Since 1927, The Strand Book Store has become quite a hallmark of New York’s East Village. Yet among the many shoppers who frequent the store, few rarely venture to its quiet third floor, where The Strand’s rare books collection resides.
“In a sense, The Strand’s rare books collection began in the 1920s, but became more focused in the 1950’s, growing today to include over 15,000 unique books,” says The Strand’s rare books store manager, Darren Sutherland.
The most expensive and rarest books live on bookshelves stored away inside a heavy fireproof safe. Anyone can ask a staff member to view some of these books, like their 1935, limited edition, signed copy of James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” embellished with layered drawings, illustrations and lithographs by Henri Matisse for $45,000. Or a leather bound Commentary on the Psalms from 1490 with flowery rubricated initials for $35,000.
The room, a brightly lit, rectangular box, is flanked on one end by strikingly handsome tomes, including 25 copies of Moroccan leather bound books by Mark Twain, with 18th century marbling details on their jackets. During a recent visit, Sutherland pulled out a selection of rare books with ties to New York, including a first edition copy of “Breakfast At Tiffany’s” with a faded papaya orange book jacket for $650; or a first edition of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s second novel, “The Beautiful And The Damned,” for $450.
Yet even in a rare book collection housed in an iconic space like The Strand, bibliophiles might be surprised that many are reasonably priced, and impressed at the range of subjects it covers. From architecture and photography to sports and poetry, the room has something for practically everyone.
“People sometimes think that rare books shops are too precious or alienating because they might only carry expensive stock,” says Sutherland. “But I think The Strand is one of those examples that rare books, or at many of those that we offer, are surprisingly affordable.”
The Strand’s rare books room acquires their collection from a variety of sources annually, including hundreds of private sellers and libraries throughout the Tri-State area. People often enter the ground floor shop with a box of books to sell or donate, and after the collection has been sifted through, employees will find first edition copies or signed copies. Instead of landing on the shelves in the main retail space, the rare finds are sent upstairs to be sold alongside equally significant works.
Still Sutherland likes to muse on the store’s prime locations: “Being located downtown in the Village not only gives us a lot of foot traffic and has helped make a name for ourselves, but it allows us to attract millions of interesting buyers and sellers of truly remarkable books.”
– Rocky Casale