Christopher Bonanos

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Via the wonderful Browser, I came across a very fine online piece by Christopher Bonanos of New York about the Strand, the only bookstore in NYC I still go to, the only one that doesn’t depress me. It’s as vibrant as ever, anachronism though it is. Amusingly, I purchased Bonanos’ own book, Instant: The Story of Polaroid, at the Strand last year. (Second floor, photography section.) An excerpt about the perils the brick-and-mortar bookseller must circumvent to continue thriving:

“Are there existential threats to the Strand? There are. E-books, which require no retail space, have cut into best-seller sales. The Strand has pushed back with remaindered hardcovers, placed by the front door under a sign reading LOWER-PRICED THAN E-BOOKS.

There’s also the Strand’s relationship with its unionized employees, who were organized by the UAW back in the ’70s. They just signed a new contract this past month. Mostly, the labor-management situation seems equable; still, every few years, when contract time comes, someone writes a news story about strife. ‘The union demands something up here,’ says Fred [Bass], gesturing, ‘and we’re down here … There’s always going to be conflict.’ In general, the union is quite aware that the Strand is not Google, and the Basses are perfectly aware that relative harmony benefits the business. In October, a pro-union staffer named Greg Farrell published a graphic-novel-style book critical of both management and the union’s representatives. Oddly, he still works at the store. More oddly, the Strand sells the book.

Internet used-book sales, too, would seem to be a long-term concern. When you visit Amazon or AbeBooks (which is owned by Amazon) and search for an out-of-print title, your results are usually listed from cheapest to most expensive. The first ‘store’ on the list often turns out to be a barn full of books in rural Minnesota or Vermont. Some are charity stores, selling donated books—no acquisition costs at all. They certainly aren’t paying Manhattan overhead. Yet here, too, the Strand is holding on, owing mostly to that churning turnover and the quality of its stock. That barn isn’t going to have many of last year’s $75 art books for $40, and the Strand always does. Plus there are the only–in–New York surprises that come through the store’s front door. Opening a box can reveal a Warhol monograph that will sell for more than $1,000, or an editor’s library full of warm inscriptions from authors.

If that’s the future, could the Strand wind up virtual? Surely operating out of one of those barns would be cheaper. ‘Not with our formula,’ says Bass firmly. ‘We need the store. This business requires a lot of cash flow to operate,’ and much of it comes in with the tourists. That funds the book-buying, which supplies the next cycle of inventory.”

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A bunch of great articles from this year that made me rethink assertions, informed me or entertained me. All available for free.

  • Getting Bin Laden(Nicholas Schmidle, New Yorker): The best long-form journalism of the new century. Perfect writing and editing. Will be read with equal fascination 50 years from now.
  • The Movie Set That Ate Itself,” (Michael Idov, GQ): Intrepid reporter with a deadpan sensibility ventures onto the most insane movie set ever.
  • Better, Faster. Stronger“ (Rebecca Mead, New Yorker): Wicked portrait of a Silicon Valley self-help guru. Reading this piece is a good way to learn how to write profiles.
  • ‘”The Elusive Big Idea(Neal Gabler, New York Times): I don’t agree with most of the assertions of this essay, but it’s deeply intelligent and provocative.
  • Douglas Rushkoff(Peggy Nelson, Deep and probing interview with the media ecologist.
  • Who Invented The Seven-Game Series?“ (Michael Weinreb, Grantland): Reporter asks simple question others gloss over, finds interesting historical and analytical info.
  • Zell to L.A. Times: Drop Dead(Laurie Winer, L.A. Review of Books): Great writing about Sam Zell and the painful decline of the Los Angeles Times.
  • Show the Monster(Daniel Zalewski, The New Yorker): Brilliant Guillermo del Toro portrait for fans of film or great writing.
  • The Man Who Inspired Jobs(Christopher Bonanos, The New York Times): Polaroid founder Edwin H. Land was oddly omitted from Steve Jobs’ obits, but this lucid, insightful essay remedied that oversight. Better yet: Bonanos is apparently working on a book about Polaroid.
  • All the Angry People (George Packer, The New Yorker): The most revealing reporting yet about the genesis and meaning of Occupy Wall Street.

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Polaroid has faltered badly in the digital age, but that company’s genius inventor Edwin H. Land was to his time what Steve Jobs was to ours, and, yet, his name is probably unfamiliar to most people just two decades after his death. Christopher Bonanos has an excellent piece in the New York Times about the Land-Jobs link. An excerpt:

“Most of all, Land believed in the power of the scientific demonstration. Starting in the 60s, he began to turn Polaroid’s shareholders’ meetings into dramatic showcases for whatever line the company was about to introduce. In a perfectly art-directed setting, sometimes with live music between segments, he would take the stage, slides projected behind him, the new product in hand, and instead of deploying snake-oil salesmanship would draw you into Land’s World. By the end of the afternoon, you probably wanted to stay there.

Three decades later, Jobs would do exactly the same thing, except in a black turtleneck and jeans. His admiration for Land was open and unabashed. In 1985, he told an interviewer, ‘The man is a national treasure. I don’t understand why people like that can’t be held up as models: This is the most incredible thing to be — not an astronaut, not a football player — but this.'”


Land demonstrates the Polaroid instant camera, 1948:

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