Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The Strand

We pass one another on the library stairs from time to time, each of us heading in opposite directions, up or down, to or from one of the 5 floors of the building. Although I don't know this young woman's name we have exchanged pleasantries. We work in different departments, with different hours; but this occasional ritual passing is an island in time, like seeing a blue heron or a shooting star. Why? Because she always carries an orange canvas bag that says:

new york city


b o o k s t o r e

Whenever I get to Manhattan I make a point of going to The Strand bookstore on the corner Broadway and 12th St. It has been there since 1956 and was previously, beginning in 1927, on 4th Avenue amongst "Book Row" where there were once 48 bookstores.

The Strand is in some ways the antithesis of the modern-day corporate store; mostly used books in an atmosphere of some disarray it is a browser's paradise. For those that love books and are happy to come across a forgotten or obscure surprise it's a place to get lost in.

A week ago, my friend and co-worker Rebecca and I were in the library lobby at closing when she espied the Lady With the Orange Strand Bag. When I mentioned The Strand connection with the bag Rebecca pointed out that Joyce Carol Oates had a short story about two young girls in The Strand.

I promptly read "Three Girls" in the Oates collection "I Am No One You Know". In the story set in March of 1956 two teen-aged self-anointed "girl-poets", NYU students, and seeming lovers, are browsing in the store. One of them notices a conspicuously familiar woman reading in the stacks and notifies in a whisper to her pal, who narrates, that she should discreetly take a look.

".....I perceived an individual in the aisle, pulling down books from shelves, peering at them, clearly absorbed by what she a man's navy coat to her ankles and with sleeves past her wrists, a man's beige fedora hat on her head, scrunched low as we wore our knitted caps, and most of her hair hidden by the hat except for a six-inch blonde plait at the nape of her neck and she wore black trousers tucked into what appeared to be salt-stained cowboy boots. Someone we knew?....I was about to nudge you in the ribs in bafflement when the blond woman turned, taking down another book from the shelf (e.e.cummings' Tulips and Chimneys - always I would remember that title!), and I saw that she was Marilyn Monroe.
Marilyn Monroe. In the Strand. Just like us. And she seemed to be alone.
Marilyn Monroe, alone!"

The girls follow Marilyn's every move in the store - torn between their own rapture and the need to protect and preserve her anonymity. When Marilyn finally begins to approach the counter with her pile of books, the narrating girl approaches her and offers to intercede and buy the books to save her from being recognized. When they hand her the books outside, Marilyn pulls out a copy of the Selected Poems of Marianne Moore from her bag and hands it to them before disappearing down the street.

The photographer Eve Arnold took a picture of Marilyn right around this time. She is seen in an untypical pose, reading a copy of James Joyce's Ulysses. according to Arnold this was not a concocted pose (speculation, predictably rampant, about her reading the sexual monologue of Molly Bloom near the book's end). Marilyn told her that she had been reading bits of it every day and though she found it tough going at times enjoyed reading passages out loud.

I was pleasantly diverted to know that Marilyn, in the story had given the girls a book of Marianne Moore's poems. Marianne Moore first came to my attention when I heard she was a great baseball fan of the New York City baseball teams; the Brooklyn Dodgers in particular - she lived in Brooklyn herself. She knew the poetry of the game and graced the page with it now and then.

Moore's poems absorb me like mysterious and beautiful puzzles; like Marilyn with Ulysses perhaps, I can never quite get the meaning, but the sound and rhythm and imagery and the little glimmer of knowing are enough to keep me coming back.

here is a short poem from her early years:


"It arouses my indignation that they should be so rare,
Yet I think I should be as willing to wear green
Sapphires as I should be willing to wear
Emeralds, the point of the thing's being, not to make people stare
But to have to wear, what keeps life from becoming a parcel of
uniformities -

What prevents its deteriorating into a bugbear:
To have what makes it start from its rut like the horse seen
Showing its might in the book of Job, where
The dramatist watches it leap like a locust in the air,
And swerving neither to the right nor left, bore its way
up into the heart of the breeze."


