because they’re most likely to carry a lot of things. A lot of times, we won’t deal with a certain publisher for some reason—we might not have an established relationship with them, for instance. So we might only get a few used copies [of a book] in, but it’s not something we’ve actually ordered.”
With the current economic climate, however, Strand’s low prices and carts of discounted books lining the sidewalks outside appeal to many.
“A lot of our stuff is used as well as new, but that’s also what is keeping us in business at the same time,” noted Andrew. “We have good prices. People who wind up coming here, when they do discover us and see our prices, it makes them inclined to come back again and again.”
While the store does not sell any kind of tablet, it has reaped profits from selling merchandise alongside the books, adding another element to the bookstore experience and spreading the family’s historic brand outside the building’s borders.
“We do sell a lot of merchandise, which is one of our hits—like the tote bag—and that’s helped us stand out,” Andrew says.
With five floors of books, Andrew points out that the store is also using gatherings of interested and passionate book lovers as a means of boosting revenue.
“Our events used to be free, but we’re starting to charge for them now. We ask that people contribute a minimum of $10, which goes toward a gift card they can use at the store. The events are also a way to encourage them to buy books at the event.”
And Wyden has previously stated, “Tourists love to go stores that they can’t find anywhere else. Customers always tell us they love shopping at Strand because it’s like a treasure hunt—you never know what you’re going to find. And because we’re part of New York City history.”
Tags: Andrew, Apple iPad, astor place, Barnes & Noble, Book Row, bookstores, ebooks, Fred Bass, Georgia Suter, iPad, Kindle, Nancy Bass Wyden, New York City, nook, Strand, Strand Book, Strand Book Store, Tourists, Union Square, Wyden
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