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Pete Hamill Celebrates the NYC Bookstore He Called “My Personal Classroom:” The Strand

 

In the summer of 1957, home from a year in Mexico on the GI Bill, I found temporary lodging in paradise….

That is, in an apartment on Fourth Avenue and 11th Street in New York City, right there in Book Row. I shared the rent with a friend of a friend, a student who attended school a few blocks south at Cooper Union, and though we talked through many beery evenings about art, I was already on the way to becoming a writer. My university was Book Row. My personal classroom was called the Strand.

 

The bookstore was almost directly across the avenue, at 81 Fourth Avenue, flanked by the other bookstores, all of them visible from the front windows of the apartment where I was living. On days of rain or snow, I could vanish into its shelves and tables, examining the endless literary treasures. There I bought my first volume of poetry by William Butler Yeats, my first copy of Balzac’s Lost Illusions, and I found my way into Winesburg, Ohio, with Sherwood Anderson as my guide. I also found a copy of Hemingway’s parody of Anderson, The Torrents of Spring. All at prices I could afford on my job as an assistant in the art department of an advertising agency.

 

Then, in the late fall, I retreated to Brooklyn, to be closer to Pratt Institute where I was trying to sharpen my skills as a designer (and learned many other things). My journeys to Book Row and the Strand were restricted to Saturdays.

 

And then one Saturday in 1958, the Strand was gone. Someone had bought the properties on that east side of Fourth Avenue. The Strand’s $110-a-month lease was canceled, along with the leases of its immediate neighbors: the Arcadia, the Friendly, Louis Schueman, Wex’s. What the hell do we need with all these cheap books? The true god of New York, which is real estate, had prevailed.

For a while, I was forlorn. One thing that had vanished with the Strand and its neighbors was serendipity—that extraordinary sense of surprise and delight when you enter a bookstore in search of one book and discover another. You are looking for a copy of Irving Shulman’s  The Amboy Dukes and you leave with Emily Dickinson. Or both. You are desperate to find Malcolm Cowley’s Exile’s Return, to replace one you lost in the subway, and find a hardcover copy of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. Every time I enter a bookshop, I still feel the same way, filled with a sense of possibility. It’s like going to a dance when you’re 21.

 

But then came news that the Strand was not dead. It was moving to Broadway and 12th Street. In those days, when every New York block felt like a different hamlet (or shtetl), this felt oddly ominous. Many of us had already lived through the traumatic move in 1957 of the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants to neighborhoods on the far side of the continent. Our unease was soon relieved: The Strand quickly flourished, rising four floors above street level, becoming a kind of vertical Book Row.

 

In June of 1960 I was given a tryout as a reporter at the New York Post. And the Strand again was there when I began to focus on all the great journalists who had preceded me. I was working nights at the Post, which gave me time to get to the Strand (particularly on payday) and move into a darker area of the store, to the left, where I could find A.J. Liebling and Joseph Mitchell, Heywood Broun and Westbrook Pegler, Martha Gellhorn and Damon Runyon, H.L. Mencken, Jimmy Cannon, I.F. Stone, W.C. Heinz, John Lardner, Paul Gallico, Rebecca West…the list seemed without end, and I learned from all of them.

 

At the Post I met Murray Kempton, whose column I loved. And in the Strand I found his marvelous 1955 book, Part of Our Time, and had him sign it for me. Then I started seeing him again, wander-ing the side aisles of the Strand. Lost in the possibilities that were boarding on the shelves. Another one of my unpaid teachers was Joe Wershba, also at the Post, later to become one of the founding producers of 60 Minutes. Joe was like me: He never entered a bookstore he didn’t like, but he liked the Strand most of all. When he suggested I read a book, old or new, I always did. I’ve lived long enough now to see my own books on those hallowed shelves. But when I left the Strand in those early days, I joined many others, not all of them writers, who rode home on the shoulders of giants.


PETE HAMILL was a veteran newspaperman, columnist, editor, and novelist. He passed away August 5, 2020. He has published more than 20 books, many of them novels, including bestsellers Snow in August, Forever, Tabloid City, and the memoir A Drinking Life. 

 

This essay is from MY BOOKSTORE: Writers Celebrate Their Favorite Places to Browse, Read, and Shop

Edited by Ronald Rice | Introduction by Richard Russo | Illustrated by Leif Parsons | Afterword by Emily St. John Mandel