Strand Out: How One of New York City’s Oldest Independent Bookstores Thrives in a Changing Marketplace

One of the best places in New York City for bookworms    Photo courtesy of Strand Book Store

One of the best places in New York City for bookworms

Photo courtesy of Strand Book Store

By Lindsey Wojcik

Just days after I walked across the stage to receive the journalism degree I coveted for years, I packed a van and drove 11 hours and nearly 800 miles from Metro Detroit to New York City with two friends. We were on a mission: find an affordable neighborhood in the city to call home come fall and gauge employment opportunities.  

I wanted an editorial career just as badly as I wanted to become a New Yorker, so I sought advice from the internship director and food editor at the weekly alternative newspaper I interned at my senior year, who was also a decade-long former New Yorker. “If you’re looking for work, you can always try the Strand Book Store. I worked there for years when things didn’t pan out,” he said.

Ten weeks before the move, while I was in the city hunting for an apartment, I entered Strand for the first time to apply for a job. The application was simple enough. Then, I noticed a note that passing the attached literary test was required. I did not pass.

Aaron Jackson did pass the test, and he is now the director of visual merchandising for one of New York City’s oldest independent bookstores. Jackson spoke to me about the importance of a knowledgeable staff and how the Strand competes in a changing digital retail landscape.

Aaron Jackson    Photo courtesy of Strand Book Store

Aaron Jackson

Photo courtesy of Strand Book Store

LW: Strand Book Store is a New York institution with a long, storied past. Tell us about the history of the store and how it has evolved.

AJ: The store was founded in 1927 by Ben Bass on what was known as Book Row, on New York City’s Fourth Avenue. When he was 13 years old, Ben’s son, Fred, started working in the store with him. In 1957, Fred moved the store to its current location on the corner of 12th and Broadway. Fred’s daughter, Nancy, joined the Strand team at 25 years old and today they co-own the store. Currently, the store has an inventory of more than 2.5 million new, used, and rare books, as well as tote bags and other merchandise. We have our primary location on the corner of 12th Street and Broadway, as well as two other shops in New York: one shop inside of the Club Monaco on 21st Street and Fifth Avenue and a kiosk at the southern edge of Central Park on 60th Street and Fifth Avenue.

LW: Many independent bookstores are struggling to survive digital age of online retailers, e-books and big-box retailers. What sets Strand apart from this competition and how is the store adapting to this change?

AJ: I think one thing that sets us apart is our customers, who are fiercely loyal to our store and always come to us before they go anywhere else. As far as adaptation, we are lucky to have owners and a general manager who really let us spread our wings and try new ideas and concepts. Their trust allowed me to create my Banned Books display, which is one of the most successful displays in the store and one of my favorites as well. We embraced the Internet early on and have a substation e-retail operation, so that helps us connect with customers in and out of the actual store.

Lindsey Wojcik's favorite spot in Strand    Photo courtesy of the author

Lindsey Wojcik's favorite spot in Strand

Photo courtesy of the author

LW: What led you to Strand and what is your role at the store?

AJ: When I first moved to the New York City area as a young writer, I would shop in Strand’s poetry section and just generally soak up the atmosphere that can be felt in the store. Having known that this was the place for books, I made a point of coming to the store every chance I got. When I moved back to New York City after living in Los Angeles, I knew I had to work here.

I am the manager who is in charge of the tables and displays, which includes restocking and coordinating how the books and merchandise look in their respective locations in the store. I got my start in books at Barnes & Noble in Los Angeles and came to the Strand after a brief stint working with the homeless population of Staten Island.

LW: What role does visual merchandising play in Strand's success?

AJ: The staff for this department is made up of 12 outstanding employees and one other manager, who is terrific. They make sure everything looks great. We work with both the book and merchandise buyers to place the product they bring in. We also work closely with our amazing design team to achieve a nearly perfect aesthetic throughout the store. Our goal is to maintain and continue the vision the Bass family has put together. With so much wonderful product in such an amazing building our jobs can be a lot of fun.

Miles and miles of books...    Photo courtesy of Strand Book Store

Miles and miles of books...

Photo courtesy of Strand Book Store

LW: Strand has 18 miles and counting of books. Can you clue us in on a department or section of the store that you would consider a hidden gem—one that customers absolutely must see?

AJ: I am biased, but I believe we have the best poetry department in New York City, both in volume and selection. We also have some amazing rare poetry titles as well. I remember once seeing a first edition of Howl signed by Ginsberg and Carl Solomon. Our poetry table consists of over 150 different titles, and our spine poetry social media campaign in April was a blast to be a part of. We also have poets as part of our fantastic events program. Poets are very loved at the Strand.

LW: I know from personal experience that you take hiring staff very seriously. What things do you look for when adding people to the Strand family?

AJ: Our employees are well read and truly love books. It is true that they take a quiz to make sure they are readers upon filling out their application. We want our customers to know that when they ask for a recommendation, they are asking somebody who knows their stuff. As a store, we all have a wide variety of interests and we share those interests with each other. So if you ask an employee for a dog book or a poetry recommendation, you might get pointed in my direction.

Why window show when you can street browse?    Photo courtesy of Strand Book Store

Why window show when you can street browse?

Photo courtesy of Strand Book Store

LW: How is Strand involved with the local community?

AJ: As I mentioned, we have a fantastic events program. Not only does the store host author book signings, there are also literary speed dating nights, b’nai mitzvahs, and even weddings in our Rare Book Room. Last year we got to do a pop-up store in the thrift shop at Sloan Kettering Memorial Hospital, which was a lot of fun and supported a great cause. We have also had artists come and do murals on our walls or design some of our totes. Most recently, Steve ESPO Powers did work both on the interior and exterior of the store. Local authors will stop in to sign copies of their stock or just to say hello. We do our best to be an outlet for the literary arts in our corner of the city.

LW: What are you reading right now, and what's your staff pick selection?

AJ: Right now I am reading The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss. It’s not something I would normally read, but so many of my co-workers love it that I figured I would give it a try. I am really enjoying it! My staff picks consist of poetry and dog books, and a personal goal of mine is to read every book John Steinbeck has written—I think I am about two-thirds of the way there. The rest of my staff picks can be found here.

LW: Name one random fact about Strand.

AJ: The head of our design department regularly brings her awesome dog, Gizmo, into our offices and Gizmo is loved by the entire staff!

To learn more about Strand, visit the official website, like its Facebook page, or follow the book store on Twitter @strandbookstore

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