We spoke to employees of NYC’s beloved 93-year-old Strand Book Store who say its millionaire owner’s attempts to save the struggling business are making it harder than ever to run the store
Bass Wyden inherited 828 Broadway, where the Strand is located, from her father.
Jennifer Ortakales Dawkins/Business Insider
Like many independent businesses across the country, the beloved NYC book store the Strand is in trouble.
In late October, the Strand posted a cry for help on Twitter, signed by owner Nancy Bass Wyden, encouraging people to “save the Strand.” The tweet led to 25,000 weekend orders and crashed the company’s website.
However, the rush also exacerbated the “chaos” that some employees say had been experiencing throughout the pandemic, due to Bass Wyden’s alleged micromanagement of the store.
Employees Insider spoke with question where the $1 million to $2 million in government emergency relief went since more than 100 of their coworkers remain jobless, and why Bass Wyden was playing “the Oliver Twist routine” when she owns the building and millions more in personal wealth, including at least $150,000 in Amazon stocks.
Business Insider spoke with eight current and former employees who detailed the poor morale unfolding in one of NYC’s institutions — and a beacon for independent bookstores.
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On a Wednesday morning this October, Uzodinma Okehi gathered with his coworkers on the first floor of the Strand Book Store, the beloved institution in the heart of New York City’s Greenwich Village, where he’s worked for nearly 20 years.
The Strand’s owner, Nancy Bass Wyden, had called the staff together for a grave talk.
She gave it to them straight. Revenue was down 70% since this time last year, the business’ cash reserves had depleted, and the $1 million to $2 million loan the Strand received in government emergency relief in April was running dry.
For the first time since her grandfather founded the store 93 years ago, Bass Wyden said, the time had come to ask customers for help. Start the holidays early, she said. Shop the Strand to save the Strand.
“She definitely seemed pretty emotional,” Okehi told Business Insider. “She wanted to really try to keep the business alive.”
Bass Wyden started working at the Strand in the mid-’70s, when she was 16, and inherited full ownership of the business, including the building at 828 Broadway, from her father, Fred Bass, after his death in 2017.
The bookstore has withstood the Great Depression, two World Wars, and the 9/11 terror attacks, but, Bass Wyden said, a pandemic could be its downfall.
“It’s tough for small-business owners,” she said. “We survived e-books — even Amazon was fine. But COVID is really what has stopped us in our socks.”
Strand workers Insider spoke with said some of the business’ challenges are self-inflicted. We spoke with eight current and former employees, some of whom asked to speak on the condition of anonymity.
They described staff-wide discontent with Bass Wyden’s management, fear for their jobs and those of their coworkers, and feelings of being overwhelmed as business surged unexpectedly.
Their comments also reveal a tension at the heart of the Strand in the time of COVID.
America’s economy has ground to a halt over the past six months. Over 60 million Americans have filed for unemployment insurance — more than the entirety of the 18-month-long Great Recession — and nearly 100,000 small businesses have closed for good.
In July, an American Booksellers Association survey suggested that 20% of independent bookstores were at risk of closing. Allison Hill, the CEO of the association, said that number could now be higher, with more than one store closing every week, on average, since the pandemic began.
Survival then has been a challenge for any bookstore or small business. But the Strand isn’t any regular bookstore. And Bass Wyden isn’t a regular small-business owner.
Many employees work there out of a devotion to the written word and love for fellow bookworms, they said. Now, however, that idealism is hitting up against the reality of the tough decisions that many businesses like the Strand are having to make during the pandemic.
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