News / USA

US Bookstore Survives Changes in Publishing Industry

Benjamin Bass, founder, the Strand Book Store
Benjamin Bass, founder, the Strand Book Store
Behnam Nateghi

Books and bookstores, have been having a hard time in the United States in the last few years.  Not long ago, large discount booksellers drove many small, independent book stores out of business.  Now,  those superstores are taking a hit from on-line and digital book sellers. Borders --  the country’s number two book chain -- recently declared bankruptcy and Amazon says it is now selling more e-books than printed ones. But in New York City, there’s a family-owned, independent book store that is still going strong.

Family-owned business

The Strand Book store, in New York's East Village, is surrounded by huge buildings belonging to New York University. It is more than 84 years old and is among the oldest cultural institutions in New York. It's affectionately known for the row of tables outside, filled with one-dollar books.

Nancy Bass Wyden, Strand's manager, is the granddaughter of the store’s founder, Benjamin Bass.  

Nancy and her father, Fred Bass, say the store owes at least part of its success to its location in New York City.  

“We are very fortunate to be in New York City.  It's the cultural center of the world. We have good access to these great libraries in used form," she notes.  "We have authors coming in here all the time. We just have this kind of access that a big chain store can't have in Des Moines, Iowa.”

Nancy is married to U.S. Senator Ron Wyden. She began working at the store as a student.  Her dad Fred, who is now 86, has worked here since he was 13.

Staying relevant

Although the Borders book chain has declared bankruptcy and announced plans to close its remaining stores, Fred Bass says there’s a reason Strand is still in business.

"We've got the books. We've got the books at the right price. We keep getting fresh books in. Our turnover is enormous. We buy private collections. We get material that no other bookstore carries. We've got a  building here with 5 floors of books. 10,500 square feet [975 square meters] jammed with books. And there's a constant stream of books coming in,” he says.

Neil Winokur is the Strand’s book buyer.

"All day long, people… there’s a line usually all day long, people waiting to sell us books,  and you go through the books and you make them an offer," he stated. 

In addition to used books, the Strand has a rare book division that is the envy of major libraries.

"If you want a copy of "Huckleberry Finn," we could have 15 to 20 different kinds of varieties, including a signed Mark Twain," Wyden explained.

“Most of them are really serious collectors coming up here.  We carry a lot of collectables and the price range here runs from about $15  to $45,000 --  for a copy of "Ulysses,"  illustrated by Matisse and signed by Matisse, but also signed by James Joyce,” Bass added.

Unique customer service

The Strand also helps people build their own book collections.  Miguel Soto is the Strand’s personal library advisor.

“You tell us what subjects you like, what artists you like.  Do you want art books, do you want trade size, do you want biographies, do you want travel books? You tell us what you need and we'll go around the store," explains Soto. "[We will] check the inventory and pull it for you.”

Some booksellers have seen their sales fall with the growth in electronic books.  E-book sales have gone up ten times since 2008, according to an industry report.

"We've not gone the ebooks route at all. We have a lot of customers who really do not like ebooks," Wyden said. "The customers we get are very intllectual. It's not just the older professor-type peope coming in here," Bass adds. "It's younger people coming in here asking for Heidegger and Wittgenstein. Reading Aristotle and the good literary works and things like that."

Despite the brutal market for booksellers, book sales have been rising.  An industry survey shows that in 2010, almost $28 billion worth of books were sold in the U.S. -- a 5.6 percent increase in two years.

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