Iconic Book Store Set to Open New Chapter on Upper West Side

Inside The Strand/ Photo by Jenna Gyimesi

The Strand is coming to the Upper West Side.  Starting the first week of April, the neighborhood’s book lovers won’t have to trek to the East Village to scoop titles at the iconic bookstore.

Instead, The Strand will open a satellite location in the building once occupied by Book Culture, a local independent bookstore chain. The Strand’s opening, and Book Culture’s closing, may be indicative of the bustling  business of independent bookstores, but it also is reflective of the struggles of many small businesses on the Upper West Side that have been closing due to higher commercial rents. 

“I am happy to hear it. It’s the Strand. It is a New York City fixture after all,” said Irene Franck, 65, a resident. “I’m surprised because book lovers and booksellers are disappearing.”

According to the American Bookseller Association, there has been a resurgence of independent bookstores over the last ten years. Sales grew over five percent in 2018 for independent bookstores across the country.

The 4,000 square foot store on Columbus Avenue is located just one block away from the Museum of Natural History. Aside from two kiosks in Times Square and Central Park, it will be The Strand’s only satellite location since 2008.

Nancy Bass Wyden, the owner of Strand Book Store, is excited to expand to the Upper West Side. Business is good and now is the time, she said.

“The indies are coming back,” Bass Wyden said. Shoppers savor the experience of shopping in a bookstore like The Strand, she explained. It is different from ordering a book online. Shoppers get to feel the texture of the covers and smell the pages.

“There is a little bit more serendipity to come here and spend time,” Bass Wyden said. “I think it’s people’s third place. It is not your home. It is not your office. It is a place to unwind and discover.

Bass Wyden’s priority is to get involved with families on the Upper West Side. “We are going to really load up with community events and also author readings with local authors,” she said. The store will offer weekend storytime for children, will feature local artists, and will have a section devoted to literature about the West Side. Employees will also dress up as characters like Peppa the Pig and interact with children during storytime.

This location was particularly desirable because there is an established market for books in the area, she said. “It already had a ready-made community of  readers because it was a bookstore before,” Bass Wyden said.

While independents may be growing, some bookstores in the city are still struggling. Rising rents seem to be the root of the trouble for many businesses in the area, not just book stores. 

The bookshop is just one of the many Upper West Side businesses to close their doors in recent years. City Councilwoman Helen Rosenthal conducted a study in 2017 to determine just how many storefronts were empty. Between 62nd Street and 109th Street, there were 57 empty storefronts and 422 total storefronts — 14 percent were empty. In 2019, about 10 percent of storefronts were vacant on the Upper West Side, according to the City Comptroller’s Office.

Book Culture was evicted and closed its doors one morning in January. It happened while customers were in the shop, according to several Book Culture employees. Book Culture had fallen $140,000 into debt, according to Tim Quinlan of Quinlan Development Group, the landlord.  Book Culture paid about $40,000 a month in rent, and the Columbus location was the chain’s largest location. Three other locations, all on the Upper West Side, are still open.

After Book Culture’s eviction, many community members donated money in efforts to keep the store open. Still, the owners were unable to come up with enough money to re-open the location. Many contacted Quinlan, pleading, and insisting he should give the store another chance.

“Most of [the feedback] was requesting to have Book Culture re-open with a lot of anti-landlord vitriol,” he said. “The usual these days.  Most every call or email was based on not knowing much but assuming a lot. We even had the storefront defaced, which doesn’t help anyone. I guess I am glad reading and books still elicit strong emotions.”

Quinlan’s mother ran Endicott Booksellers in the building until 1995. Shoppers trusted Endicott for a quirky find and cookbooks, but his mother said they were pushed out after the opening of Barnes and Noble nearby two years prior.

Quinlan wanted to see the space remain a bookstore and had approached The Strand to assess their interest a month or two before Book Culture’s eviction. It all came together with perfect timing, he said.

Chris Doeblin, the owner of Book Culture, is happy to hear that the space will continue to be a bookstore, but the book business still looks dark for Book Culture. “We are in a real state of crisis,” he said, referring to the remaining location’s finances.  Doeblin laid off 12 employees in January due to the closure.

He said that Book Culture has been missed because it had a particular impact on the community; it was more than a store; it was a place to bond with children, to make friends.

“So nobody’s been able to go in and hang out and read with their kid in there,” he said. 

He says the absence of Book Culture will possibly impact the community in less visible ways as well.

“We made a point of taking care of some homeless people around,” he said.” We have to every school around — donations to every single school that asked. We have bonds with people that are deep. So when you’re not a local, it does not happen anymore. So all that stuff disappears, and it is too bad.”

The Strand’s Bass Wyden says that it is not necessarily so. She said she wants to hear from the community to better understand what it needs from a bookstore. She also plans on attending upcoming community board meetings.

Book Culture’s W 112th Street location/ photo by Jenna Gyimesi

How the Strand’s presence will play out remains to be seen, of course.  Still,  Doeblin says the closure is indicative of what he believes is happening all over the city, and country — profits are prioritized above all else.

“For our morals, our aspirations, for our future, for our children, for a better world we need to change so that we aren’t just trying to make money or raise the rent, we are trying to make a better community, together,” he said. “Cooperation is key, and what we saw here was a vicious and violent, ordinary response, which you see all the time, where powerful people with a lot of money take something that is produced by people like us.”

Many community members were sad to hear about Book Culture’s money troubles and plan to continue shopping at the remaining stores to support Book Culture.

“It is a really traumatic story, what happened with Book Culture financially,” Mary Pellios, 21, said. “The Strand is a bigger name, but we are lucky that we still have the other Book Cultures nearby.”

Other bookstore owners, too, were sad to say goodbye to Book Culture on Columbus. But they are happy to welcome The Strand.  It will be different than Book Culture, Peter Glassman, the owner of Books of Winder, said because each independent bookstore has a unique flavor and feeling. Independent bookstores are not interchangeable, he added.

“That is one of the great things about independents; we are not cookie cutters,” Glassman said. “We do not try and look the same. We are each our own thing, and it is very carefully curated.”

Books of Wonder, for example, specializes in children’s books, and it recently opened up on the Upper West Side. So far, the business had been going well, said Glassman, but Glassman has one worry, and it is not The Strand — it is all the empty storefronts nearby and what that implies — higher rents.

“One thing that has been hurting us is the closing of all the things around us,” he said. “I think a lot of landlords are very unrealistic about what their property is worth.”

Dorian Thornley, the owner of Westsider Rare and Used Books, is also concerned about the number of vacant stores in the area.

“There used to be a bunch of bookstores around here, during our store’s lifetime. They come and go,” Thornley said. “With so many open storefronts, it’s good to see anything in there.”