Bill Stankus said...

A number of years ago I read a stat fact about bookstores. It seems less than 10% of the population actually shop and buy books. That ten percent is lower but roughly equivalent to the percent of college grads in this country.

Now that colleges and universities are more trade school than academic in nature perhaps that's why we see so many how-to books instead of essays and novels.

The big box bookstores are only going to sell books for their bottom line. The indie stores can't compete against the volume and the discounts offered by the mega stores - unless they have a rock solid customer base - and even then we see the attrition of the small bookstores.

But what to do? Not long ago Matt Ruff, author of Bad Monkeys was going to give a reading at a local(small) store. I checked, they were almost out of the book while Costco had stacks of first editions - and at a discount.

Of course I bought the first edition from Costco and took it for a signature. But I felt rotten about it even tho I'm a frequent customer.

I know this is off topic of your posting but the health and well-being of bookstores is critical, especially when the small stores potentially offer more variety than the big box variety.

Can't imagine Marilyn Monroe shopping at any of the big box bookstores.

Tom the Piper's Son said...

Bill - Thanks for posting that dose of reality. Having worked in the public library for about 12 years now - and being an avid user for most of my life - I see the whole shift away from books in general, sorry to say.

It seems that that the indie bookstores are not just about books per se but a way of life which is now passing away from lack of imagination and rumination. The browsing, the atmosphere, even the love for the physicality of the book - the feel, and the less tangible history of a single used book; all are ingredients that, although diminishing, will always be there. Just lessened and rare.

Anybody who has come this far to actually reading this, of course, knows all this and doubtless more -
its a bit like some of us wandering from cave to cave keeping alive a small flame to illuminate the walls.

Michael Leddy said...

Thank you for evoking the Strand, Tom. (And Miss Monroe and Miss Moore.) Back in my student days, I'd go to the Strand and walk out with two shopping bags full of books.

Some years back, the Pushcart Prize series had a good essay about the store by someone who had worked there. It explained where many of the "review copies" came from (people in publishing lifting and selling them for some extra cash).

Tom the Piper's Son said...

Michael - I'd love to read that story if you know I can get hold of it.

persephone2u said...

You've really outdone yourself with this particular post. The Strand sounds like a place I would give anything to visit and I looked up their website online and it's definitely a bookstore that's right up my alley! I also enjoyed how you brought Marilyn Monroe into the discussion and I'd never seen that particular photo of her before. Nice poem too!

Tom the Piper's Son said...

Persephone - The Strand got its name from Strand street and area in London which was a major theatre/vauseville sector in Victorian times....Also a major tube line now absorbed into the Charing Cross line

Michael Leddy said...

Tom, the Strand essay would appear to be in volume 14 of the The Pushcart Prize series. I tried a Google Books search and found it in the index of another Pushcart volume. It's by Thomas Meagher, "Strand: Evidence of Books and Bookstores." (I want to read it again too.)

Tom the Piper's Son said...

IThanks Michael! I will get hold of a copy.

Another major Strand-related event of the day: i just received a "Strand" ballcap I'd ordered in the mail.
I'm a bit of a ballcap freak; especially oldtime NY Giants (1933,36), Brooklyn Dodgers,White Sox and Orioles....
and now I've dipped into old railroad teams and bookstores... I'm not a "collector", I definitely like to wear them.

Wright said...

I think the lib employee you are referring to is Erin from Children's. I've never been to Strand bookstore or NY but have ordered from them online. I had just received an order from them and noticed her orange bag. She told me she has never been there and it the bag came to her by way of a friend or family member.

Anonymous said...

I used to pass people on the library stairwell for many years. I'm sure they are all strangers by now. There are a few that still live in my head and heart. I too, carried bags with different labels. My most current bag says "Lady" on it. As in "Bag Lady" However, I don't travel stairwells anymore, I take the elevator.
Thinking of you..........

Tom the Piper's Son said...

L -
Perhaps next time you see me on the stairwell, i will have a shopping cart full of cans and sundries; i use the elevator to get there of course.

sexy said...