When I lived in New York, I used to say there was nothing good below 59th Street. Above it, there’s Central Park, a marvel of trees and rocks, with paths to run and ice cream vendors and meadows to lie in and catch fireflies at night. There’s the whole of the Upper West Side, the Met, the Columbia University campus, the Museum of Natural History. Lincoln Centre, in all it’s glory. Below Columbus Circle, it’s all… Times Square, and being jostled by tourists and life-size cartoon characters begging for change, all the more terrifying when you realise there are five Elmos and one of them is blue. It’s Penn Station, confusing as hell no matter how long you’ve lived there, and grey scaffolding and bird shit and no air. That’s it – there are too many people and not enough air to go around. Everything below 59th Street is smog. Or tourists. Or some deeply unpleasant combination of the two. And if there’s nothing good below 59th Street, I may as well stay at home in Brooklyn.
This is what I used to say. But there’s one saving grace. One shining light breaking through the hazy black cloud of Manhattan’s lower half. It’s not the one good karaoke bar in Soho that’s the size of a shoebox and requires at least seven shots of liquid courage to tolerate. Nor the rooftop bar where you’re always underdressed and even the cheapest drinks empty your wallet. It’s eighteen miles of heaven, tucked neatly between the side of Union Square park and the 14th Street junction.
I’ve always loved bookstores. It’s the same love I have for books – it’s escapism, a haven; a safe, warm place where time doesn’t stop exactly, but it might as well. That old cliché of getting lost in the stacks is truer in The Strand than anywhere else. if you ran an eager hand over the shelves and travelled those eighteen miles of books, you could get lost. You could get lost in its corners and its alleyways, wander through the aisles and forget where you are or what time it is or how you only intended to pop in for a quick browse. You can wade through the uncharted waters of forgotten lore in its basement, climb the neatly trimmed hedges of secondhand shelves and arm yourself with the knowledge that there will always be more.
It’s not that I’ve never found a book in there I didn’t like, but I’ve never found a book I like that isn’t there. Working in midtown, where that tourist-heavy smog is thicker and more deafening than anywhere else, The Strand was my home away from home away from home. Before switching to the L train at Union Square on my way back to Brooklyn from my desk job on the sixth floor of a stuffy and poorly air-conditioned office building, I would hop off the subway and stop in for a “quick browse”. As if a quick browse in a bookstore that boasts eighteen miles of books is something I would ever be capable of. Two hours later I would find myself in a previously undiscovered corner, arms laden with heavy tomes I had no money to buy yet no desire to part with. Each time, it would be at least another hour before I could decide which ones I could bear to replace to their shelves. I would leave the store with one, maybe two books to add to my collection. The thought of how I would get them all back to England isn’t one I spent too much time on. The fact that I invested in an e-reader for that very reason was another slice of logic I pushed out of my mind. The Strand has a way of doing that – making you forget that books are beginning to be made redundant by their less expensive, more convenient, and environmentally friendly electronic counterparts. It makes being a book collector feel almost like a cult: as if you could ever stop.
It was in The Strand where I first discovered a love for comic books, devouring everything by Mark Millar on one torrential afternoon where the flood warnings made it simpler to stay indoors. Weeks later, I found a one-off Joss Whedon graphic novel about a vampire slayer that isn’t Buffy. Upon investigating the ‘Staff Picks’ section one day I immediately felt that the Strand employees were people I could be great friends with. Funny, that – how someone’s literary choices tend to be so revealing. It’s a question I always ask when getting to know someone. What’s your favourite book? In the most cliché sense, it is the lingerie of the mind, a question I must know the answer to before I invest too much in the getting-to-know-you conversation. The most exciting people can never pick just one.
I used to say there was nothing good below 59th street. Manhattan is a lonely place filled with a lot of people. At least, in The Strand, you’re never completely alone.
[Photo © James and Karla Murray]