A Life among Books

| 13 Sep 2018 | 12:46

By Harvey Cohen

How does it feel to be surrounded by 23 miles of books every day?

And to have customers that have included Mick Jagger, Richard Geer, Lee Strasberg, Yoko Ono, Benicio del Toro, Ben Stiller, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Diane Keaton?

And what’s it like to have participated in the filming of feature films like “Absolutely Fabulous,” “Julia and Julia,” “Unfaithful” and “Six Degrees of Separation”?

If you are Nancy Bass Wyden, it all feels like just another day at work in Manhattan at your bookstore. That’s because Wyden is now the third generation of the Bass family to own and manage Strand Books.

Wyden, who started working at the store at the age of 17 where she answered phones, sharpened pencils and managed the book kiosks, recently took over from her father Fred, who died last January. She always knew the store would be a part of her life and she says “coming to the store as a little girl picking out books, I felt like a princess. It was magical.”

The store, which has become a world-famous icon, was founded by her grandfather in 1927 on fourth Avenue in Greenwich Village. Strand Books was one of 48 book stores that saturated the local neighborhood then known as “Book Row.”

Today, of those original 48 stores in the “Book Row” neighborhood, only Strand Books survives. The other having moved to find cheaper rents or sadly just gone out of business.

But Strand Books survives and thrives with an average of 5,000 customers a day, growing to 9,000 a day around the holiday season. In 2006, one anonymous buyer purchased a second folio Shakespeare dating back to 1632. The purchase price was $100,000.

The store now has over 200 employees who all must pass a literary test (sidebar). And there are over 2.5 million books in the store, leading to the store’s famous slogan “18,000 miles of books.”

The slogan itself has an interesting history. It was first used by the columnist George Will back in 1970 during an interview about New York. The city was going through a rough period and Will proclaimed the store as “8 miles of books and the only thing worth saving in New York.”

Then in 1997 it became the store’s official slogan and the number has been twice raised, first to 16 miles and then again later to 18 miles. The store now actually has over 23 miles of books but the slogan remains at 18 miles.

Every year, there are more than 400 events at the store, including over 200 events for children. One of the more interesting events is “Read Dating.” It’s a combination of speed dating and literary high culture. It runs on three nights — one M4W + W4M, one M4M and the third W4W.

Each participant wears a name tag that includes their favorite book. They move from one dating prospect to another and spend about six minutes at each stop discussing literature. Many leave together, stay in touch and have begun serious relationships. One man, very clearly stating his intentions, chose to put the book “The Joy of Sex” along with his name on his tag. He left all alone.

The store now also sells items such as socks and its well-known tote bags. There are over 100 versions of the tote bag, all designed by store employees, and include everythig from inspirational sayings to tributes to Michelle Obama and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. One of the top selling pairs of socks says, “Make America Read Again.”

Wyden, who was born in Queens and grew up in Westchester, always dreamed of moving to Manhattan. She lives nearby in Greenwich Village, and shares a home with her husband Ron, a U.S. Senator, in Oregon. They actually met in a bookstore in Oregon.

Wyden is a true Manhattanite, enjoying the food, culture and intellectual environment, loving the restaurants, theaters other stimulating places. Her favorites include the Gotham Bar and Grill, the Roundabout Theater and jazz performances.

Perhaps her favorite spot is Washington Square Park, where she is in the process of dedicating a bench to her father. She admits to a guilty pleasure of getting foot massages on Eighth Avenue. So one could easily say, she loves Manhattan from head to toe.