Strand Books, New York City
by Devon Ellington
I considered calling this “Ode to Strand Books”. It would be appropriate to pen a sonnet singing this store’s praises, but since I can’t write sonnets, I’m writing an essay instead.
If you’re ever in New York, there’s an independent bookstore you MUST visit — Strand Books, at 828 Broadway, on the corner of Broadway and 12th Street. It is a bibliophile’s heaven, originally opened in 1927 on Fourth Avenue, part of the wonderful Book Row (that no longer exists, unfortunately).
Strand is now run by the granddaughter of the original owner, and has over 2.5 million books between its location on Broadway and 12th, and the kiosk near Central Park, at 5th Avenue and 60th Street. They also do business via their website — thank goodness, since I no longer live in New York. They sell both new and used books, handle some wonderful rare books, and hold an exciting calendar of events.
I became a customer of Strand’s back in 1981, when I first started attending NYU. It was like walking into paradise, a feeling I still get every time I walk into the store. The smell of the books, the sheer quantity of shelving and contents. I might walk in there thinking I know what I want, but I leave carrying treasures I didn’t know I needed.
The further I grew in my writing career, the more I needed Strand, especially for research. They could help me find essays, printed diaries, information on steam trains or costume or anything I needed. I could dig into the archives at libraries, historical societies, and special collections, and the Strand would help me hunt down books I needed to own during the writing of a particular piece. Those books then went into my personal research library, and I find myself turning to them time and time again. Sometimes they’ll even come up with something not on my list, but that pertains to a project and ask me if I want it (the answer is usually yes).
The staff both loves books and is knowledgeable about them. They’re happy to help you hunt for something, but equally happy to let you browse the tall shelves — for hours. I went through a period where I could only order by mail, because if I actually walked through the doors — well, let’s just say they had to help me carry the bags of books out the door and load them into the cab with me!
Now that I live on Cape Cod, I still turn to them first when I’m hunting down research books for the myriad of projects I work on. Yes, I frequent the Cape’s many independent book stores (you’ll be meeting some of them on this blog in the coming months). But I also count on Strand. Even when I’m not sure exactly what I’m looking for, or if I’ve forgotten a title or an author, they can interpret vague ramblings and find what I need. Their shipping costs are reasonable, and they are efficient — as well as being friendly and helpful.
They are everything that is best about a traditional book store, while embracing technological needs.
In MY book, Strand Books equals perfection.
First and Last Books of the Year
by Devon Ellington
I always make a big deal about the first and last book of every year. I started doing this in my teens — I’m not really sure why. Choosing whatever book I wanted as the last book of a year, and choosing the first book to read in a new year feels meaningful to me.
Often, I will note on the flyleaf, where I write my name and the year I bought/read the book, if it is “the” book for December 31 or January 1.
The year I lived in Seattle, where I was so unhappy, I chose the “last” book of the year that still has significance in my life: Gail Fairfield’s CHOICE CENTERED TAROT. It’s one of the best tarot books out there (along with Janina Renee’s EVERY DAY TAROT and Rachel Pollock’s books on the Major and Minor Arcanas). That book not only had significance in the way I ended/started my year, but in the direction my life would take from that unhappiness.
I was wandering around Pike Place Market on New Year’s Eve, trying to talk myself out of being entirely miserable and hopeless. I don’t remember the name of the store in which I found it, but I remember seeing the title and the cover and feeling the significance: I wanted more choices. That particular book was a catalyst for me.
Both the last book of 2013 and the first book of 2014 were fiction, and both were gifts from a friend. The last book I read in 2013 was Val McDermid’s CROSS AND BURN, a breath-taking crime novel that doesn’t let any of the characters off the hook easily. My first book of 2014 was Robert Galbraith’s THE CUCKOO’S CALLING, another crime novel, and another one I enjoyed very much. (Of course, we now know that Robert Galbraith is a pseudonym for JK Rowling, giving her the freedom to try something new — it worked).
My second-to-last novel was Kim Edwards’s THE LAKE OF DREAMS — very different from the above, and quite lovely. She’s best-known for THE MEMORY KEEPER’S DAUGHTER, which I have not yet read, but now intend so to do. She doesn’t follow formula; she follows the growth of her characters. It was interesting to read this, as a writer, and see how being a literary fiction writer instead of a genre writer gave her a freedom with the organic character development she would not have otherwise had. Her protagonist, in particular, would have been forced into different choices by the genre if she’d been limited by genre. It showed the best of the freedom of the possibilities of literary fiction, without any of the pretensions.
I also started reading, on the first of January, ADAM BEDE, by George Eliot (aka Mary Ann Evans). A Victorian novelist who broke convention by living with her lover, this book is set in the late 1700s. I’d decided that I wanted to re-read Eliot over the winter, and catch up on the novels of hers I hadn’t previously read — I’ve only read THE MILL ON THE FLOSS and MIDDLEMARCH. So I read a biography of Eliot, and now I’m starting to read her novels in the order written. I’m fortunate because my grandmother gave me a complete set of Eliot novels published in 1887. I am turning the pages carefully, reading them slowly, savoring them.
A few paragraphs in the Eliot novel set me on a research course for what I think will be a new play. It’s amazing how the smallest anecdote can set off a spark of creativity.
First and last — significant, tone-setters for the year, even if we don’t see the patterns for awhile.
What was your final book of 2013? What will be your first book of 2014?