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'We cannot survive': New York's Strand bookstore appeals for help

Martin Pengelly in New York
·4 min read
<span>Photograph: Bruce yuanyue Bi/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Bruce yuanyue Bi/Alamy

The Strand Bookstore, a landmark of literary New York, is in serious trouble, appealing for customers to help it stave off closure amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Related: New York's Strand bookstore fights back over landmark status

“We’ve survived just about everything for 93 years,” proprietor Nancy Bass-Wyden said in a statement, of the store her grandfather founded in 1927. “The Great Depression, two world wars, big box bookstores, ebooks and online behemoths. We are the last of the 48 bookstores still standing from 4th Avenue’s famous Book Row.

“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 revenue was down nearly 70% from 2019. Though a government loan and cash reserves saw the store through the first eight months of the pandemic, she said, “we are now at a turning point where our business is unsustainable”.

Earlier this year, thanks to disclosures necessitated by her marriage to Ron Wyden, a Democratic senator from Oregon, Bass-Wyden was revealed to have spent between $115,000 and $250,000 on purchasing stock in Amazon, the “online behemoth” that has done most to damage independent bookstores.

Bass-Wyden said she made the purchase to support the Strand.

“It was necessary for me to diversify my personal portfolio and invest in stocks that are performing,” she said then. “I have to make sure that I have the resources to keep the Strand going.

“I continue to stand against the unfair giveaways from local governments to giant corporations like Amazon but the economic opportunity presented by the unfortunate downturn in the market will allow me to keep the Strand in business.”

New York was hit hard early in the pandemic and although reopening continues and the state is not as hard-hit as others as case numbers rise again across most of the US, businesses in the city continue to struggle.

Earlier this year, the Strand obtained paycheck protection program funds from the government but also laid off “the majority” of its staff. This summer, it opened a second physical location in Manhattan, in the old Book Culture store at Columbus Avenue and West 81st, on the Upper West Side.

When the Guardian visited that store on Thursday afternoon, customers were few. At the nearby Westsider Books, a secondhand store made famous by Fading Gigolo, a film starring Woody Allen, signs thanked customers for raising more than $50,000 through a crowdfunding campaign in 2019. Strand, however, is a much bigger concern, in normal times promising “18 miles of books” over four floors at its main store, the satellite shop and kiosks in Times Square and Central Park.

In her statement, Bass-Wyden reminisced about growing up at the flagship location, at Broadway and East 12th Street, of “magical delight when I discovered the candy colored books gracing the wooden children’s shelves” and of watching her father and grandfather “evaluating piles of books at the front-door buying desk”.

She also said she did not believe her father and grandfather would “want me to give up without a fight, and that’s why I’m writing to you today”. Her appeal was simple: asking readers to come to the shop or buy from Strand online.

“I’m going to pull out all the stops,” she wrote, “to keep sharing our mutual love of the printed word. But for the first time in the Strand’s 93-year history, we need to mobilise the community to buy from us so we can keep our doors open until there’s a vaccine.”

Last October, during a controversy over the main Strand building being given landmark status, Bass-Wyden spoke to the Guardian.

“The customers are changing, how they shop is changing, but it’s a labour of love and it’s also, yeah, a struggle,” she said.

“Anthropologically, we need each other, we need to exchange ideas, we are always a species that needs to learn and discover, so in some form or manner I feel that the Strand, I want it to survive. I have kids, they’re young, but I’m hopeful that they’ll have some interest and there’ll be a fourth generation.”