How the Strand Lost Its Workers
March 20, 2021 11:23 AM   Subscribe

The bookstore’s owner says it’s hanging by a thread — and staff say they’re the ones paying the price. The Strand, with its flagship on Broadway and on East 12th Street, is the city’s most iconic bookstore. For a certain kind of New Yorker, it’s an equally iconic place to work — one where job applicants have to take a literature quiz matching books’ titles with the corresponding author’s names to prove their chops. Luc Sante worked there. Patti Smith too, for a hot minute. (She found it unfriendly.)
posted by folklore724 (82 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
 
Before, though, the job had just enough perks, just enough meaning, to make it worth the struggle.

Pandemic or not, unless you own the business getting paid in your love of whatever's being sold or offered as a service is a scam.
posted by The Card Cheat at 11:51 AM on March 20 [58 favorites]


Bookstore retail is so brutal, and yet I miss it. If we had UBI and universal healthcare, and my former employer still existed, I'd seriously consider it, at least part-time after I retired.
posted by emjaybee at 11:54 AM on March 20 [26 favorites]


Yeah, if that $15 minimum wage law passed, I'd go back to the bookstore. If the bookstore was there to go back to.
posted by lefty lucky cat at 12:13 PM on March 20 [19 favorites]


What I don't understand is did people suddenly stop needing books? They could have continued selling books in a safe way. Even if no website call us & tell us what book you want. Don't know what book you want? The employees can talk on the phone too. It just frustrates me that business owners are basically our overlords & in complete control of our rights & futures but they're also not smart or creative enough to keep us alive when things change nor did anyone elect them. The whole system is so fucked.
posted by bleep at 1:30 PM on March 20 [40 favorites]


The issue with bookstore retail is that the margins are super thin on books. The other stuff - the tchotchkes and bookmarks and greeting cards and candles and scarves and led reading lights - that's where the profit comes from.

You get sales on the stuff when you've got people browsing. Especially a place like The Strand where a tourist might not pick up a book but will grab a tote bag.

You don't get that when you're doing phone orders and curbside pickup.
posted by thecjm at 1:38 PM on March 20 [45 favorites]


What I don't understand is did people suddenly stop needing books?

If you mean codices (paper books), yes, a lot of people stopped needing them. I borrow and purchase a lot of books, but almost entirely as ebooks. I feel bad - I want to support local bookstores, but I don't have room for more paper books.
posted by jb at 1:45 PM on March 20 [18 favorites]


I used to buy new books, but now I can't afford them and I've developed the patience to wait for them to come in to the library. Sure love (and miss) shopping in used book stores, however.
posted by Rash at 1:55 PM on March 20 [7 favorites]


Gotta say as far as ‘bad boss’ stories go, those are pretty anemic
posted by bq at 2:07 PM on March 20 [10 favorites]


The store has historically rented various floors of the building to other tenants as a revenue stream; otherwise, it stays afloat by buying and selling new and used books, hosting events, and, of course, selling its branded tote bags — a product much-maligned by the store’s bookish staff.
Can anyone shed more light on this? My assumption would be that it is an aspect of distaste at the the way big box bookstores in the last decade or so have gradually replaced a lot of books with beige tchotchkes -- pillows, coffee mugs, picture frames -- but this is mere supposition on my part. I have been an occasional Strand shopper but have'nt been there in five years (I live in a different country) and I know at least one or two mefites who are or were employees.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 2:07 PM on March 20 [1 favorite]


I think I know something like 4 different people that have worked there either in person or online. Which is fairly remarkable because I've never lived anywhere near the store.

They didn't seem to have anything bad to say about it as a workplace apart from the usual retail work complaints of how insane or bothersome some customers can be.
posted by loquacious at 2:12 PM on March 20 [1 favorite]


I'm just saying as a business owner you're responsible for keeping your employees alive as the government has completely washed their hands of caring about us at all. That means you have to at least try to keep everyone on your boat. The whole reason we're supposed to believe that business owners are allowed to keep most of what they make & pay employees the bare minimum the market will allow is that they deserve it from all the extra business smarts & hustle they're supposed to have. But all they did was close up shop & run away. No extra nothing. If they tried things that didn't work that would have at least been respectable.
posted by bleep at 2:27 PM on March 20 [11 favorites]


I did not have the heart to read that article because I love that bookstore even though I’ve only been there three times in my life. I appreciate the post. I am sad that we have lost so many bookstores even while retaining so many jerks. I wanted it to go the other way around. Sigh.
posted by Bella Donna at 2:32 PM on March 20 [5 favorites]


I kept reading, waiting for a scandal, and well, it never really came.

Running a small business is hard - and the pandemic made it harder. It's no surprise Bass Wyden couldn't bring back the entire staff - PPP loans weren't nearly enough to do something like that. The other issues seem pretty mundane, to be honest. It's an old building; she sells swag for the margin; she has her own money; she's not as literate as her employees (and really that just came off a mean-spirited aside.)

I'm not a New Yorker, but I'd still shop at The Strand given the content of this article.
posted by elwoodwiles at 2:42 PM on March 20 [14 favorites]


The issue with bookstore retail is that the margins are super thin on books. The other stuff - the tchotchkes and bookmarks and greeting cards and candles and scarves and led reading lights - that's where the profit comes from.

I buy some fancy notebooks, pencils, etc. at my local, which has managed to survive this far, and it's good to know that helps a little.
posted by thelonius at 3:30 PM on March 20 [2 favorites]


I worked at the Strand in the mid-80s, when Nancy Bass had just begun dipping her toe into the unfamiliar waters of her dad and granddad's business. In that entirely different city, for a certain kind of person, the Strand served as a sort of Ellis Island. Pretty much anyone could get a job there, as long as you could pass the literature test (very easy, in my opinion). The city still had SRO hotels and squats, and eccentricity and creativity. Fred Bass didn't ask much of the employees except to do their jobs. The place was full of musicians, gadflies, artists, grad students, anarchists, poets, bohemians not otherwise specified, and the sort of garden-variety weirdos who used to populate the city back then. A Hells Angel drove the store van. One of the accountants was a member of the Communist Party. A longtime member of the shipping department--your basic Joe Sixpack from Long Island--was known to collect Nazi memorabilia. One day a guy decided to live his best life and started showing up for work in a dress, his face perfectly made up. Fred glanced at him and asked a nearby manager, "Is T------- wearing a dress?" She said, "Yep." Without further comment, Fred then carried on doing whatever he did. I worked with a Jewish African American poet who was easily six foot five and 250 pounds. He took me to McSorley's and bought the first round for the two of us: 14 half-pints. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it wasn't unusual to find people doing drugs in the bathrooms. This was long before they put in an air conditioning system, and with the store being two blocks from Union Square, the basement was infernal in summer (you could hear and feel the trains going underneath) and on both floors the dust was legendary. One summer Sunday morning, a basement supervisor arrived toting a five-gallon bucket full of bloody marys, complete with celery.

