There are some places wherever you live that you take to represent an important part of your life. Maybe a restaurant where you always go or a movie theater where you saw your favorite movie for the first time. Whatever the reason, these are places that you sentimentalize, maybe sometimes to a fault, because you identify them so closely with good memories.
One of those places for me is The Strand Bookstore. It was one of the first places I frequented when I began living in New York City as an adult.
At some point on just about every weekend I had off (I had to work most weekends), I would make a visit to The Strand a part of my routine. I would never fail to come home with a big bag full of books, sometimes two big bags. Wow, Crime and Punishment for only $3.99—how can I not buy that?? At some point I ended up with two different paperback copies of Anna Karena and gave one copy to a friend.
The Strand would be buzzing with people and I would spend hours wandering its cramped isles. I had a routine of starting with browsing the outside cheap bins (books for as little as 48 cents; it would be a crime not to rifle through every row of books) and making my way through the store, spending most of my time in the fiction section. Years later, I got to meet my guitar hero, Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols, when he did a book signing event for his memoir ‘Lonely Boy.’
But like many parts of my early life back in the city as an adult; I frequented The Strand less and less. At the time of the pandemic lockdown in mid-March, my time in Manhattan mostly consisted of sitting at a desk in the financial district or midtown and then getting home to Queens as quick as I could. I would occasionally go to a concert or local punk rock show, but those got fewer and farther between. The Strand has a kiosk in Times Square close to my job’s offices there, so I would get a chance to buy some books and a ‘Make America Read Again’ refrigerator magnet. But I ceased being a regular customer.
With the pandemic comes rafts of closures of institutions we thought would continue to be with us, at least through the duration of the virus. This was supposed to be over by now, but we can’t get our shit together enough to contain COVID-19, so things are still ground to a halt.
Recently the owner of The Strand bookstore issued a plea for help from the public to save it from closing. People responded, lining up around the block to buy books at the fabled institution or ordering books online from its web site.
The Strand is a landmark, but being a landmark is not enough. Many friends point out that other important cultural institutions, such as CBGB’s, did not survive to see the pandemic. Other places with deep histories have also not survived.
And The Strand’s ownership has not been entirely forthright. Earlier this year the owner accepted $1 million in in loans and still laid off workers while buying millions in stock, including more than $100,000 worth of Amazon shares. The Strand made a public show of its support to progressive causes while turning a blind eye to the plight of its own workers, so an important part of the store’s natural constituency is either indifferent or hostile to its future.
But an institution can be more than the sum of its owner’s conduct. I have loathed how the New York Yankees’ ownership tore down the House the Ruth Built and treats its fans like absolute garbage, yet I cannot bring myself to disavow the Bronx Bombers. We can detest the people who run our country and still be patriotic Americans. Do we owe The Strand loyalty for all that it has given us, despite the lack of principles by its current owner? I feel a loyalty to this great bookstore, though I understand those that don’t.
I yearn to lose hours of time in a bookstore again; to get the warm ego boost of a Strand cashier complimenting my choices, to amble to the subway laden with more tomes that will add to the ever-expanding walls of books in my home. Those days cannot come soon enough. In the meantime, I will do what I can to help keep the miles of books going.
There are signs hanging in my apartment building that have been there since March. They read: ’15 Days to Flatten the Curve’ and they are a cruel reminder of our country’s failures in the months since. It’s not clear if COVID-19 will be under control at the 15-month mark from this past March. Broadway shows announced they will be closed through May 2021.
New York City was the center of the Coronavirus outbreak in the U.S. Our country’s most vibrant and the cultural capital of the planet, its shutdown has been an albatross around the neck of America. If our greatest city can’t get its shit together, what hope has the rest of the U.S.? Whereas New York has proudly led the country in decades past, we are instead forecasting its tragic bungling of a global pandemic.
Evidence of that tragedy has extended to our own family’s approach to public schools.
The New York City public schools have had no bigger advocate than my wife Emily. Raised in Queens and a product of New York’s public school system, she often mentions our good local schools as a major selling point when we discuss the future as parents. She believes whole-heartedly in public education and the ability of public schools to make a difference in people’s lives. This school year she is home schooling our kids.
My wife’s belief in the power of good public schools has not changed. New York City public schools had a ham-handed approach to school reopening that left us unconvinced that our kids would be returning to a safe environment or in a way that was manageable.
When the COVID-19 lockdown started in March, few if anyone thought that we would still be struggling with it by the start of the next school year. So the kind of planning for a socially distant learning scenario didn’t get started on time. The schools in New York provide a lot of vital social services, which is why city officials were slow to close them in March and which motivated them to put too much emphasis on making in-person learning part of the reopening plans.
The plans that the city came up with were haphazard and half-assed. It was a convoluted combination of in-person and remote learning, neither part of which the city was adequately prepared for. Kids were supposed to report to school for three days and then do remote learning from home two days, alternating days by weeks. People like us with multiple children in the same school faced the prospect of juggling different childcare schedules in addition to navigating multiple remote learning systems. Days before scheduled schools were set to reopen, teachers asked the city to delay; the promised safety equipment and extra hand-sanitizing stations that were supposed to be in place were not.
Seeing this chaos in the wake of the poorly and dangerously executed school closings from earlier this year and the worsening situation in the reopening, our family chose to home school for a year. So far it’s not perfect but it is going well. My wife keeps the girls busy every day with some kind of learning, much of it hands-on in parks or nature centers. We can supplement the home learning with limited classes offered by local institutions; my wife is finding a way to get it done.
The city’s approach hasn’t worked, up to 150 public schools have had to close since reopening due to staff and students testing positive for COVID-19. The schools have not handled the increased numbers of homeschooling well either. My wife gave the school adequate notice that we were homeschooling this year, but weeks into the school year we got a call from the school asking why our children were not logged on remotely.
This virus is still wreaking havoc on the country and people want to blithely act like it is not happening. The city, like much of the country, is still struggling with lockdowns and virus containment. We had all hoped to be getting “back to normal” months ago; whatever version of normal returns looks to be well into 2021.
In the meantime, we’ll be teaching our kids at home.