Bookstores were at the core of a cherished day. I had finished law school and was living in New York City where I had been working for a while. The college alumni magazine had published a list of books, in effect a syllabus, for studying the American revolution. Most of the books had been published a decade or more ago. My recent reading had been largely aimless; I had never taken a course on the Revolution; and I thought that it could be interesting to read as many of the books on the list as possible. In those ancient days, you could not simply go online to order the books; you had to physically find them. I had set the next Saturday for my book hunting, but a winter storm hit with seventeen inches of snow stopping at four on Saturday morning. Being then young and full of vim and vigor (what is vim?), I decided to carry out my self-appointed task in spite of the storm. Many streets were yet to be plowed, and many walks were uncleared, but the local subway was running.
I got to Manhattan’s Sixth Avenue and Eighth Street and started walking east. The sky was a brilliant winter blue. A nippy wind made everyone’s cheeks rosy, but tramping through the drifts and mounds of still-pristine snow kept me warm. Without traffic, it was quiet, and we few pedestrians treated each other reverentially as if we were the deepest friends on a meditative retreat. It was the kind of day where I was thrilled that there was a winter and I was in it.
A few wonderful bookstores still existed on Eighth Street, and I stopped in each of them, but my real destination was Fourth Avenue. On and around the seven blocks of Fourth Avenue from Astor Place to 14th Street had been what was called “Book Row,” New York City’s used-book district. The heyday for this book center had been the 1940s and 1950s, and by the time I headed there decades later, many of the stores were gone, but a sizeable number still remained—enough so it took me hours to go through the ones still there.
Most of these stores had a loose organizational layout at best. I might find a handwritten sign on a bookcase that said, “US History” to aid my search. The shelves had no apparent structure, and I would have to scan all the volumes to see if there were any on my list. The stores, it turned out, had a surprising number of them, and every time I found one, I got a bit excited as if I had found something much more than an out-of-print book, but some sort of little treasure that could only be found after an effortful search—the kind of thrill a seeker does not now get on the internet.
After I finished on Fourth having found many but not all the books on the list, I doubled back to Broadway and 12th Street to Strand Bookstore, what was billed then and now as the City’s largest used book store, and I found a few more sought-for volumes.
That day can no longer be repeated. The Fourth Avenue used book stores are gone; only the Strand, which started on Fourth Avenue, but moved to Broadway in the 1950s, remains. When I came to New York, I was told that Strand Bookstore was the place to buy review copies. Book reviewers and others who got advance copies of books brought their booty to the Strand where they were paid one quarter of the book-jacket price with Strand then listing them for half the jacketed price. A lucky buyer might find a recently-released book that had just been given a great review for half price. I, however, never snagged one of those bargains. I assumed these holy grails disappeared quickly and were found only by those who scoured the store once or twice a day, and I did not.
Because I rarely found a review copy of something I wanted, for me Strand was a giant used bookstore, and since I went to other ones that were more convenient for me, I rarely visited Strand for decades. That changed a few years back for two reasons: An increasing number of my doctors had offices near the Strand. And I decided that I was going to get a license to be a New York City sightseeing guide. (To be continued.)