As for Nancy, well, she's the kind of person who, when she approaches a group of people, everyone stops talking. My impression was that she wasn't a big reader (viz. the Holden Caulfield story) and god knows she was a wretched manager. Maybe that was part of the problem: Fred was of an era when business owners let their employees manage themselves. People liked Fred. People didn't like Nancy. At the time a lot of people thought she wanted to fix things that didn't need fixing. To me she always seemed like a deeply corporate soul who would have been a perfect fit as manager of a Barnes & Noble, or Target, or Walmart. I can't speak to the alleged union-busting, but it seems in character for her and, sadly, for the city that New York has become. (Think of all those SRO residents and poets with union jobs and benefits.)

I don't know much more about the union issues than what's in the linked article, but I generally always assume management is up to no good. I hope the workers get what they want. It would be an exciting development if it became a collective, but I'm not holding my breath. Despite everything, I hope the store stays open, even though it ain't what it was. Otherwise we'll have lost yet another remnant of the city I loved.
posted by scratch at 3:40 PM on March 20 [138 favorites]


Without all the good, the bad takes on new weight.
I'm sure this describes a lots of jobs over the last year. It certainly describes mine right now.
posted by krisjohn at 3:44 PM on March 20 [20 favorites]


I'm sure this describes a lots of jobs over the last year.

Sounds to me more like a lot of jobs over the last twenty fucking years.
posted by deadaluspark at 4:52 PM on March 20 [15 favorites]


I want to support local bookstores, but I don't have room for more paper books.

Yeah, I have this problem, and it is very, very Strand-specific. In the late 90s I used to love to browse there and scoop up discounted copies of anything relevant to my field. As a result, I bought a lot of things that I thought I "should" have and should grab immediately at the price.

Thus, my shelves are jammed with books I bought there, many of which I still haven't gotten around to using. The stuff I really need now I buy on Google Books or Kindle whenever possible.
posted by anhedonic at 5:22 PM on March 20 [3 favorites]


> "The whole reason we're supposed to believe that business owners are allowed to keep most of what they make & pay employees the bare minimum the market will allow is that they deserve it from all the extra business smarts & hustle they're supposed to have."

Well, but, I mean ... that's ALWAYS been a lie. An obvious one.
posted by kyrademon at 5:37 PM on March 20 [3 favorites]


What I don't understand is did people suddenly stop needing books?

Print Book Sales Skyrocketed in 2020
The lockdowns in response to the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in the highest print book sales in the U.S. in more than a decade, according to sales data analysis from market research firm The NPD Group.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 6:18 PM on March 20 [13 favorites]


My assumption would be that it is an aspect of distaste at the the way big box bookstores in the last decade or so have gradually replaced a lot of books with beige tchotchkes -- pillows, coffee mugs, picture frames -- but this is mere supposition on my part.

Yep. Although, to be honest (and maybe it's just because they have so many), the Strand has some actually cute designs--but also a lot of stuff aimed at people who like the idea of having read more than actually reading. It's a little tedious to wade through at the front of the store.

I've always felt I didn't love the Strand properly. But I just don't buy new hardcovers unless it's an author who I think really needs the support, and these days I get those from a closer place with a better atmosphere I'm terrified won't make it through the pandemic. So while I go in there a fair amount, if I buy anything at all, it's usually a remainder, and that selection is random. If I could snap my fingers and make it and Harvard Bookstore trade places, I totally would.
posted by praemunire at 6:24 PM on March 20 [4 favorites]


the curse of the strand is that if you go looking for something specific, you will be disappointed. However, if you have fifteen minutes to kill and no particular objective, you'll strike gold every time.

Also +1 Harvard bookstore, but also all the used bookstores of Cambridge, MA.
posted by clockwork at 6:49 PM on March 20 [22 favorites]


I was at a book signing at the Strand several years back and overhead two employees tell the same “Nancy got excited that celebrity (who was really a fictional character) was spotted shopping in the store” story, with Dorian Gray substituted for Holden Caufield.

I get the impression that this has been a popular gag at the store for some time.
posted by dr_dank at 6:52 PM on March 20 [3 favorites]


I never worked at the Strand - instead I worked at the Dawn Treader in Ann Arbor - but have good memories of buying books there was I was a kid, and of introducing my wife and children to it years later.
posted by doctornemo at 6:55 PM on March 20 [6 favorites]


I'm just saying as a business owner you're responsible for keeping your employees alive as the government has completely washed their hands of caring about us at all. That means you have to at least try to keep everyone on your boat. The whole reason we're supposed to believe that business owners are allowed to keep most of what they make & pay employees the bare minimum the market will allow is that they deserve it from all the extra business smarts & hustle they're supposed to have.

That's a very tall order to put on small business owners -- to completely make up for the lack of a real social safety net. The owners of your neighborhood bookstore or coffeeshop are not necessarily wall street rentiers and are probably just barely scraping by like the rest of us.
posted by treepour at 7:36 PM on March 20 [22 favorites]


*suddenly panics that Dawn Treader has closed*
*googles*
*whew*

Also +1 Harvard bookstore, but also all the used bookstores of Cambridge, MA.

There must have been a historical point at which this wasn't true, but for much of my adult life (and excluding rare books, which is not a market I'm in), Cambridge > NYC as a book-shopping town. Even with Schoenhof's closed.
posted by praemunire at 7:36 PM on March 20 [7 favorites]


One day a guy decided to live his best life and started showing up for work in a dress

scratch, I don't want to be one of those Mefites who pops into a thread to poke holes in other peoples' posts, but I think community standards are important.

Was the individual in question a trans woman or male-identified? It was the 80's, so perhaps you didn't know. We should assume it was a trans woman.

