New York’s Strand Bookstore, on Broadway, is a veritable treasure trove for the bibliophile. Boasting “18 miles of books” over its three and a half floors, and numbering amongst its alumni Patti Smith and Paul Verlaine, it is the epitome of East Village intellectual cool.
But for a broke bibliophile like me, the pavement/sidewalk outside is where I hunt, patiently working my way through rack upon rack of goodies ranging in price from 48 cents to $3. Bliss.
Ever since I spent every Saturday afternoon of my childhood at a used book stall in Altrincham Indoor Market, I’ve always loved second-hand books. There’s something about the feel, the smell, the history; traces of other readers, other lives. They have a past, bearing scars and secrets. My Susan Sontag Reader has a biroed shopping list inside the back cover: 10 black bin bags. And I like seeing underlinings, notes in the margin, responses from other minds. Towards the end of Kathy Acker’s copy of Accordion Crimes by Annie Proulx, I found a paragraph Acker had edited/rewritten in her distinctive hand. Inside a copy of Oscar Moore’s A Matter of Life and Sex I found a single sheet of toilet paper scrawled with an offer of sex, passed, undoubtedly, at one time, beneath a toilet cubicle wall and then kept, treasured, inside a novel that is its spiritual home. A review copy of B. S. Johnson’s 1969 book-in-a-box The Unfortunates came replete with the press release and typewritten letter to the reviewer. Books are for life, not just for Christmas.
So the heaving racks outside the Strand make me swoon, and it’s here I start browsing, and never ever fail to fill my basket with a stack of wonders and curios. The anticipation of what I might unearth is palpable, and as I make my way from one rack to another, plucking out gems and filling my basket, the excitement doesn’t diminish. Whatever else I might get up to whilst visiting New York the thing I look forward to and enjoy the most is whiling away an afternoon at this adorable bookshop, snuffling for truffles.
Almost without exception, the person at the checkout will pause to take in a particular find and comment on how lucky I’ve been to find that for $1.
The Strand Bookstore, 828 Broadway, New York 1003-480 USA
(212) 473 1452; strandbooks.com
Jonathan Kemp is the London-based author of London Triptych and 26