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Hanging by a Strand

Worker dissent brews at an iconic New York bookstore

In late May, about a month before the store reopened, New York City’s most famous purveyor of literary tchotchkes, the Strand, posted images of a pair of face masks to Instagram. One bore the store’s iconic logo; the other a quote often found on merchandise sold in the store: “A well-read woman is a dangerous creature.” For every mask purchased, a dollar would be donated to an anti-poverty nonprofit. Almost immediately, the masks sold out. This turned out to be unfortunate, as workers at the store could have used them a few weeks later.

“When the store reopened, we didn’t have enough PPE and cleaning equipment,” Will Bobrowski, a shop steward with the union that represents Strand workers, told me. Nancy Bass Wyden, the owner, “did not want to spend money on anything—she was blocking ordering acrylics, bottles of hand sanitizer, boxes of masks.”

After six weeks of shop stewards conducting safety inspections and filing complaints with management, Bass Wyden found the money for personal protective equipment and cleaning materials after all. “Now, it feels safe, but that took weeks and weeks of pointing out to management that they were not adhering to their own safety plan, filed with the state department of health,” Bobrowski, who has worked at the Strand for nearly eighteen years, said. “It took over a month to finally be able to say, ‘Yes, it’s as safe as it can be.’”

The coronavirus pandemic has widened an existing rift between Bass Wyden and the workers she employs, one centered on the future of the Strand itself.

While Strand workers finally have the equipment they need—and not a moment too soon, given the continued support that the National Labor Relations Board has lent to employers who want to deflect health and safety-related complaints—their union, Local 2179 of the United Auto Workers, says that there simply aren’t enough workers currently employed in the store for business to be conducted safely. At the beginning of the pandemic, Bass Wyden laid off 188 employees, stating her intention to hire them back as soon as it was financially possible to do so. In July, after rehiring about thirty-three union members, a dozen were laid off again. There are now so few people working in the Strand stores—the main location, just south of Union Square, and the new location, just opened on the Upper West Side—that the few non-union supervisors who remain are being scheduled to cover tasks that, under the union contract, ought to be done by union workers.

“Working in a retail environment, when things are busy, managers will step in and cover a desk while someone goes to a bathroom—things that, if you wanted to be a stickler about it, should be done by union labor, but a retail environment is a little different than a steel mill or an auto plant,” Bobrowski explained. Since the latest layoff, “they’ve been scheduling managers to do things like work a register for hours at a time, sorting and shelving books.”

“This is deliberate and systematic,” he continued. “There are days when there are as many managers working on the floor as union workers.” Bass Wyden did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

The coronavirus pandemic has widened an existing rift between Bass Wyden and the workers she employs, one centered on the future of the Strand itself. Even as floor managers and supervisors are having to pick up extra work to cover for missing union workers, union members say that Bass Wyden has cleared her business almost entirely of the layer of upper management that once stood between her and the union. “She used the pandemic to, basically, clean house of management,” Bill Magee, a laid-off Strand worker who’d been employed at the store since 2013, told me. “Nancy is running things in a way that she hasn’t before. There used to be people to push back.”

“Now there’s no one between us and her,” Melissa Graves, a shop steward, said. “This is the first time there’s never been anybody to tell her no. . . . Her worst instincts are unleashed.”

“The Bass family always hated the union,” Graves explained. (Strand workers unionized in 1976.) But tensions have really been building since Fred Bass, who inherited the business from his father, died in 2018, leaving behind a $25 million estate. “Fred at least had open animosity with us, and we had animosity with him. With Nancy, we’re dealing with a senator’s wife, so it’s a lot more complicated,” Graves continued. Bass Wyden is married to Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, who, as it happens, is pushing for more transparency when it comes to loans distributed under the Paycheck Protection Program—one of which the Strand received.

In April, the Strand was approved for a PPP loan of $1–2 million to retain 212 jobs. Given that those jobs were not actually protected, workers in the store want to know where the money went. According to Bobrowski, Bass Wyden said in a meeting with union stewards in August that she was spending her own money to keep the business afloat. But since early April, federal records show, she’s also bought between $3 million and almost $7.9 million in stock—Senate financial filings, which include spouses’ records, show a range of values, not specific amounts—investing heavily in tech (between $112,007 and $300,000 in Alphabet/Google, between $175,007 and $450,000 in Apple, and between $110,005 and $300,000 in Facebook), fossil fuels (between $15,001 and $50,000 in Exxon Mobil and between $2,002 and $30,000 in Royal Dutch Shell), and medical supplies (between $50,001 and $100,000 in 3M).