If so, the proper pronouns would likely be she/her.

It makes me very uncomfortable to think that people at my work might use that description for my first day on the job wearing a dress. I wasn't a 'guy', and I wasn't 'living my best life.' I was simply being me, a woman.
posted by Flight Hardware, do not touch at 7:37 PM on March 20 [18 favorites]


We should assume it was a trans woman.

Why? I assume that if scratch's co-worker had requested that they use female pronouns, that scratch would have said. Since they did not, we should not be forcing gender stereotypes on them.
posted by tavella at 8:13 PM on March 20 [29 favorites]


(I say this as a woman who does not wear dresses, skirts, or makeup, and is no less a woman for that. Similarly someone who wears dresses may be a woman, a man, or other options.)
posted by tavella at 8:16 PM on March 20 [15 favorites]


I kept reading, waiting for a scandal, and well, it never really came.

Running a small business is hard.


Nancy Bass owns a building at Broadway and 18th Street, is married to a Senator, bought millions of dollars in stocks (including Amazon) during a pandemic while her employees were laid off, and had her daughter and a nanny working at the store instead of unionized employees. Won't someone please think of the multi-millionaire small business owner who owns a prime piece of Manhattan real estate. Please.
posted by Mavri at 8:29 PM on March 20 [44 favorites]


Print Book Sales Skyrocketed in 2020

The lockdowns in response to the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in the highest print book sales in the U.S. in more than a decade, according to sales data analysis from market research firm The NPD Group.


Happy to have played my part. I bought a ton of books last year -- more than I've bought in any single year in at least the last 20 or 25 years.

I ordered quite a few of them from The Strand.
posted by Artifice_Eternity at 8:32 PM on March 20 [1 favorite]


praemunire and clockwork--I love Harvard Bookstore, and I have lived (and book-shopped) in Cambridge for at least half of my adult life, but I dunno--even with Harvard Bookstore + the Coop + the Raven + Porter Square Books + Grolier + Pandemonium + I dunno, the Bryn Mar Bookstore and Seven Stars, does Cambridge really beat NYC for bookstores?

Maybe this is a poet problem, but--

Rodney's is gone, and I miss it, but Rodney's was never the kind of place where you found stuff you were looking for, so much as a place where you found stuff that was intriguing (I do really miss their collection of 60s-70s paperback SF, though, and the grab bag of vaguely mistreated DVDs). The Coop isn't even open right now, and in any case is really just a fancy Barnes and Noble. There's that one dude who sells books on the sidewalk in Central on Sundays, when the weather permits, and he sometimes has things that are startlingly uncommon/cool, but that's not really anything to rely on. I love the Grolier, but they haven't really let their most knowledgeable employee (the redoubtable Elizabeth Doran) have much say in book-buying in a while, and so the bulk of their stock is less than current. Porter Square is a nice spot to hang out, but their selection is kinda sparse--fiction section's OK, but the poetry's just sort of jammed up next to cookbooks. The selection at Pandemonium was, I think, a bit better when it was in the Garage.

That leaves Harvard Bookstore and the Raven. Not sure they can substitute for Strand + Berl's + Unnameable Books + I'm sure so many others that I don't know about, because I haven't really spent extended periods of time in NYC since the mid-2000s?
posted by what does it eat, light? at 8:35 PM on March 20 [6 favorites]


so many others that I don't know about, because I haven't really spent extended periods of time in NYC since the mid-2000s

Psst, those places have all closed. The story of 21st-century NYC.

For an interesting selection of used books, there is nothing in Manhattan to match the HBS + Raven combo. For recent academic work (beyond the press sensation du jour), you are better off with the Coop (B&N, yes, but carries a locally-appropriate stock along with the tchtotkes) + HBS. These are the things a bookstore can offer me that an online bookseller generally doesn't. As I said, I rarely buy new hardbacks. People obviously have different interests and needs in bookstores, but I'm not sure what you think the great poetry store in Manhattan is? And Berl's is closed for the duration.

(Things the Strand does somewhat better: that little small-press kiosk at the back of the first floor, and the art monographs. But these are sidelines for me.)

There's a new spot in the EV called Book Club Bar that is very cozy, but it's maybe about the size of a mall Waldenbooks in the good old days. I'm really looking forward to going back there and sitting at the bar with a book, but my book may well be one I bought elsewhere.

P.S. Rodney's is (supposedly) moving rather than closing. You know you're getting old when "institutions" still register in your mind as "new" because they weren't there when you started!
posted by praemunire at 8:52 PM on March 20 [1 favorite]


(Example: I couldn't even get the Strand's website to acknowledge the existence of West's recent critical edition of the Odyssey [this is a tricky one to search, it's possible I may have missed it?]. HBS was ready to order it for me.)
posted by praemunire at 8:56 PM on March 20


I’m from out of town (but wouldn’t say tourist), and the Strand is one of my Happy Places on this Earth. I am happy to finally be there again, happy to load up on books I didn’t know I needed, happy to waste the time of my fellow travellers waiting for me back at the steps of Union Square.

It was one of my introductions to New York. Over time, it’s become less the place it once was, but that’s true of anywhere. It’s always been my last stop in the city, as I can haul away a heavy bag of books with the shortest distance to the subway to Grand Central and my train out of town. Maybe my books get the grudging approval of my cashier, maybe not, but I have a stack to last me until I get back next year this same time.

For all of its changes over the years, I’ve said that whomever I leave behind can spread some of my ashes there, maybe in the philosophy aisle. It was something of a plan.

But... the current ownership fighting the heritage designation and trying to recruit us customers for that, their fights with their employees described here — maybe it’s all garden variety stuff, but it leaves a sour taste.

Maybe my heirs should leave some of my ashes at my second-last stop in the City a couple blocks away — somewhere in the aisles of Warehouse Wines & Spirits over on B’way. By the French aperitifs I can’t get at home.
posted by Capt. Renault at 9:34 PM on March 20 [3 favorites]


I'm just saying as a business owner you're responsible for keeping your employees alive as the government has completely washed their hands of caring about us at all. That means you have to at least try to keep everyone on your boat. The whole reason we're supposed to believe that business owners are allowed to keep most of what they make & pay employees the bare minimum the market will allow is that they deserve it from all the extra business smarts & hustle they're supposed to have. But all they did was close up shop & run away. No extra nothing. If they tried things that didn't work that would have at least been respectable.

