The millionaire owner of NYC's beloved 93-year-old Strand Book Store says she's trying everything to save her struggling company. Overwhelmed employees say she's making it harder than ever to run the store.
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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."
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. She owns her building, which automatically eliminates the most burdensome line item in most owners' budget: rent. The building at 828 Broadway alone is valued at $41 million, according to PropertyShark. Bass Wyden also owns a significant stock portfolio with her husband, Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden. According to her husband's Senate financial disclosures, Bass Wyden purchased at least $150,000 in Amazon stock this summer, despite slamming the retail giant last year in her battle against landmarking her building.
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. 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. A marathon with no end in sight In April, Bass Wyden applied for and received a government emergency-relief loan through the Paycheck Protection Program. According to PPP guidelines, the $1 million to $2 million for which she qualified should have gone to restoring 212 jobs. As of Sunday, Bass Wyden said 67 employees had returned to work, fewer than a third of the 216 employees on staff before the pandemic. "We've been gradually adding them," she said. "We thought we'd get back right away." Bass Wyden said the PPP loan has been vital to keeping the business going, despite employees' concern that she hasn't been doing enough to bring workers back. "I think many employees assumed that if you get the loan they should have their job back right away," she said. "If we would've brought all of our employees back, we would have burned through the loan in a month easily." Bass Wyden described the pandemic as a marathon with no end in sight. "We're trying to stretch every dollar of that loan that we can, and we will have to return a bulk of it in December," she said. Some people questioned decisions the store owner made over the summer. Two weeks after the Strand reopened and Bass Wyden brought back 45 workers, she soon sent a dozen of them home, as reported by Gothamist and confirmed by people interviewed by Insider. She also opened a second location, on Manhattan's Upper West Side, in July, and another at LaGuardia's Terminal B, while much of her staff remained jobless. "Doing all that while simultaneously being a millionaire who's invested in Amazon is just a lot of hypocrisy," Rose Campbell, who worked at the Strand for two years before the pandemic, said. 'We're getting inundated with love' On October 23, Strand's Twitter account posted an urgent call to "Save the Strand," signed by Bass Wyden, imploring book lovers everywhere to buy Strand books. As of this writing, the tweet received more than 26,000 likes and has been retweeted 16,500 times, including by celebrities like the actor John Leguizamo and the comedian Patton Oswalt. When Insider visited the location that Sunday, masked shoppers were lined up down the block to support the institution. Many came in pairs: college students, couples, parents, and children traveling from outer boroughs, upstate, and New Jersey. "It's such an integral part of the city, so we really wanted to come down and try to support it while we can," Ava Roche, a senior at Fordham University, said.
Paul Jacobs, who lives in New York, went to stock up on novels and buy a Strand tote bag for his friend back home in Romania. "This is part of New York culture, the ability to read, the ability to learn, that's part of what drives it," Jacobs said. "It's what drives a lot of people to move here." Alex Stern, a customer who traveled across the Hudson River from Jersey City to shop the Strand, said he was saddened to see the cry for help. "It really just made us want to come here and support them," he said. "That's why it's kind of awesome to see there's a line down the block." As customers trickled in, they saw Bass Wyden in a red plaid shirt at the front of the store. She was thanking customers and introducing herself as the owner. "It's been booming for the last two days," Bass Wyden told Insider. Her squinting eyes signaled she was smiling behind her Strand-branded mask. According to the Strand, more than 25,000 online orders were placed that weekend, crashing the website and back-end system, prompting the staff to post a message a few days later that they would "need a little extra time to process orders." "All you have to do is ask sometimes, and it's not always easy to ask," Bass Wyden said. "It's a little humbling and it can be a little painful, but we are getting inundated with love."
Chaos in the stacks amid mismanagement and distrust What customers perusing the $2-book bins along 12th Street didn't see was the chaos inside, in the stacks. Before the pandemic, current and former employees Insider spoke with said Bass Wyden was rarely in the store, and they largely preferred it that way. "We ran the store," said Mac Gushanas, who was laid off in March after working at the Strand since 2016. "We were the ones who did it every single day." Each employee Insider spoke with said they could recall a time they felt micro-managed or undermined by a policy or decision Bass Wyden had implemented during her tenure, particularly during the pandemic. Many of them referred to the past week's rush as "chaos." "Books just sort of lay on carts or shelves," one current employee said. "Everything is unalphabetized, everything is just chaotic. "People aren't just there for a paycheck. People want to have a sense that they are accomplishing something with their work and are there for a reason, and a lot of the time it feels pointless." These days, after layoffs, several managers leaving the company, and now surging foot traffic, Bass Wyden's increased presence has exacerbated, not eased, the tension, they said. For instance, employees said one of her most burdensome changes was moving warehouse inventory tasks from the basement level, where they are processed, to the 10th floor where Bass Wyden's offices reside, a move they said was inefficient because it needlessly added 30 to 45 minutes to employees' procedures. "I don't get the impression that anyone who worked there thought that was a practical or good idea," current employee Brett Bates said. One current longtime employee said Bass Wyden raised prices during the pandemic to make up for lost income. "She has a history of making decisions based on what we would perceive as very shortsighted, greedy motives," the employee said, adding that the strategy was to raise prices to make up for the loss in sales during the pandemic. "But obviously people aren't going to buy as many books, generally speaking, when prices are higher. And so we don't really have much trust in her decision making." When Insider reached out to the Strand, the company did not address raising prices.
Bates, who's worked at the Strand for four years, said the work environment since reopening the store has been increasingly stressful. "It was the busiest it's been for me since I've started," he said. Other employees echoed Bates' sentiments, but stressed that the heart of the Strand — and the reason they've been so willing to persist through hard times — is the people who work the stacks every day, not the institution. "What people love about the Strand, and you can extrapolate this to New York City as a whole," said one current employee, "is the wealth of culture, knowledge, and creativity within its staff." The holidays came early Despite feelings of frustration, employees who spoke with Insider don't think the Strand's culture is beyond repair, provided Bass Wyden is open to receiving tough feedback. "It's important for her to hear how people really feel," Okehi said. "A lot of the times she's probably making it more difficult for us to do our jobs by feeling like she needs to step in and over-manage, when in fact if she stepped back and trusted the people around her a little bit more, there wouldn't be as much tension." That tension is compounded, employees said, because many are aware that they do not have the same safety net as a millionaire business owner. "There are people in that store who are trying to provide for themselves and their families, and they're being told that they might lose their jobs in two months," Gushanas said, "It's the workers in that store who might not be fine."SEE ALSO: 6 email templates small business owners can use to bring in customers and drive holiday sales SEE ALSO: Holiday shopping season started early this year. Here's a checklist to prepare your business for marketing, inventory, shipping, and customer service. Join the conversation about this story » NOW WATCH: July 15 is Tax Day — here's what it's like to do your own taxes for the very first time
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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
Summary List Placement On a Wednesday morning this October, Uzodinma Okehi gathered with his coworkers on...Summary List Placement 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....