Most jarringly for the workers she employs, however, Bass Wyden has also purchased between $220,010 and $600,000 in Amazon stock. Just last year, she had publicly lamented the news of Amazon’s intention to open a second headquarters in New York City. “Unless we stop them, local and state politicians will continue to advantage Big Tech over longstanding local businesses,” she wrote for CNN. 

According to Bobrowski, the average worker costs the Strand $5,200 per month, including all benefits and taxes. Bass Wyden’s stock transactions in July alone were thus equivalent to employing between 113 and 300 workers. “She’s saying, ‘There’s no money, things are tough,’” Bobrowski told me. “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.”

Amazon is not only a competitor, of course, but an existential threat. “As we heard in the recent public hearing of the U.S. House antitrust subcommittee, Amazon’s ongoing business practices have created monopoly-like conditions in a number of industries, including the book industry,” Dan Cullen, a spokesperson for the American Booksellers Association, wrote to me in an email. “Indie bookstores are nimble and innovative, and have responded to the threat posed by Amazon by offering community, connection, and unparalleled knowledge about books and authors. However, the pandemic has created conditions that severely restrict independent bookstores’ ability to offer the in-person experiences that set them apart.”

“Eighteen miles of books? I’m sure we’ve lost miles of books.”

Some current and former Strand workers suspect that their boss isn’t particularly interested in running a bookstore at all; instead, it seems that she is more driven to leverage the Strand’s independent history into building a boutique brand, and she is taking the pandemic as an opportunity to do so. “Her dream is to expand, expand, expand, to promote merchandise rather than books,” Cassandra Baim, a former Strand employee who started as a regular bookseller and then worked in visual merchandising until 2017, said. “She’s really into the idea of branding herself and the Strand, what she thinks is a cohesive Strand brand. To what extent she knows how to do that, I’m not sure.”

“The books aren’t the focus. The idea of the Strand is the focus. The brand is more important than the actual grunt work of running a bookstore,” James Colon, who had been working at the store since 2012, told me. “We have knocked down so many shelves to put up merchandise. Eighteen miles of books? I’m sure we’ve lost miles of books.”

Even as shelves at the original store are removed, Bass Wyden is opening new locations: the aforementioned one on Manhattan’s affluent Upper West Side and another at LaGuardia Airport’s bright and shiny Terminal B. “The sanitization and gentrification of New York City absolutely tracks with the sanitization and gentrification of the Strand,” Baim said.

Some laid-off workers, like Colon and Magee, protested the grand opening of the UWS location in July. “The only thing that was important to me was that Nancy knew the degree to which we were upset about the things that were happening,” Colon said. “Because she was there, because it was opening day—we were approaching them as they were opening, the line of people waiting to get in, and she was there to greet them. The fact that we got to spoil that, to let her know how upset we are, I felt like it went really well.”

But Magee conceded that there’s little that laid-off workers can do besides disrupt their former boss’s big day. “In terms of leverage, we’re not in a great spot right now,” he said. “At the same time, we’re the only ones who can push back on what’s going on.” Without leverage—without workers pushing back—the Strand that is left in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic will look less like a bookstore and more like yet another luxury souvenir shop for those visiting the world’s capital of capital.

Even before New York became the pandemic’s global epicenter in March—through a combination of executive malfeasance, its position as a major international travel hub, and the warehousing of its most vulnerable populations in prisons, nursing homes, and decrepit shelters and public housing—it was becoming an increasingly unlivable place for all but the super-rich. Between 2005 and 2017, according to the city comptroller’s office, the cost of basic living expenses for a single person increased at nearly twice the rate that their income did. Two-thirds of the city’s residents do not own their own homes and about half of those are rent burdened. And it’s not only residents: thanks to astronomical commercial rents, it can be more financially sensible for landlords to leave retail space empty while they wait for a more attractive tenant—usually a national chain or boutique brand—to come along than to extend a lease to small, locally owned businesses. Bass Wyden, on the other hand, owns the Union Square-adjacent building in which the Strand operates outright.

“What I want to see is a safe, functional work environment, which is not what we have right now,” Magee continued. “Really, I think the only way to do that is to have somebody else running it. Nancy has inherited this, she’s a third generation owner. If you went in there and you asked her where to find something she wouldn’t be able to do it. To have her running [the store] is kind of a doomsday scenario.”

“We love our jobs. We love the store. We want this place to succeed,” Graves said. “She’s the problem, she’s getting in our way.”