This is pretty absurd. The business owner's biggest responsibility is to the business owner. That's the reason they're allowed to keep most of what they make. They're allowed to run the business into the ground, too. If someone was taught otherwise, they had a moron for a teacher.

Nancy Bass owns a building at Broadway and 18th Street, is married to a Senator, bought millions of dollars in stocks (including Amazon) during a pandemic while her employees were laid off, and had her daughter and a nanny working at the store instead of unionized employees. Won't someone please think of the multi-millionaire small business owner who owns a prime piece of Manhattan real estate. Please.

All of which is irrelevant to running this particular business. Sounds like plenty employees are doing what they can to make their objections known. I might even have sympathy if they didn't sound like a precious, obnoxious lot.
posted by 2N2222 at 9:44 PM on March 20 [1 favorite]


treepour: "The owners of your neighborhood bookstore or coffeeshop are not necessarily wall street rentiers and are probably just barely scraping by like the rest of us."

This is the disconnect. Nancy Bass Wyden is decidedly not barely scraping by like the rest of us. From TFA: "Last year, she made 11 stock purchases totaling between $235,011 and $650,000" (so, at minimum, ~$3 mil). She's a standard issue millionaire closing a business that can't pay for itself in the absence of the pre-pandemic foot traffic - sad for the workers and the institution, but a common business decision. It's just kinda dumb that she keeps peddling these stories in the press that she's doing everything she can to keep the store running and care for her employees preying on public sympathy for essentially fundraisers - while "diversifying her investments" (as if any of that goes into the store), union busting, removing reminders to wear masks, etc. The PR is strange - what's the point?
posted by bluefly at 9:57 PM on March 20 [19 favorites]


I really hate to be that person. I really do. But, everything I’ve read in this article about Nancy Bass Wyden is stuff that people would be a lot slower to object to if she wasn’t a woman. Maybe there’s more going on than was in the article.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 10:08 PM on March 20 [14 favorites]


Mod note: One deleted. Perfectly fine to speak for yourself, but tossing in gratuitous insults toward other members is not okay. Please read the guidelines to learn or refresh yourself on our community standards. Thanks.
posted by taz (staff) at 11:44 PM on March 20


All of which is irrelevant to running this particular business.

The idea that a person's only obligation is to themselves and their own wealth is repugnant and part of why this country's inequality has grown massively in the past 40 years. It should be relevant! But we've embraced this sociopathic, anti-community view of business and profit that harms everyone except the wealthy. The rich got richer during the pandemic, and that should be relevant. It is relevant to a lot of us.
posted by Mavri at 2:29 AM on March 21 [37 favorites]


(I say this as a woman who does not wear dresses, skirts, or makeup, and is no less a woman for that. Similarly someone who wears dresses may be a woman, a man, or other options.)

Derail, but for most mefites, this is not even remotely comparable to the hurdle one faces wearing a dress when perceived as a man. For most of us, it was our mothers and grandmothers who fought to wear trousers to school or in the workplace, we grew up with the luxury of the choice they won for us. That's not to say that one doesn't pay a steep price by being perceived as a gender non-conforming woman, including sometimes violence, but not wearing makeup or skirts stands on the shoulders of giants, as it were.
posted by hoyland at 4:01 AM on March 21 [12 favorites]


praemunire, the Dawn Treader is still there, clinging to life, but trying to crowdfund to keep the wolf from the door.
posted by doctornemo at 5:10 AM on March 21


everything I’ve read in this article about Nancy Bass Wyden is stuff that people would be a lot slower to object to if she wasn’t a woman.
Yes, because you can just girlboss yourself out of union-busting. 🙄
posted by pxe2000 at 5:52 AM on March 21 [17 favorites]


>The business owner's biggest responsibility is to the business owner.
In UK law, the business owner has fiduciary duty to the business above taking care of themselves. That includes looking out for employees -- because of you can't keep employees, you can't keep cash flowing and the business alive. The idea that workers can be replaced immediately puts no value on the institutional knowledge long-serving employees carry and the face-of-the-business relationships they make with customers and partners.
posted by k3ninho at 5:54 AM on March 21 [5 favorites]


the curse of the strand is that if you go looking for something specific, you will be disappointed. However, if you have fifteen minutes to kill and no particular objective, you'll strike gold every time.

Yes, and, Not In My Experiences. I've generally had better luck at Argosy, uptown.
posted by BWA at 5:56 AM on March 21 [1 favorite]


I can't comment on this business, it seems kind of a unique one.

But the idea that small business owners can float all their employees without revenue is kind of a pipe dream.

A payroll (including taxes) for 25 employees at a modest $40,000/yr + payroll taxes and benefits of say 20% on top of that is $1,200,000, or a hundred grand a month. (Note that at 100 employees the annual payroll would be 4 x that so $2 million is not a vast resource.)

Most business owners with 25 employees are not going to be able to pay even half that amount ($50,000/mo) out of pocket; almost all the ones I know take a gross salary of less than $100k a year and reinvest most of the profit if there is any. These are people who have lawncare businesses, kennels, yoga studios, etc.

Now I am 100% on board that functional businesses need to set their costs so they pay decent wages and those wages should go up as profitability goes up.

But pandemic business math - is not that. No small business owner plans for this kind of thing. And pivoting to online etc. can help but most people could not open an online bookstore with 100 staff on day one. Also if I'm correct?, PPP loans are debt, right? So the business will shut if it can't pay that back later.

In Canada we're fortunate to have subsidies that are super super helping. But I often see people doing back of the envelope math on business costs that is pretty out of whack. Our rent was deferred early on (landlords refused to reduce or apply for the subsidy that at that time required them to) and it is due...now! Fun!

Also a note that The Day The Pandemic Ends doesn't mean businesses like mine (fitness) come back to 100% but you can be sure all the subsidy dries up, so it's kind of a revenue vs. cost race.

