To pass the iconic wooden racks of dollar books lining the corner of 12th and Broadway and enter the doors of the Strand is to know that your next great read awaits, somewhere in the store’s storied “18 miles of books.”
Strand’s impeccable selection is the careful work of people like Lila Zwonitzer, an Associate Buyer who keeps Strand stocked with those glorious piles of printed matter. She’s in good company: writers Patti Smith and Mary Gaitskill were both employed by the Strand at some point in their careers.
We chatted with Zwonitzer about what she loves about the Strand and its customers, plus which books saw a surprising surge of popularity following November’s election. Meet one of Strand’s resident bibliophiles yourself the next time you’re in the neighborhood—and don’t leave without saying hello to A Women’s Thing on the magazine rack!
Strand has long been a preeminent NYC bookstore. We’re talking 90 years long. How does a bookstore stay relevant in our iPhone-obsessed culture? Why do people keep coming to Strand?
Lila Zwonitzer: Walking into the Strand is an experience that you just can’t find on the Internet. It’s the thrill of not knowing what you might stumble across. I come into the store everyday and am still overwhelmed by its vastness and its history.
I’m a very private and quiet shopper—which Strand’s stacks accommodate nicely. But, if you are not, there are lots of employees who want to talk about books just as much as you do. I’ve always found that the best way to find something new is by talking to other employees or customers about what they are reading. It’s not cold or calculated and that’s what I’ve found brings people back in. Also, people love the smell of old books.
How does the Strand support emerging writers and publications?
Lila Zwonitzer: We are very fortunate to have customers that are really hungry to read beyond the bestsellers. I think some of the titles that are perennial bestsellers for us might come as a shock to other booksellers. We have tables to specifically highlight small presses, debut authors and new translations. As an independent, I think it is really important for us to stand behind other independents and the small press table, especially, was a way for us to showcase some of the ones that we really love. The customer response to that table has been really encouraging.
Have you seen renewed interest in topics around women and feminism in recent months?
Lila Zwonitzer: Absolutely. Pre-election we were seeing a real interest in feminist titles particularly, and that has only grown post-election. As bad as things felt, it was really heartening to see people find support and seek comfort in books. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Rebecca Solnit were big sellers for us already, but we saw people returning to classics like “Women Who Run with the Wolves” by Clarissa P. Estes, “Women, Race and Class” by Angela Y. Davis and “Sister Outsider” by Audre Lorde. A large part of their continued success, I think, has been women sharing them with one another.
In my university experience, a large majority of the assigned readings were records of the male experience, and it wasn’t until I got to the Strand that I realized how much I was missing. Finding powerful female voices—voices that have not been exhausted by driving the same point home—is a reassuring and frustrating reminder that this anger is not made up and it doesn’t appear to be going away.
I have definitely found that our customers are more politically engaged—though they really always have been. But for anyone dipping their toes in for the first time, books are always the best place to start.