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.
“The reader, the booklover, must meet his own needs without paying too much attention to what his neighbors say those needs should be.”
“We need to make books cool again. If you go home with somebody and they don’t have books, don’t fuck them.”
― John Waters
When I first moved back to New York City as an adult, I made it a point to make regular pilgrimages to The Strand to stock up on books. There was no way I could manage to leave there without several bags of books.
My small studio in Queens had two windows that looked out over a bus stop on 101st. Avenue and Woodhaven Boulevard. One of those windows was home to my air conditioner, the other window became my extended library. I already had a hutch bookcase filled with books but as my trips to The Strand and other bookstores multiplied, I needed more space for my books. Soon I was picking up plastic milk crates I found on the street to use as bookshelves. Then I acquired more milk crates, and soon had to double-stack books in them. More than once I found a great deal on a classic book at The Strand and bought it only to find that I already had that book at home.
When I moved to new apartment a few years later, I had space for actual bookshelves and bought four of them. They were quickly filled.
No longer single and free to binge at bookstores, my wife and I are now in the process of trying to make more space in our apartment for our family of five. That includes making more space in our living room, which currently houses most of our books. It is not an easy task.
It is not easy to part with books, nor should it be. Each book is an adventure waiting to happen, to give away a book without having read it is to deny a future possibility, a potential new thrill or idea. To turn away from books is to turn away from inspiration, from moving dreams and a new way of looking at life. Books are the lifeblood of the soul, and the building blocks of a civilized society.
Some purists may not forgive me for trying to adapt to the confines of space in our urban environment and using a Kindle. I know, I know: there is no substitute for the printed page, and the satisfying heft of a hardcover tome cannot be replicated by any electronic device. I agree. But as a commuter it is helpful to be able to read things with one hand, and while I would love to fill every spare inch of wall space in my apartment with shelves full of books, my kids need space to sleep and play. The Kindle has been a great evolution in the reading life if you can adapt to it. Some die-hards will not have it and I understand. If space and convenience were not factors, I’d be there.
But I have not given up printed books altogether. I will buy printed books when I can and use the Kindle as much as possible as well.
My collection of printed books will continue to grow, albeit a bit slower than in my bachelor days. My children are growing up in a home with plentiful books. They already love reading and if I fail in every other aspect of life, I have already achieved great success there.
The holidays are a time when many of us are reluctantly pushed into public places to go through the motions about being happy about the holidays. Sometimes the very happiness of the holidays are mocking and angering. Sometimes the very image of others’ happiness is a slap in the face, and the holidays give other people’s happiness a particularly cold sting.
There’s no reason for the holidays this year to be any different. A cursory glance at the world at large doesn’t give the impression that there is much to celebrate.
It is my goal again this year, as in previous years, to not go into a single store to buy a Christmas present. I would rather be an antisocial Grinch and do all of my shopping online.
I get enough of the horrendously-behaved crowds in my everyday life. The holidays are a time to reflect on the blessing we have. While living in New York City is one of those blessings, living cheek-by-jowl with millions of other human beings is not. It’s an odd conundrum: We love New York, which wouldn’t be what it is without all of its people, yet a good many of those people are detestable.
But what else are we to do? We can’t live life as disgruntled hermits. We are social creatures and the people who are successful in living outside of society don’t live very good lives.
And besides, New York is beautiful around the holidays. Even the most jaded New Yorker can appreciate how beautiful things can become around this time of year. I embrace the “bah-humbug” aspect of the holidays in every way possible, and even I feel pangs of civic pride to see our city landmarks decked out in their holiday finery.
Here are five things you can do to experience New York City at its Christmastime best:
Gingerbread Lane at the New York Hall of Science consists of record-breaking gingerbread houses and you even get a chance to take home some of the gingerbread once the holidays are over. And the New York Hall of Science is a good place to escape to from the holiday scrum of Manhattan. It is in Queens, the greatest and most American New York City borough.
The Holiday Train Show at the New York Botanical Garden has been running for over 20 years and runs until January 19. It features trains that run through beautiful models of some of New York’s greatest landmarks. The models are all made from plants. It’s like a New York-centric Rose Bowl Parade that doesn’t suck. It’s in The Bronx, and if you take some time to stroll through the Botanical Gardens, you will be amazed that you’re in a big city. It will be much less crowded after the holidays.