Since March 17, 2020, the business I work in has been permitted to be open from August 10 to October 12 2020, with a handful students allowed in daycare. It's brutal. Yes we pivoted to online. Yes a number of our clients have stuck with us. It's still devastating, absolutely crushing. And we were in a good spot when this hit.
posted by warriorqueen at 6:57 AM on March 21 [13 favorites]


Re: the decline over time of your favorite bookstore. Any good bookstore is amazing when you are young and first encounter it, when it has so many interesting books that you haven't read yet and many options for amazing discoveries that you have never heard of before. Then you read many of the books, and new ones come out but in the category of books that will strike the same sort of excitement in you, not at the same pace as your reading. So the proportion of interesting books you haven't read yet goes down. Also, as you grow and age as a reader, you hear more recommendations and often become a more critical and discerning reader. So the opportunities for enchanting surprises also decrease. This happens despite any change in the bookstore itself or its purchasing selection policies.
posted by eviemath at 6:58 AM on March 21 [26 favorites]


Seems to me that a business owner who would rather employ her own daughter and nanny during a pandemic when there are many, many former employees who could be brought back instead, and one who ushers customers into the store via the freight dock instead of the front door to avoid pesky pandemic capacity rules might not be the paragon of virtue that some of you think she is.

"Won't someone think of the millionaires," indeed.
posted by cooker girl at 7:01 AM on March 21 [23 favorites]


Rodney's is gone
Nooooooo...!
posted by joeyh at 7:23 AM on March 21


Didn't Rodney's move a couple times? I remember waking by thinking literally "omg that is even possible?" so if their books are safely stored I'd expect post-covid a quiet reappearance somewhere, just where depending on current rents.

Oh and I remember a pamphlet (several years ago) with a map of all the many Harvard sq bookstores.
posted by sammyo at 7:38 AM on March 21


To the PPP loan question, any amount of the PPP loan that is actually used on payroll is forgivable.
posted by augustimagination at 8:11 AM on March 21 [2 favorites]


When I was an MIT undergrad, used bookstores were like moss. THey'd work their way into any vacant commercial space in Cambridge. And I do mean any. There were the steady stores, and then there were the pop up used book stores. And part of the fun of biking around the city was to see them.

But used book stores can only exist where low rent storefront space is allowed, and ever since the housing bubbled popped, and the real estate bubble did not, landlords have been put in this perverse situation where renting at a low rate hits their access to credit worse than leaving a property vacant hits their income. Even the usual reason for renting to a bookseller can't apply because Mr. Landlord can't prove to his bank that the used bookstore is drawing traffic to the bar next door. A few weeks ago when I walked through Davis Square, I was pretty upset by the combination of aspiration and desperation, the former from businesses that opened up just before The Thing, and the desperation from all the closures. If the landlords are letting psychics to set up shop, new used bookstores will come back soon.

And yes, I miss the stores. Ordering scholarly books online is nice, but it keeps you in your bubble, scholarly as your bubble might be. Browsing the stacks at McIntyre & Moore was the way to let some randomness bust your bubble and expand your range. (BTW, the math and science inventory from M&M is now on the shelves at the Commonwealth Bookstore in downtown Boston. )
posted by ocschwar at 8:14 AM on March 21 [17 favorites]


I'm seeing some comments here about how this is just a "business owner" making "business decisions" and anyone would and should do the same. IMHO this argument is empty, and it shows "business" to be a meaningless word, a word for weird excuses. These are basically regurgitations of a freshman MBA textbook. Here's a better version of that argument. If you cannot do better (worse?) than this, kindly spare me. It's a classic and it's actually well written and charming for the horror it is, kind of like Scalia's Supreme Court opinions.

The Social Responsibility of Business is to Increase its Profits by Milton Friedman

Personally I disagree! I care more about the product of a "business" than its ability to produce wealth for the bourgeois. The product being not just books, but livelihoods. If a "business" is not providing the most for its own workers (and I mean to count by persons-supported-per-dollar, not by dollars-flowing-to-owners) then, I'm sorry but what the hell are we even doing here? If instead of this business you'd prefer the state (in some fashion) to provide the wage/housing/health for these workers then I suppose we'll agree on that! I too would like these booksellers to be able to focus on the books and the selling, instead of worrying about their food and shelter. It looks like that's really difficult to do when unpleasant, unaccountable people hold the purse strings.

This is an example from a different industry, but here's a look at what can happen when millionaire mentality is absent the executive suite. It really doesn't have to be like the Strand situation, no matter the price of real estate.
posted by panhopticon at 8:34 AM on March 21 [13 favorites]


Also, as you grow and age as a reader, you hear more recommendations and often become a more critical and discerning reader. So the opportunities for enchanting surprises also decrease.
This is a really interesting comment that I've never heard articulated before. I'm still pondering whether or not it's entirely true, but it certainly feels true.

I love the idea of bookstores. I love the smell of used books. I love accidentally discovering a new and fantastic author because I misremembered the first name of the author I was actually looking for. I love finding long out of print credulous psuedoscience books from the '60s. I love finding tags that say "from the library of" with the names of people I recognize written inside the covers of technical books in a college-neighborhood specialty store.

I've also spent more on hot sauce than print books in the last ten years. I've visited more physical stores that sell chocolate. It's not because I'm not reading as many books. I'm not entirely convinced a worker's collective is enough to keep a beloved physical store alive today. Breaking even and paying people a living wage, rather than growth, is a fine goal. But, you've got to break even. Is a store that mostly sells scented candles and calendars to people desperate for last minute gifts and also has some books for sale actually important to preserve? My nostalgia says it is. I have a hard time explaining why.
posted by eotvos at 8:35 AM on March 21 [14 favorites]


So the proportion of interesting books you haven't read yet goes down.

I mean this in all sincerity, but I kind of can’t wait for this to happen to me because i don’t know if I’ll live long enough finish my current To Read List and that doesn’t include the titles I find myseld adding whenever I take a turn round LitHub or The Millions or whatever article (or Metafilter post) or God help me, NYRB has a sale.

I won’t tell you how many books I’ve bought since the beginning of the pandemic but it’s embarrassing and I’ve done my dead level best to order from as many of my favorite local (though not necessarily local to me) bookshops as possible. I did not order from The Strand, ps, because I was conflicted. It has been one of my Happy Places, but I want to support the workers so...
posted by thivaia at 9:05 AM on March 21 [1 favorite]


Personally I disagree! I care more about the product of a "business" than its ability to produce wealth for the bourgeois. The product being not just books, but livelihoods. If a "business" is not providing the most for its own workers (and I mean to count by persons-supported-per-dollar, not by dollars-flowing-to-owners) then, I'm sorry but what the hell are we even doing here?

