On Friday at noon, Nancy Bass Wyden, owner of Strand Book Store, with two locations in Manhattan, posted an open letter on social media asking for help from the local community and asking them to buy books. Reaction was swift: Shortly after the letter was posted, the store's website was inundated with traffic and crashed. Throughout the weekend, long lines of customers were seen at the store. Social media reaction to Wyden's letter was mixed between advocates expressing support for the store and a vocal contingency blaming Wyden, who is perceived as wealthy, for fiscal irresponsibility and failing to hire back unionized workers.
"Our sales were down 70% through September, compared to last year," Wyden told PW on Friday. "In September, I had been optimistic that with the return of New York University students it would help, but it didn't happen." She blames the near total absence of tourists and significantly reduced foot traffic at the store's flagship location at Broadway and 12th Street for lower sales. The company's other location at Columbus and 82nd Street opened in July and traffic there has been "good, but could be better," Wyden said. She also blamed the lack of events, both on and off site, for having further impact on sales. "Previously, we have done some 400 events a year, with many happening simultaneously on different floors, and served as the bookstore for large events, like ComicCon."
Strand closed for business on March 16 due to lockdowns imposed by New York City due to the spread of the coronavirus; it reopened on June 22. During that period the store laid off a majority of its 216 staff. It has since returned to modest staffing levels with 69 people currently employed. The store has amplified its online presence and is running several unique promotions to attract business, including the ability to buy a tour of the store's famous rare-book room. "Much of the website is oriented to gift-giving now and we really want to encourage people to shop early," said Wyden.
Wyden called this "a huge turning point" in the store's history, noting it has been in operation for 93 years and has survived numerous challenges, from the Great Depression to the advent of Amazon, and Wyden said the bookstore is not "going down without a fight."
In speaking with PW she referred to feeling a strong responsibility to her family's legacy and its role as "the last remaining bookstore still standing from the original 48 stores on 4th Avenue's Book Row." She said the company, which owns its building, had decided not lease any space to another retailer, nor would the store try to raise money through crowdfunding. "I would much rather have people buy books and support us that way."
She said that her family has been supporting the store to some extent over this period of difficulty, and some $1 million in government PPP support was a help, "but only went so far." Wyden was personally criticized when it was revealed she had bought some $115,000 of Amazon shares, and more on a second occasion, while also not being able to return all previous employees to work.
Wyden said the city of New York bears responsibility for the long lockdown and has to do much more to help businesses. "If they don't, only the big chain stores with massive cash reserves are going to survive and end up the winners." she said.
As for the future, Wyden refused to speculate. She said her hope is that the store will remain open until there is a vaccine available. "It all depends on how sales go through the Christmas season," she said. "That will show us what moves we will make next.
This story was updated with new information.