For more than 90 years, the Strand bookstore and its “18 miles of books” has been one of Manhattan’s most beloved destinations. But the decision this week to make its building a city landmark isn’t an honor, the store’s owner says. It’s a burden.
In an op-ed published Friday in the New York Daily News, Nancy Bass Wyden, whose grandfather opened the now-famed East Village bookstore in 1927, decried the “bureaucratic straitjacket” the landmark designation would put on her family’s business by putting control of the building’s exterior in the hands of the city landmark commission.
“The only reason our building is historically noteworthy is because it is home to the Strand,” Bass Wyden wrote in the op-ed. “But the Strand might not survive the burden that comes with landmark designation.”
Since last summer, Bass Wyden has waged a public campaign against the landmark status — an effort that has highlighted the complexities in the ongoing tug-of-war for the city’s heritage. City officials say the landmark designation is a way to preserve gems like the Strand, while more and more old buildings give way to shiny new developments, like the $250 million tech training center being constructed in nearby Union Square. But some, like Bass Wyden, say the recognition from the landmark commission attacks what it claims to protect.
To fight back, Bass Wyden circulated a petition to protest the designation that got 11,000 signatures, made a website and T-shirts bearing the slogan “Protect the Strand” and rallied some of the shop’s most famous customers, including Fran Lebowitz and Gary Shteyngart, to speak on its behalf at the public hearings over the landmark decision.
Despite Bass Wyden’s widely publicized resistance, the Strand’s building — which has sat at the corner of Broadway and 12th Street since 1902 — was designated a landmark this week, along with six other buildings.
“The building is both architecturally and culturally significant, both as the home of the Strand bookstore and its historic association to the garment industry,” landmark commission chair Sarah Carroll wrote in a Medium post this week. “Our regulatory system is efficient and flexible, and I am confident that designation will not impact plans for the Strand Bookstore.”
The commission must now sign off on any alterations to the historic building’s exterior, and it has control over all the fixtures, from the glass in the windows to the color of the awning. The Strand will have to pay “tens of thousands of dollars” for three-dimensional renderings of future renovations, like its planned coffee shop, Bass Wyden wrote.
The landmark commission, however, says the designation will not be limiting in ways Bass Wyden is suggesting.
“We recognize landmark designation means being regulated by the Commission. However, the owner controls their own building,” Carroll said in a statement to The Post. “LPC review is required only when the owner wishes to make changes to the building. We do not compel owners to undertake any work. I am confident that we can work with her on any future plans for the storefront of the building.”
These added regulatory and financial burdens will strain the store’s thin margins, Bass Wyden said, at a time when independent bookstores are under siege from soaring rents and fierce competition from superstores and online retailers such as Amazon — which New York offered more than $2 billion in incentives to land a headquarters in Queens, only for the company to back out at the last minute after facing community opposition.
Bass Wyden’s claims about the store’s financial challenges are somewhat at odds with the fact that her father, Fred Bass, who died last January, left behind a $25 million estate -- much of which was split between his wife and Bass Wyden, the New York Post reported.
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio — whose plans for the 21-story Union Square tech training center have ignited calls from preservationists to protect the area — argued that Bass Wyden was mischaracterizing the impact of the landmark designation at a news conference this week, the New York Post reported.
"Everyone respects the Strand quite a bit, and I believe that we can prove that this is not going to be the problem that she projects it to be,” de Blasio said. “We think she’s interpreting [regulations for city landmarks] wrongly and that we can show her where this is not going to add cost to her operation.”
But Bass Wyden, whose husband is Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), isn’t ready to give up the fight just yet. She’s still calling on New Yorkers to protest the “enormous, unnecessary threat” of the landmark status.
“I owe it to my father and grandfather to keep up this fight,” Bass Wyden wrote in the op-ed. “Only if the community bands together can we ensure the Strand continues to be a place where book-lovers can get lost in the stacks.”