If The Strand Bookstore is Not Doomed, Then What’s Going On?

The Legendary Strand Bookstore Sure Looks Like It Will Soon Be Out Of Business

The Writing Is Not On The Wall, But On The Shelves

Outside Strand Bookstore April 2021

Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 was playing over the sound system at the Strand Bookstore on Broadway and 12th Street this week. It’s a classical composition heightened with drama and a dirge-like quality. And unfortunately it suits the current state of Strand.

The atmosphere of Strand now resembles a morgue. It’s a shell of what it has been to generations of New Yorkers.

A Store In Trouble

While the pandemic has put thousands of retail shops down for the count permanently, the 94-year-old Strand has tenaciously hung in there. Labor disputes at the store have been featured in the news and an appeal to buyers to support the Strand made International news headlines in the autumn.

But from what I’ve seen, it appears that saving the Strand will be difficult.

From 40 plus years of regularly visiting the mecca of used books I can say it feels like the store is in a death spiral. In store traffic has significantly decreased. A major cause of this is the obvious lack of tourism and pandemic restrictions.  But something else is happening which is not apparent unless you visit the store fairly regularly.

No one at Strand Bookstore
The few workers who were silently going about their routines did so in a demoralized somber state. The unionized sales staff is now mostly made up of younger employees and the old guard seems to have vanished with the Covid shuttering of New York.

Used Bookstores Need Quality Used Books

Strand has kept their rare book room closed for over a year now. This is where the most valuable and expensive books are purchased by customers. The rest of the store excepting the bathrooms is open. But foot traffic is light. While a Strand sign by the roped off stairway leading to the rare book room emphasizes that you can still shop the rare books online, it is no substitute for browsing in person and discovering some treasure you never knew existed through serendipity. The Strand website was revamped a couple of years ago and inexplicably was made less user friendly by eliminating many advanced search features and sorting options.

More troubling are the bookshelves. Through four visits I’ve made to Strand in between August 2020 and April 2021, the number and quality of used books for sale has been dropping steadily. The evidence is clear. Relatively few additions have been made to the tens of thousands of used books that normally flow through the store annually.

Empty Shelves

The books at Strand are dated on the price label as to when they first became available for sale, A look at many sections of the store indicates that the majority of the books are dated before March 2020 when the pandemic shut down New York. The number of books acquired after that date are scant.  In addition, the most glaring fact towards self-extinction is that every section of the store has swaths of shelves, sans books.

Lots of empty shelves in Photography section at Stand Bookstore April 2021

This obfuscation is somewhat on the sly. Almost all the bare shelves are on the very top or bottom row where the eye does not normally gravitate to. For a store that constantly had the problem of where to put all the books, this is quite a turnabout. Instead of thirty books on a shelf, many sections have shelves with one book per shelf facing outward or completely empty.

The New York section at Strand Bookstore top shelves empty

The New York section at Strand Bookstore bottom shelves empty

When I last visited on a Tuesday afternoon, no one was at the buying desk and no one was in line to sell books to the Strand. Why? The store is buying books (up to 40) on Saturdays only from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., It was a far cry from just a couple of years ago when you practically had to make an appointment to sell to Strand because the buying desk was constantly busy with people lining up to bring in multiple boxes of books.

Other Factors That Are Killing Strand – Losing Revenue…and Employee Support

Owner Nancy Bass Wyden, inherited the store from her father, the genial Fred Bass who passed away in 2018. Bass Wyden says she wants to keep the store going. I hope I’m wrong, but the store’s actions point to retail suicide.

One thing is sure – a combination of factors is putting Strand on the precipice of doom.

The impact of the pandemic is the most important factor. How many times can the same customers keep coming back to buy? The Strand relies on tourists to make up a large portion of their sales.

Bass Wyden said that Strand revenue was down 70% over the last year, and the business’ cash reserves had depleted. The $1 million to $2 million loan the Strand received in government emergency relief last April was running out.

Then there is the rancor among the unionized Strand employees who say they have been treated poorly. 188 of 217 employees were fired last June. 45 union members were eventually hired back, only to have a dozen of them laid off again on July 7. Reviews of working at Strand highlight some of the issues that plague the store.

The Strand building which is owned by Bass Wyden was given landmark status by the LPC in 2019 over her objections. Landmarking does not benefit the store as any alteration undertaken has strict rules and high costs. WPIX-TV reported in June that store leadership called the landmark staus “a kiss of death” for the store. The landmarking of Strand and surrounding buildings greatly reduces the value of the building to a future buyer. Now no developer can assemble a larger parcel including the Strand building, demolish it and build a maximum height tower.

What Are We Selling?

Perhaps fewer people are bringing books to sell to Strand. This is not so at the other used bookshops I have visited recently. Unfortunately there is an abundance of second-hand books at other stores because many older people with fine collections died in the past year.

With limited funds it is hard to buy used books to stock the shelves. But that is critical for a used bookstore to keep customers browsing, buying and returning to the store. The turnover of stock seems to be sadly lacking here. It’s almost as if someone has said, “let’s sell what we can from our existing stock and keep our purchases to the bare minimum. The fewer books we have, the better.”

Tchotchke tourist merchandise taking up floor space instead of used books.

The Strand also took over the space at  the former Book Culture store on Columbus Avenue in late 2019.  Of course it was unforeseen that it would be the worst possible time for an expansion. The new Strand west side location finally opened in July 2020.

If the Strand does go under, it will be a loss not just for New York City but bibliophiles around the world.

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