Seriously. We have crawled out of the primordial seas of a floating rock and got to the point where we can develop tools that do almost anything... and what we decide to do is provide "value" to shareholders or a better hot tub for the one business owner? What a waste.
posted by tofu_crouton at 9:05 AM on March 21 [19 favorites]


This is an example from a different industry, but here's a look at what can happen when millionaire mentality is absent the executive suite. It really doesn't have to be like the Strand situation, no matter the price of real estate.
fwiw, that article about Dan Price and Gravity Payments went out 7 years ago. More recently, they also got hit when the pandemic decimated their customer base (also restaurants, bars, and in-person service businesses who used them for credit card processing). When faced with layoffs, the company instead got a bunch of employees to volunteer to take pay cuts. These were recently paid back by the company.

So, you know, kind of the same response: for the business to survive, the workers need to sacrifice. But it's amazing when it comes from a place of mutual support and not exploitation, and results in people sticking around and not the massive blow to morale and knowledge that comes from a layoff or a mass of employees quitting to find new work.
posted by bl1nk at 11:06 AM on March 21 [8 favorites]


Is a store that mostly sells scented candles and calendars to people desperate for last minute gifts and also has some books for sale actually important to preserve? My nostalgia says it is. I have a hard time explaining why.

The Strand has a lot of books for sale. A lot a lot. It's just got enough space that it can also carry a fairly overwhelming selection of tchochtkes.

Oh, I forgot something else it offers that's fairly unique: the semi-secret Niche of ARCs in the basement. Unfortunately, it tends to be very genre-limited.

I support the union in defending its rights and keeping Bass Wyden's feet to the fire re: compensation and re-hiring, but anyone who's rooting for the place to close is nuts. Turning the building into overpriced condos, which is what would happen, would be a serious net loss to the city.
posted by praemunire at 11:45 AM on March 21 [5 favorites]


I was also employed many years ago at a famous bookstore located in a very old building, and while some of the issues they mention are inevitable--like, the hot water pipes going through office spaces made those locations stifling, working in the unairconditioned back room in the summer led to slow melts like the Wicked Witch of the West, etc.--a lot of the maintenance stuff at the Strand clearly sounds like the owner being too cheap to pay custodial staff. (One of my more memorable moments shopping at the Strand involved looking down at the floor and seeing, um, A Very Large Insect scuttling past my foot. I still have no idea what the hell it was, or why it had an affinity for literary criticism.)

Also, as you grow and age as a reader, you hear more recommendations and often become a more critical and discerning reader. So the opportunities for enchanting surprises also decrease.

I suppose this does describe my experiences at the Strand over the past twenty-odd years or so? In my case, it involved rapidly losing interest in anything in the main stacks (except for the fiction section, where there's a lot of turnover and thus new stock) and learning to make a straight beeline to the academic press section in the basement.
posted by thomas j wise at 12:23 PM on March 21


we should not be forcing gender stereotypes on them

tavella, thank you for suggesting gender-neutral pronouns here ('them') - that's a really good point. I should probably have suggested the same - which is why I had issues with the term 'guy' and the word 'his.' The term 'person' and the pronoun 'their' would be the safest bet in a modern LGBTQ-safe space, lacking other information.

Also, I apologize for having implied that wearing a dress is important to being a woman. Personally, I find the fact that I am living in a society where, as a woman, I can wear jeans, shorts, or even chainmail armor, is an accomplishment that can be credited to some very amazing people who fought for that right.

That said, at the risk of continuing the side-discussion on gender, I would like to know why scratch (and presumably the others in the store in the 1980s) would refer to the individual in question as a 'guy.'

The term is laden with many assumptions - particular ones that would have been present in the 1980s - was the person seen as male-presenting? Male-identified? Assigned male at birth? Or does the term imply they had what would have been seen at the time as male gender-stereotypical traits such as facial hair, voice, height, or others?

Having grown up in the 1980s, suffering from a society that put up as hoyland puts it, a "hurdle one faces wearing a dress when perceived as a man," the scene portrayed is a painful one to read. Far too many of us who were assigned male at birth delayed transition specifically because we knew that society would have read us as 'a guy wearing a dress.'

In the end, none of those factors (identity, presentation, etc.) should have been used to regulate what they were allowed to wear - but those were in fact used to regulate what many people (women, men, non-binary) were allowed to wear in the 1980s - and for trans women as a group, it was profoundly damaging, leading to trauma and worse. Indeed, it still persists today, and we see trans women killed for it.
posted by Flight Hardware, do not touch at 12:29 PM on March 21 [3 favorites]


For those of us who work for small businesses and get paid hourly wages, having local businesses remain viable is of exceptional importance, not only because that's how we make a living, but because the more vibrant the local economy the better our options for jobs and chances to negotiate higher pay.

It's all well and good to question the practices of business owners, but to those of us who work for them, the comparative wealth difference between many of those who disdain small business ownership and those owners themselves are negligible when set against the small business worker and the need for maintaining local businesses instead of the even worse outcome of moving more business online where wealth distribution and options are even less equitable.

And that's ignoring the knock off effects like the benefit in being able to buy secondhand books where e-book readership provides no secondhand benefit at all.
posted by gusottertrout at 12:36 PM on March 21 [8 favorites]


Nancy hired me to work in the Rare Book Room back in the day. I aced the quiz (well, one wrong, apparently I was too young to know Silent Spring), but the interview was a distinctly uncomfortable experience. I don't have vivid memories of many job interviews from twenty years ago, but that one I do, because of the eternal silences between her questions. ("You have small writing." "Yes." *half a minute passes*) The day after, when I started work, I saw her and said hi, even reintroduced myself, and she stared at me with utter blankness. What scratch describes is exactly right: she's the kind of person who comes into the room and people mutter and disperse.

