In a letter to customers Friday, The Strand Book Store’s owner, Nancy Bass Wyden, noted just how much the business has withstood in its 93-year history: the Great Depression, World War II, the big box bookstore era, as well as the proliferation of e-books and Amazon’s dominance in the online retail space. But historic resilience in the face of hard times doesn’t guarantee survival in a global pandemic that has crippled small businesses, diminished consumers’ bank accounts and crushed New York’s economy — even for a city institution like The Strand.
The Strand’s two locations — the flagship store on Broadway and East 12th Street and the brand’s newest location on Columbus Avenue on the Upper West Side — are in dire straights. The store’s revenue has dropped nearly 70 percent compared to 2019, according to Bass Wyden.
“Because of the impact of COVID-19, we cannot survive the huge decline in foot-traffic, a near complete loss of tourism, and zero in-store events,” Bass Wyden said in the letter she shared on social media Friday, urging customers and book lovers to help save the beloved bookstore. For the past eight months, The Strand has been operating on a loan as well as cash reserves, but those sources have nearly dried up.
“We are now at a turning point where our business is unsustainable,” Bass Wyden wrote.
The Strand’s financial circumstances are shared by many other independent and small businesses across the city. As it looks increasingly improbable that the federal government will pass a second stimulus package, these businesses have started to turn to consumers for help by way of crowdfunding or emotional appeals. Bass Wyden isn’t asking for donations, but she’s urging New Yorkers and book lovers everywhere to buy from the store, whether it be in person or online. She also asked for customers to share this message using #SaveTheStrand, and telling others to do the same.
This kind of campaign might just work for a business as well regarded and as iconic as The Strand. Just hours after Bass Wyden published the letter, the post received had 14,000 retweets on Twitter. Because of its reach and status as a cultural institution, the store will likely see a lot of support in days to come, which could help keep their doors open until there’s a vaccine, as Bass Wyden noted in the letter. But it’s a campaign likely few will be able to replicate, especially for those businesses with less notoriety. Even if The Strand manages to survive, its current struggle is a glaring example of what happens when businesses are left to figure it out on their own amidst such an unprecedented economic event.
West Side Expansion
In what might now be regarded as unfortunate timing, The Strand planned to expand its brand to the Upper West Side — just before COVID-19 took hold of the city. The store replaced the ailing Book Culture after it closed for good in January. Similarly, Book Culture’s owner, Chris Doeblin, had also pleaded with New Yorkers to donate money to save the business and help cover the $100,000 he owed in back rent.
The Strand’s UWS debut was originally planned for April, but was ultimately pushed back to July. Bass Wyden told the West Side Spirit at the time that the expansion was a particularly meaningful venture for her.
“This is exciting to me because this is my first bookstore without my dad,” Bass Wyden said, noting that with the passing of her father, Fred Bass, two years ago, she would be putting her own mark on The Strand legacy.
While Bass Wyden’s letter serves as a call to action, it’s also a poignant recollection of the store’s history and its inextricable connection to her family and her childhood.
“I grew up in the Strand, or at least that’s the way it felt to me. I remember the old floorboards clacking under my Mary Janes, the ghostly grey walls, the magical delight when I found the candy colored books gracing the wooden children’s shelves and the thrill that I could bring home any book I wanted,” said Bass Wyden, whose grandfather, Ben Bass, founded the store in 1927 on Fourth Avenue between 10th and 11th streets.
Back then, The Strand was one of 48 bookstores on Fourth Avenue known as “Book Row,” which covered six city blocks. It is the only bookstore of those 48 still in business.
“As I watched my grandfather and dad working side-by-side evaluating books at the front door buying desk, never did I imagine the store’s financial situation would become so dire that I would have to write friends and devoted customers for help,” Bass Wyden wrote. “It hurts to write this, but that is the predicament that we are now in.”
Bass Wyden recognized that the coming months would determine The Strand’s future, and in these months, she said, she plans “put out all the stops” to save the bookstore.
“As the 3rd generation owner, I have tried to imagine what my dad and grandfather would do right now after they spent their entire lives — 6 days a week — working at the store,” she said in the letter. “I don’t believe they would want me to give up without a fight and that’s why I’m writing you today.”