In the depths of our pandemic winter, when almost everything else was closed, when the city itself felt shut, the Strand miraculously reopened. For the first time, it became a regular appointment in my life. Every Saturday afternoon. And for the first time, you had to queue to get in. Queuing to enter a bookshop. Making an appointment with books. Waiting to be near them, to greet them and handle them. You had to go to them; they would not come to you.
I am no bibliomaniac – I don’t fondle folios in my private hours. Nothing wrong with that, of course…. I do admit to liking the smell of books but I’m no great fetishist. Once inside, however, I have to admit things felt different. Welcome to the ark, the shop seemed to say, the survivors’ palace of bookish pleasures. There were many fewer people because this wasn’t Old New York, but Pandemic City. Admission, once a breeze, was now precious. No more the urban crush, but a masked few and a hushed occasion.
The shop’s recommendation tables were still there, of course, decked out with the usual just-ins, must-reads and latest tricks. Including those titles you’ve seen “all over the internet.” How to fix the world – and yourself – now. It struck me how they mirrored the oppressive locality of the pandemic. You can’t go anywhere anymore, there is only the reckoning of the here and now. There is only your apartment on your street. And this is what you should be reading in it. By yourself.
I drifted past this ocean of yearning and striving into a series of darker alleyways instead. Classics, history and literature. Books from and about every part of the world, and every epoch. The ground shifted under me. I was inside an encyclopedia, but had the unmistakable sense of motion. I couldn’t see out of these aisles but I could, for the first time in months, glimpse the world. Translations make you travel.
Some bookshops are garrisons. Provincial fortifications. These are the books you need to be a citizen of Here – and quite possibly no place else. But New York is not a college town. A great book shop in a great city must be public and universal, not local or partisan. It must be a tower of babel and a compendium of time and place – not a set of prayer books for the faithful or directions for getting from A to B. It must offer you everything and recommend nothing.
While its upstairs tables groaned under the weight of Read This Now, the Strand’s classics lurked in the background, biding their time, not really caring about the people around them. Perhaps you can’t judge a book by its cover, but you can judge a bookshop – and a town – by its classics. If you can find an Arabian Nights for a fiver or get a dollar Dashiell Hammett, you dwell in the happy kingdom of Signets, Bantams and Penguins – a place where it’s still possible to understand the world. The Strand remains one of these places.
It’s also a shop that remembers its past.
I was recently there with a friend, a first-time visitor, and wanted to show her the Psychology section, gothically sequestered in a basement corner. I’ve been writing about Freud, and camping out in the section. It is gloriously outmoded. By which I mean it comprises a potted history of the Freudian corpus, both original works and commentaries, winding back several psychoanalytic decades. The selection poses witty puzzles of time, money and fashion. Who in 2021, for example, wants to spend $50 on a two-volume set of The Collected Papers of Otto Fenichel?
But such obscurity is the beauty of the section. A great bookshop can never be an outpost of academic emergencies. It is inestimably wiser, more languid, more improbable in its collection of titles. It’s generously, even cynically aware of the ironies of time. Like Borges’ library, those titles may reflect some secret divine logic or simply the accumulation of infinite accidents. It’s impossible to tell. It certainly knows not to purge everything not just-published. And it inevitably has something of the library about it – or it isn’t a real bookshop at all.
I had discovered the Psychology section in the winter, happened on the Fenichel, and scratched down some notes in pencil. I didn’t buy the set. But what a bookshop does, which a library cannot do, is suggest that you should indeed buy this old book. That the unfashionable remain current. That you might want to buy something dusty with your 2021 money and delight in it. This is the message of the Strand’s subterranean Viennese shrine.
The final stop on our little tour is the singular Galleys section, located in an even more furtive basement corner. I love this section. It’s a kind of cosmic joke; time always bends there. A couple of dollars for uncorrected proofs of books that aren’t out yet, bundled onto a few packed shelves. Mass-produced, unpolished pulp in all its white-spined pre-publication glory – unlike the little starlets bruiting about on the tables upstairs.
The Galleys section was still there, but the galleys had stopped coming. They always have their pub dates stamped on them, and March 2020 was the date of the last arrivals before the great stoppage. As if Publishing Time had ceased. A snapshot of the haphazard fury of the book world, all these magnificent new works, almost none destined to be remembered. The Freud section could teach them a thing or two.
So the meaning of the Strand did change this winter, at least for me. The utopia of internet book-buying is precisely that: an activity without a place or an identity. A nowhere passion. You can purchase anytime, anywhere, but you can never go there. The Strand, by contrast, became monumental in the mind of a locked-down city-dweller, a fixed part of my life and a way to fly away from it.
James Delbourgo is a historian and writer who lives in New York City