Rare Books at that time was still only accessible via a separate entrance with its own elevator, so we had to walk customers downstairs if they wanted to buy things. That and payday were the only times I ever saw Fred, who mostly stuck to his buying counter/crabby fiefdom. But Nancy would periodically drift through the RBR from the adjacent staff area, mostly touring it to film and TV people as a potential set, and to publishers who'd rent it out for launch parties. We all felt that she was more interested in that side of it than the books side, so I wasn't surprised to see the Strand vastly expand into branded gifts after Fred passed away.
posted by Beardman at 2:08 PM on March 21 [6 favorites]


For the record, the person in my remembrance was not known to me personally. To the best of my knowledge, this tall, lanky human had previously been male presenting, which is to say I had never seen this person wearing makeup or anything but pants and a nondescript shirt, hence my use of “guy.” It was not my intention to offend.
posted by scratch at 2:32 PM on March 21 [2 favorites]


I've heard of the Strand for the longest time, and visited once when I was in grad school at Rutgers and going into the city from time to time. Imagine my surprise when Fred Bass died and one of my close friends, whom I have known for 20 years, trundled off to the city to attend the funeral. Turns out he's closely related to the family. Not what you'd call a name-dropper, he'd never mentioned it. His partner of 25 years, also a close friend, was the one who came back and reported to me on how amazing Nancy Bass's apartment was and which well-known very rich people and celebrities had been at the funeral or associated social events.

Of course, it's been pretty clear over the past few years that Nancy Bass isn't necessarily a name you'd want to drop.

My friend grew up on a farm. His parents were among the back-to-the-landers of the 60s who decided to leave city life behind for a country life. He told me he sometimes thinks about how his life might have been different if his parents had stayed in the city, or if the farm hadn't worked out and they'd gone back.
posted by Orlop at 8:15 PM on March 21


> I forgot something else it offers that's fairly unique: the semi-secret Niche of ARCs in the basement.

When I was an unpaid intern at a magazine in NYC, it was a known perk that the four of us in the interns' office could take all the galleys none of the editors had claimed and sell them at the Strand for beer money.
posted by The corpse in the library at 8:20 PM on March 21


> I love the idea of bookstores.

I'm in the same boat. I buy books for my kids, and the occasional cookbook or whatever, at my local independent bookstore, but I'm not excited by the hunt for weird stuff anymore. And my aging eyes and migraine-prone head do so much better with ebooks, so I just get everything from the library. I want to support independent bookstores but they just don't sell much that I want these days. (I feel the same way about farmers' markets and craft fairs.)
posted by The corpse in the library at 8:23 PM on March 21 [2 favorites]


I never worked at the Strand - instead I worked at the Dawn Treader in Ann Arbor - but have good memories of buying books there was I was a kid, and of introducing my wife and children to it years later.

I spent so much money at the Dawn Treader in my day. I loved browsing around in there. I grew up in a small town not far from Ann Arbor, and didn't have access to a decent bookstore until I got a driver's license and could get to this excellent Flint bookstore, Young & Welshan's. But being an undergrad in Ann Arbor somehow meant having a lot of spare time to wander the shops, and the Dawn Treader was like my second home. I went into Border's a few times, and it was big and impressive, but I didn't have the money for new books, so I never spent much time there.
posted by Orlop at 8:33 PM on March 21 [1 favorite]


Re: the decline over time of your favorite bookstore. Any good bookstore is amazing when you are young and first encounter it, when it has so many interesting books that you haven't read yet and many options for amazing discoveries that you have never heard of before.

eviemath, I would favorite this comment twice if I could.
posted by Orlop at 8:39 PM on March 21


PPP loans are debt, right? So the business will shut if it can't pay that back later.

They are loans, but they are forgiven if you follow particular rules about how the money is spent and when, and at least for the first round the rules were unclear and changing as the money had to be spent. If not forgiven (or not completely forgiven), they are at least very low interest loans.

For part-time employees, they were almost always better off getting laid off to collect the extra $600 per week while that was available. (Obviously this depends on how well your state actually paid out UI claims at all.)

PPP loans were a bad idea pretty poorly executed that presumed it was important that people keep working during a pandemic, or that it somehow made sense for business owners take a maybe-loan to pay employees to not work. Well-meaning business owners were put in the position of navigating an airplane being built on the fly to do right for themselves and their staff, and the less scrupulous ones just got the money, bought a boat, and got caught if they were unlucky.
posted by jimw at 10:39 PM on March 21 [5 favorites]


A contrarian I am. I dislike the Strand. I’ve been a hundred times in my life. It was an occasional obligatory weekend stop for my family growing up and I’ve lived a mile away for 15 years.

Meh.

As an author it pisses me off to see a business cry poverty when they’re selling review copies and publisher cutouts by the hundreds. You know, the ones with holes punched in them? Sold as if they were new by the Strand? Of current and hot titles?

Authors don’t see a dime of royalties for those sales. So boo hoo. When I sell a book on Amazon I get paid.

Am I surprised their actual employees don’t get paid much?

No.

Also as an author and a professional reader, e-books are the greatest invention since printing. I can’t recall the last new paper book I bought or desired. I am almost 60 so it isn’t my age. I just love digital formats. Take no space. Weigh nothing. Completely searchable. I can adjust the brightness.

YMMV
posted by spitbull at 3:34 AM on March 22 [11 favorites]


I went into Border's a few times, and it was big and impressive, but I didn't have the money for new books, so I never spent much time there.

When my nine-years-older sibling was a freshman at UM, my parents used to drive me up to spend the occasional weekend with her there. I was nine, she was eighteen. She would leave me at Borders, where you were allowed to sit and read even if you didn’t buy anything. Luckily I liked to read.
posted by 41swans at 6:44 AM on March 22 [1 favorite]


re: the phenomenon of tourist tchtochkes and what-have-yous, and how annoying everybody apparently finds that in a bookstore: I read a lot and unfortunately, when I am visiting NYC, I can't load up on books because oof, luggage. You know what I can load up on? Postcards, tote bags, etc. And I did! My Strand bag is my library bag. It's sturdy and beautifully decorated.

I get the annoyance at people who like the aesthetic of reading, but like all gatekeeping impulses, it should be reflected upon.

Personally, and I hate that this is the case, but I really dislike the indie bookstore experience. There's too much foot traffic for me to really focus in and browse -- especially if the aisles are narrow or there's someone hovering. I don't really love the B+N experience either, but at least they provide seating.

... I guess what I'm saying here is public libraries for ever, for everyone, for free.
posted by snerson at 7:03 AM on March 22 [4 favorites]


spitbull: As an author it pisses me off to see a business cry poverty when they’re selling review copies and publisher cutouts by the hundreds. You know, the ones with holes punched in them? Sold as if they were new by the Strand? Of current and hot titles?

