Friday, July 11, 2008

Fuck the Strand

It's not exactly news that New York is full of overrated retail establishments. Everyone has a favorite "only in New York" store that really purveys something you can find in your own place of residence or online. I've heard out-of-towners wax poetic about vegan food, chess sets, jewelry, you name it. All of these things, of course, are best in New York, always at one particular place.

When it comes to books, people who don't know any better crow on about The Strand and its eighteen miles of books. The Strand has done what many successful independent retailers have done: market itself like mad to the point at which it's a corporate entity like any other. I see idiots on the street with Strand bags all the time. Look at me, these bags, almost certainly made in China, announce: I eschew the faceless corporate monsters that are Barnes and Noble and Borders in favor of this kinder, gentler independent bookstore! And I have a Strand tote bag, pint glass, hoodie, and frisbee, and I bought my obnoxious cooler-than-thou baby a Strand bib so that he'll be the talk of Williamsburg. These purchases reflect my lifestyle! Needless to say, such people should be gassed.

All of this might be tolerable if The Strand were actually a good book store. And it is if you want a hardcover copy of a mainstream novel. Need a copy of The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana? They have four. Fancy dipping into one of William F. Buckley's literary efforts? They have a shelf. Want a hardcover copy of DeLillo's Underworld? They go for $9--twice as much as I paid for the same book, shipping included, on the Amazon marketplace.

But if you'd like to buy a copy of one of John Crowley's masterful Ægypt novels, you're out of luck. They do have a few copies of Endless Things, the fourth book in the cycle, but that's only because it came out late last year. The first three novels in the series, which have recently been reissued in paperback, are nowhere to be found at The Strand. Of the ten Crowley titles on The Strand's web site they're out of half. Some highbrow book store.

But if you ask any self-proclaimed bohemian literatus in the Village where to go for hard-to-find books, he'll point at the logo on his T-shirt and send you to The Strand, a mecca of all things conventional and corporate.

This is, of course, a great way to make a shitload of money: trade on your brand name to sell off lousy books at inflated prices. That the store is cramped, mobbed, and difficult to get around seems not to matter.

But the most objectionable facet of The Strand's miserable existence is its supreme hubris. The place considers itself an institution, and the utter contempt its employees have for people who buy and sell books is palpable. Case in point: the guy who owned the place during its early years was dead-set against installing air-conditioning in the building, so those who entered the premises suffered until the guy died. And why not? It's The Strand--everyone the world over has heard about it, and you're lucky to get to shop there.

Clearly today the employees were in a throwback kind of mood, because they made all of us who were selling books wait outside, on the sidewalk in the midday sun as they went about their business in the indoor air-conditiong. It's 85 Fahrenheit in New York today, and I took the experience as a big Fuck you! from The Strand--hardly the first time this sentiment has been expressed by the place. According to them, of course, I should have been beside myself with glee that I was being allowed to befoul their book counter with my presence.

So to The Strand I say this: you're a lousy book store staffed by a bunch of nasty poseurs. No one ought to shop at your Wal-Mart of Stephen King overstocks, and I'm never going to sell you any books again.

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