The Grand Central Terminal holiday light show is going to be crowded. Grand Central Terminal is always horribly crowded but it’s so beautiful that it’s worth it. The holiday light show will make you glad you went there.
Free reading of A Christmas Carol at Housing Works Bookstore Café. More than two dozen writers take turns reading from the Charles Dickens classic at this event. The book store raises money for Housing Works, an AIDS charity. Some free literature will make you feel better about yourself over the holidays.
Time Warner Center’s Holiday Under the Stars is a display of large lighted stars at the Time Warner Center’s large great room and are specially lit in a display that is set to music. The Time Warner Center does not have much to offer the non-millionaire shopper, so here is a chance to enjoy some nice holiday spirit at the center’s expense and maybe avoid some of the horrific crowds that clog other venues.
Holiday markets also abound. Union Square has one, as does Bryant Park, Grand Central Terminal and Columbus Circle. Here is your chance to buy last minute Christmas things or feel OK about doing some real retail non-online shopping this year. These may be crowded but there are enough of them and these are large enough that you should be able to find a nice place to shop among these many markets. They also usually feature local artists selling their work.
Whatever you do, get out there and see the holiday sights. Even if you hate the holidays and want to piss on everyone’s parade, it only counts if you do so in person.
The gay community is a collective rainbow huff over the movie “Ender’s Game” because Orson Scott Card, the author of the novel on which the movie is based, holds conservative views on gay marriage and homosexuality. Lots of gays refuse to see the film and some have organized boycotts.
I have not read the book or seen the movie, but I understand it to be science fiction and that it does not overtly or metaphorically address any gay rights issues. It was written decades ago before issues of gay rights were as ubiquitous in our public discourse as they are today. The author is indeed outspoken against gay marriage and gay rights etc.
People are welcome to boycott any film or book for any reason, but there’s one important element I think that the boycotters are missing. That is: Enjoying a work of art is not an endorsement of the political views of the artist.
I’m all in favor of gay marriage and treating gays equally under the law in all relevant respects, but it’s not something I’m going to let get in the way of reading a book or seeing a movie.
You are free to decide what you want to see or read based on the political views of the creators. But at some point you are going to paint yourself into a corner. You will at some point find yourself patronizing the work of an artist with whom you disagree vehemently.
And even if Card penned a violent homophobic screed that called for some kind of lavender holocaust, reading it or watching it doesn’t mean you agree with it. Everyone should be willing to challenge themselves and purposely seek out opposing viewpoints in art, politics, religion and all aspects of life. If we can’t listen to the opposition, we can’t form our own arguments thoughtfully.
But let us also enjoy art for art’s sake. If “Ender’s Game” is a shitty book and movie, let it fail on its own merits, not because you hate the religious or political view of the author.
I was disappointed to learn Pablo Picasso was a communist and Louis-Ferdinand Céline was a fascist. It broke my heart to see ZZ Top play the George W. Bush inauguration and to read about Julianne Moore shilling for illegal immigration amnesty. Should I boycott all the works of these artists? No. I disagree with them but my patronage of their work is not an endorsement of their views.
The case of Alec Baldwin, a bona fide leftist who recently issued a mea culpa for calling a reporter a “cocksucking fag,” scrambled the minds of the powers that be at MSNBC, which suspended his TV show for the offense. But no matter how disgusted you are with him for whatever reason, you can’t deny his acting skills. Does watching his films mean you endorse his leftism or his gay slurs or his unique (gay) marriage of the two? No. You can watch “Glengarry Glenn Ross” guilt-free no matter what your political persuasion.
An artist’s goal is to make art that is powerful enough that it can overcome and outlast the foibles of the artist. Only time will tell. Did Robert Johnson approve of homosexuality? Did Nathaniel Hawthorne believe in equality between the races? Those questions are completely irrelevant to those men’s contributions to the world.
At some point art and politics must go their separate ways. Whatever your politics, can we least agree that one of the biggest sins of all is limiting your intake of art?