I admit that I’ve always gotten a thrill out of snagging an advanced reader/review copy of a new book before it goes on sale, usually at a discount on the cover price. The exploitative unpaid internship culture of the publishing/arts/music/etc industries means that there will always be a horde of hungry interns picking over the glom table at their internship looking for books/records to turn into a quick few bucks to eat on. Hell, I’ve even seen courtesy copies of books there that still have a letter from the publisher thanking a contributor for their submission to the aforementioned book stuck inside. That was probably a sharp-eyed mailroom intern who figured out that they can keep the best schwag for themselves.
posted by dr_dank at 10:23 AM on March 22


Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won't come again
And don't speak too soon
For the wheel's still in spin
And there's no tellin' who that it's namin'
For the loser now
Will be later to win
For the times they are a-changin'

posted by Twang at 1:15 PM on March 22 [2 favorites]


The issue with bookstore retail is that the margins are super thin on books. The other stuff - the tchotchkes and bookmarks and greeting cards and candles and scarves and led reading lights - that's where the profit comes from.

True enough, but for other potential customers, this is what drove me away. When Borders first opened in Australia (I guess the early 2000s? -ish?) it was an absolute revelation, for me (and, I'd suggest, most Australian bookbuyers) at least. Huge and sprawling, every book little old me could ever imagine and a whole bunch I could never have imagined but nevertheless discovered.

I would drop hundreds of bucks there every payday (back when I got paid monthly). But then over the years the actual bookshelves got shorter and the tchotchke displays got bigger, and I just stopped visiting as often, and those times I did visit I spent less because there was less I was interested in spending on. And then the whole thing went belly-up.

Of course, Amazon and ebooks are primarily to blame, and I'm as guilty of buying into that ecosystem as anybody, but man, it was sad to see that once-great thing reduced so pathetically.
posted by turbid dahlia at 6:07 PM on March 22 [1 favorite]


I know it’s personal but having grown up with two very bookish parents (one a historian, the other ABD in history) and spent countless hours of my childhood in the dusty aisles of bookstores all over the world that my parents lionized as a reason to travel and always a Thing to Do, and having been surrounded by wall to wall bookshelves as a kid, I’m ever so grateful that world is ending in favor of digital formats. I see no romance in it. I know lots of folks do, including my beloved mom who still prefers a bookstore to anything else you can do legally.

Not me. Capricious tiny selections of expensive heavy bricks of paper? It’s all on my tablet, orders of magnitude more choices, and I can browse them from my back yard and search them — inside! — for keywords or whatever?

Just had to pack and store all of one parent’s books. Do that a few times and the romance fades real quick.

And no one wants them. I can’t even give them away. Rough estimate is that the boxes represent at least $100,000 worth of purchases. They fill a small uhaul truck. (Can we discuss the carbon costs of physical books?) No one will ever open most of them again.
posted by spitbull at 1:56 AM on March 23 [4 favorites]


Convenience of digital aside, I don't think there is any comparison between the carbon footprint of digital versus paper. Once the book is printed how much energy continues to go into it compared to your e-books?

My father bought Catcher in the Rye in the 60s. I'm not sure why, it wasn't the usual kind of heavy non-fiction stuff he preferred. But over the decades it was read by my three siblings and then by me over 30 years ago when I discovered it in his stacks. This was shortly after a high school teacher had mentioned it, telling us how it had been banned in many places. After reading it I couldn't see what the fuss was. I went on to re-read it again a couple more times over the decades, not because it's some great work of literature but more as an act of connecting to the different stages in my life. In that time both of my kids have also read the book.

My point here is that in 50+ years of the book's existence it hasn't required any additional inputs of energy or resources apart from the handful of times it was transported to a new residence. It still sits on my shelf waiting for another set of eyes. It doesn't require the latest electronic device to use, doesn't need to be recharged and doesn't depend on server farms to operate.
posted by drstrangelove at 3:52 AM on March 23 [4 favorites]


Also: respect for the possibly dying art of indexing. It is a component of distillation or interpretive labor that can't be replaced by algorithms quite as easily or usefully as has sometimes been touted.
posted by eviemath at 6:25 AM on March 23 [8 favorites]


As a certified indexer who got into the business just too late for a career to take hold: absolutely.
posted by The corpse in the library at 6:35 PM on March 23 [2 favorites]


I remember when we were in town for the "Bowie Is..." exhibit and stopped at the Strand. It was nice to soak up some historical significance and good to see that not everything had gone the way of CBGB's, but there wasn't anything there that was "wow" enough to justify adding extra weight to our luggage. (We also learned the hard way that trip to do some research beforehand on "where to go in xxxx city" instead of relying on the possibly outdated recommendation of friends. But I digress).
posted by gtrwolf at 9:38 PM on March 23 [1 favorite]


For all the books that I loved before e-books I have sentimental print copies. Almost every book I've bought since then - i.e., non-sentimental - has been digital.
posted by bendy at 4:32 AM on March 26


Convenience of digital aside, I don't think there is any comparison between the carbon footprint of digital versus paper. Once the book is printed how much energy continues to go into it compared to your e-books?
I mean this sincerely - that's a really interesting question. It's not at all obvious to me what the answer is. Presumably the writing and editing process is the same.

My e-ink reader runs on the equivalent of an AA battery for a month. The servers that sent the data to me probably used some fraction of that, as do the hard drives that store it and are ready to serve it at a moment's notice to the next customer. One of those batteries stores around 2 joules. Multiplying by 50 to be conservative and assuming we're using coal power plants, that's something like 3 grams of CO2, or 1/1000 of a car trip to the supermarket per month. But, of course, you also have to include the manufacturing and distribution of the e-reader which isn't free and has significant social and environmental costs.

My family has also spent a lot of CO2 emissions moving and shipping paper books over the years, and heating a home that's probably bigger than it needs to be to accommodate book shelves. Trees are renewable - or at least they can be - but the printing process isn't, nor are the factories that produce them or the trucks that deliver them. I suspect I'm personally responsible for around two million book-miles of transport as an adult. I don't know if that's more or less bad for the world than buying the equivalent in e-books. But, it's not insignificant. (Perhaps both are insignificant compared to one international flight, which I also do. Or, at least, used to do and hope to do again.)
posted by eotvos at 10:50 AM on March 26 [1 favorite]


« Older Fagradalsfjall Watch   |   EXT. THE OCEAN - DAY. WE OPEN on a man on a... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments