Strand Book Store writes new chapter in storied history while weathering COVID-19 storm

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The exterior of the closed Strand Book Store on April 20, 2020. (Photo by Todd Maisel)

During its first 93 years in business, Manhattan’s Strand Book Store never had to endure a mass layoff. Then the coronavirus pandemic hit New York City.

“We survived the Depression, multiple recessions, 9/11, even the rise of chain bookstores and ebooks,” Strand owner Nancy Bass Wyden said. “March was the first time in our history we were forced to lay off a single employee.”

Calling it “the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make as a business owner,” Wyden remarked that Strand had no other choice. The book store located on Broadway and East 12th Street in the East Village — famous for offering “18 miles of books” to generations of devoted customers — closed on March 16 out of an abundance of caution for customers and staff alike.

Moreover, Strand closed down its warehouse for a time and indefinitely delayed the opening of a second book store along Columbus Avenue on the Upper West Side.

The voluntary closure occurred a week before New York state went on “PAUSE,” which ordered non-essential businesses to shut down. Like so many other shuttered small businesses in New York City, Strand took a significant financial hit — and had to reinvent itself a bit to cover some of their losses.

Strand’s website launched 23 years ago but was never considered a primary source of the shop’s revenue. After the March closure, Wyden said, the business hurried to release an updated version of the site allowing them to sell more books.

The online revenue allowed Strand to rehire some of the 198 staff members who were laid off, Wyden noted. But she conceded that the online operation is still not to the level of the traditional brick-and-mortar business. 

“While it’s certainly a move in the right direction, we’re honestly not nearly close enough to reaching our regular revenue,” Wyden said in an interview with amNewYork Metro. “The Strand’s success has been rooted in the in-person retail experience, so moving our customers online has been challenging. That being said, we’re seeing great results thus far, and I am so thankful that our community has been so willing to proactively support us.”

As they work to bounce back, Strand doesn’t have to worry about one major hurdle small business owners face: rent. Wyden’s father, the late Fred Bass, bought the building where Strand’s flagship store is housed back in 1996. The Landmarks Preservation Commission made the structure a landmark in 2019, against Wyden’s objections. 

Strand also received a loan through the Paycheck Protection Program which has “helped as much as it can,” Wyden said. The store’s goal is to rehire all of the 198 laid off staff members as soon as possible.

When and how these workers will be rehired will depend upon how the brick-and-mortar store reopens once New York City gets the all-clear to “reopen.” Wyden said the store will follow Governor Andrew Cuomo’s direction once the PAUSE is lifted, and the store has already begun mapping out a strategy to ensure customer and staff safety.

“We will all be wearing masks, gloves, and making sure there’s hand sanitizer everywhere. We will adhere to social distancing and implement additional cleaning measures,” she added. “One thing we haven’t worked out yet is how we can allow our customers to browse freely in our 18 miles of books and have unlimited time to get lost in the stacks.”

When the PAUSE ends, the fear about coronavirus will likely remain among many New Yorkers. Wyden believes that while many “will still be too worried to venture out” right away, over time, “people will want to rejoin with their book-loving community and get back to the serenity of discovering new books at their local bookstores.”

“New Yorkers like to stand out, not fit in, so I have hope that they’ll keep the city’s quirky small businesses alive,” she added. “Businesses like ours are the fabric of our city, not chain stores. Out of hard times, you always get the biggest bursts of creativity, so I hope New York will bounce back.”