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When New York’s Strand Bookstores asked for help, 25,000 online orders flooded in

Readers rushed to the aid of the iconic bookseller after its owner called on them to #savethestrand

A view of a long line of people waiting for their turn at a Strand Bookstore in Union Square. (John Nacion/STAR MAX/IPx/AP)
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One of New York’s oldest bookstores pleaded for help from customers — and help poured in.

Nancy Bass Wyden, owner of the Strand Bookstores, took to Facebook and Twitter on Friday to say the business was “unsustainable.” Sales had slumped 70 percent since 2019 because of the pandemic, and the company’s cash reserves were running low, she wrote.

She asked patrons to “#savethestrand” with some early holiday shopping, noting that “for the first time in The Strand’s 93 year history, we need to mobilize the community to buy from us so we can keep our doors open until there is a vaccine.”

The response was explosive: The store received more than 25,000 online orders over the weekend, causing the website to crash, Wyden told The Washington Post. It normally gets 300 orders a day.

One woman in the Bronx bought 197 books. A dozen customers asked Strand to design their home libraries. Wyden’s 12-year-old daughter came in to pack books for online orders. In-store, Strand made $170,550 in sales on Saturday and Sunday, Wyden said. By comparison, it lost $316,000 in September.

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“How can I not love my book community for helping like this?” she said in a phone interview. “I really don’t think that we’re just a bookstore. I think we’re a place of discovery and a community center. When I ask for help and they respond this fast, it’s so heartwarming.”

She said in the interview that she hopes the store will survive through the end of the year, and then she’ll reevaluate its future.

Independent booksellers have struggled through the pandemic, with one store folding each week on average, the American Booksellers Association told the New York Times. Meanwhile, their top online rival, Amazon, continues to post record sales and profit. (Amazon founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos also owns The Washington Post.)

Local businesses of all types — restaurants, event venues, clothing shops and bookstores — have made increasingly public appeals to lawmakers for economic relief, but also to loyal customers to save community institutions from financial ruin.

Founded in 1927 by Benjamin Bass, a Jewish Lithuanian immigrant, with $300 in cash and a $300 loan, Strand grew into one of the largest independent book houses in New York. It is one of the only surviving bookstores from Fourth Avenue’s famed “Book Row.” Fred Bass, the son of the founder, began working in the store at age 13, according to his New York Times obituary. Wyden, his daughter, worked at Strand through her childhood and officially became its owner in 2018.

Wyden shut down Strand on March 16, as the coronavirus began to sweep through New York. It was impossible, she said, to keep any part of the business open, even for online shopping, without protective equipment for staff. She furloughed 188 of 217 employees, expecting to bring them back within weeks when health conditions improved.

“I talked to other bookstore owners and HR people and accountants, and I was just scrambling to find out what this means,” she said. “There was no — and there is no — end in sight for this pandemic. And we weren’t sure who to furlough and who not to furlough. We all thought we’d be back to normal in June.”

Strand reopened on June 22 after accepting a Paycheck Protection Program loan of between $1 million and $2 million, and brought back 30 employees. Wyden said she overestimated a sales rebound. She laid off 12 workers weeks later.

Meanwhile, she bought at least $115,000 of stock in Amazon. The investment was disclosed because her husband is Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.). The stock purchases enraged workers and members of Strand’s union, who accused her of disguising the business’s finances.

“She’s saying, ‘There’s no money, things are tough,’ ” one worker told the Baffler magazine in September. “But no, she’s spending her own money on an enormous stock buying binge, including Amazon, who is our competitor, who she has spoken out about publicly.”

Wyden said in an interview that Amazon was not a chief concern for Strand and that the loss of foot traffic because of the pandemic did far more harm. She said she bought the Amazon stock, along with holdings in other tech firms, to maintain her personal income.

“I was a small-business owner, and everything got shut down with my income,” she said. “No website. No bookstores. I was just thinking that I should diversify my personal portfolio and invest in stocks that are performing. I have to keep my own resources going to keep the Strand going. Those are interconnected. We used up all the money that we put aside.

“I saw there was an economic opportunity. The stocks were very, very low, and I picked stocks as a businessperson that I thought would thrive.”

At the store, however, business continued to struggle. Wyden had planned to spend 2020 building out Strand’s rare-book room into an event space. The store hosted more than 400 events in 2019. Now that source of revenue was gone. Only 10 percent of its 2019 business, she estimated, came from the Web.

She banked on another sales bump in September with back-to-school shopping and the city starting to reopen. It didn’t happen. Needing a boost, she posted her letter to customers Friday morning.

“As the 3rd generation owner,” she wrote, “I have tried to imagine what my dad and grandfather would do right now after they spent their entire lives — 6 days a week — working at the store. I don’t believe they would want me to give up without a fight and that’s why I’m writing you today.”

“I not only feel right now the weight of my grandfather and my dad,” she said in an interview, “but I also feel the weight of the 48 [original] booksellers on Fourth Avenue.”

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