It’s devastatingly ironic that an effort to preserve a historical landmark could lead to its demise. But in the case of New York’s famous Strand bookstore, that’s exactly what might happen. There’s a push to legally make the store a historic landmark—a designation that may come with damning consequences. The regulation involved in the legal historic landmark designation may threaten the store’s ability to quickly adapt its business practices, a crisis in the impending Amazon era. Yesterday, owner Nancy Bass Wyden took to a public meeting to plead for the store’s survival.
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In 1927, The Strand stood as a proud part of Book Row: a stretch of fifty bookstores all along 4th Avenue. From the late 19th century up until the 1960s, the street was a hub of secondhand booksellers, a cultural achievement for any city. The store’s legacy goes beyond its physical location. It’s also a family tradition, with Nancy inheriting the business just this January after her father’s passing. The store has stayed within the family since its founding—but with over 200 employees, it hardly belongs only to them.
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Outstanding features also help to build a large community, not the least of which is the store’s popular and accurate slogan: “18 miles of books.” The strand has since moved from its original Book Row location-the competition has since disappeared. There are no more bookstores on the street, and there are only seventy-nine in the rest of the city, an 80% decrease from the 369 operating as recently as 1950. The decline will only get sharper—Amazon, bookstores’ greatest competitor, is coming to NYC. Though Amazon already has some physical stores, this move threatens increased rivalry.
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It’s this high-stakes competition that makes a landmark designation seem like a positive-the name itself is innocuous, even celebratory. But the historic landmark designation is more than just a name. It comes with a series of regulations that would impede the business’ ability to perform upgrades, including store layout updates and improvements on any physical fixtures (awnings, windows, etc.) The landmark designation could even stall necessary repairs, should a landmark suffer flood damage, substantial paperwork and processing time would prevent any quick solution.
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With serious Amazon competition, such regulations could be deadly. The Strand is a landmark, but it’s also a store. The significance of its history has nothing to do with the building—instead, it’s about the community and culture The Strand creates. Owner Nancy Bass Wyden begs: “the richest man in America, who’s a direct competitor, has just been handed $3 billion in subsidies. I’m not asking for money or a tax rebate. Just leave me alone.”
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