In late March, as hundreds of New Yorkers were dying every day from the coronavirus, and the city entered a long period of lockdown, New York’s most famous bookstore announced that it had to choice but to lay off the majority of its staff. Eventually, like many other small businesses, The Strand began to reopen, first with curbside pickup, then with a lower occupancy inside their iconic 4th Avenue location. The company took a Payroll Protection Program loan from the federal government. A second Strand opened on the Upper West Side in July, the result of a lease agreement signed before the pandemic hit.
But according to The Strand’s owner, Nancy Bass Wyden, revenues have declined around 70 percent—nowhere near where they need to be to support the 69 workers she still employs.
In an open letter, Wyden told her customers that “the next few months will determine the future of The Strand,” and that “we need to mobilize the community to buy from us so we can keep our doors open until there’s a vaccine.”
📣 We need your help. This is the post we hoped to never write, but today marks a huge turning point in The Strand’s history. Our revenue has dropped nearly 70% compared to last year, and the loans and cash reserves that have kept us afloat these past months are depleted. pic.twitter.com/mI074pigZu
— Strand Book Store (@strandbookstore) October 23, 2020
Asked if she would be forced to sell the business that has been in her family for three generations, Wyden told Gothamist on Friday, “You just said that, and my heart dropped.”
“I really don’t want that. I really have a lot of fight and I want to continue. It’s a labor of love, it’s in my family’s blood. We’re the last bookstore on 4th Avenue’s legendary book row.”
While book sales overall have increased during the pandemic, the New York Times recently reported that those new purchases are not being made at independent bookstores. The American Booksellers Association recently surveyed its members, and roughly a third reported that overall sales are down 40 percent or more. Profit margins for independent bookstores hover around 2 percent.
The loss of in-store events and the massive drop in tourism have severely impacted The Strand’s bottom line, according to Wyden, who estimated that around 75 percent of her business came from out-of-town visitors. The shop is a New York City institution, at nearly 100 years old.
Wyden, who owns the 4th Avenue building where the flagship store is located, insisted that it gave her no pleasure to ask for help from New Yorkers—who are also struggling to make ends meet during a time of mass unemployment and economic devastation. “I wish the city would do more for small businesses of course,” she said. “Everybody’s struggling. Everybody’s doing their best.”
To highlight Amazon’s dominance in bookselling and online shopping, some independent booksellers in New York recently participated in an action to show how they have been “#BoxedOut” by the company.
This summer, Wyden purchased between $60,000 and $200,000 in Amazon stock and as much as $500,000 in UPS and FedEx stock; the transfers are public because Wyden is married to the U.S. Senator from Oregon, Ron Wyden.
“The economic opportunity presented by the downturn in the stock market is allowing me to keep The Strand in business,” Wyden explained. “I’ve used up the cash reserves, I’ve done everything.”
The Strand has recently revamped their website to be more mobile friendly, and Wyden said they’re offering extra incentives for customers. For instance, a purchase of a $250 will also get you a private tour of their Rare Book Room collection.
“I serve the community. I serve the customers, the staff. We sell books. It helps publishers, it helps writers,” Wyden said. “All I can say right now is, I want to get through the holidays and do really well and that’s why I’m asking for community support, and I believe they will support us.”