NEW YORK CITY — It is perhaps encouraging that the worst claustrophobia I felt here in Manhattan during the run up to Christmas was in a bookstore, the famous Strand at Broadway and Twelfth.
The Strand advertises that it holds 18 miles of books, not a one of them with a hyphen “e” before it. And if there were 18 miles of books, there was a marathon-size crowd of shoppers. The crush three days before Christmas felt more like a European soccer game letting out than a bookstore.
I bought books. So did a lot of other folks. The New York Daily News reported several days later that the day before Christmas Eve was the best for the family business in its 86 years of operation. Besides record sales, there were two marriage proposals. Romance in the rows. I like it.
Despite the crowds, a friendly Strand clerk actually asked if he could help me find something. I almost dropped my James Baldwin. And the checkout process was efficient and fast. If the box stores operated like the Strand, you might not dread going.
The bookstore wasn’t the only crowded place, of course. Some comedian compared the throngs walking to see the famous tree at Rockefeller Center to the Bataan Death March. There was a certain forced feeling to the hike, all right, as if you’d be in real trouble if you changed your mind about seeing the tree and tried to walk in the opposite direction.
As always, the best things about New York were not in the guide book. A talented young classical pianist was playing a baby grand that he’d somehow rolled into Washington Square. He was getting generous tips, perhaps enough to call Two Men and a Truck when the outdoor concert ended.
A jazz band wearing Santa hats over white hair strolled through Angelo’s in Little Italy playing Christmas tunes. Diners took a break from their manicotti and linguini long enough to applaud and sing.
The Salvation Army kettle-keepers danced wildly to encourage contributions. There was, in fact, a lively beat to the entire city. You couldn’t get away from music, which is the way Christmas should be.
At the famous FAO Schwarz toy store, adults seemed more fascinated with giant stuffed pandas and piano keys on the floor than did the children, which is convenient since adults are the ones with the credit cards.
I’ll have to admit I was a little disappointed in one Christmas staple: the Macy’s windows. All my life I’ve heard of their Christmas magic. And there was a lot of high-tech, interactive shimmering going on as an animated boy has a magical dream involving half a dozen windows and deer and forests and fairies and bubbles and such.
But for my money, the exquisite, huge Russian nesting dolls at Anthropologie were better. Not to mention the Saks Fifth Avenue window, where the Abominable Snowman shares a subway car with Don Draper and Joan Harris from “Mad Men.”
I guess window preference is a lot like the clothing inside. To each his own. And I saw everything on Fifth Avenue from furs to jeans, including furs with jeans.
I’m here to tell you, however, two sartorial items are obligatory. This winter in New York, everyone’s wearing boots — of every species and sub-species — and stocking caps, the kind the bad guys wore in “Home Alone.” Don’t even think of traveling to The City without them.
To find out more about Rheta Grimsley Johnson and her books, visit www.rhetagrimsleyjohnsonbooks.com.