WHEN ROBYN SMITH started working as a bookseller at the Strand in 2019, she felt as though she’d found her people. She loved having coworkers who were almost too passionate about books. She loved how, when she later joined the events team, she got to pose questions to famous authors, like what animal they would ride into battle. (André Aciman opted for a chameleon.)
“I saw the Strand as a place of comfort within the city,” Smith says. “Being a part of that team is really special. I felt special coming to work every day.”
The Strand, with its flagship on Broadway at 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 that involves matching book titles with their corresponding authors’ names to prove their chops. Luc Sante worked there. Patti Smith did too, for a hot minute. (She found it unfriendly.) Strand employees are expected to have opinions. One former manager, Theresa Buchheister, recounted what happened when a friend of hers asked a staffer for help finding a copy of John Updike’s collected Rabbit novels. The staffer groaned. “You don’t like Updike?” the customer asked. “I don’t like … collections,” the staffer replied. Pretentious, sure, sometimes; but these are people who take pride in what they read and recommend. The job comes with its own set of problems, such as working long hours in a creaky, quirky old building rife with creakyquirky-old-building problems and the usual conflicts between employees and the boss. Still, employees say the actual work of bookselling and the community around the store has mostly outweighed the bad.
That precarious balance came undone last year as the pandemic ravaged the retail industry. When the state closed all nonessential businesses in late March 2020, a week after the Strand had shuttered its doors as a precaution, Smith and 187 of her colleagues were laid off. The store remained in hibernation until the end of June, when management brought back a skeleton crew. Since then, the Strand and its unionized workers have been locked in a struggle over money, priorities, and safety. Strand employees say they recognize bookstores are struggling right now, but many still don’t think the Strand’s owner, Nancy Bass Wyden, is taking their well-being into account. They have accused her of flouting covid safety precautions and of taking a PPP loan meant to help people keep their jobs but not rehiring enough of them or explaining where the money went.
The Strand disputes many of its employees’ claims. A spokesperson says the store has taken all the necessary precautions for covid safety and been responsive to employee feedback. It would “literally be impossible” to rehire everyone, the spokesperson says. “The limited sales we make now plus the PPP loan are the only things keeping our staff paid. Until instore sales bounce back, this is the best we can do.” Despite a recent arbitration meeting and months of conversations, nothing has been resolved. At the beginning of this month, the union organized a demonstration outside the Broadway store’s entrance; employees marched and hoisted signs. On Instagram, union members circulated a post urging customers to call the Strand and “tell Nancy Bass Wyden that you will not support union busting.” Will Bobrowski, a union shop steward who has worked at the Strand for 18 years, says the arbitration is a first for him; in the past, he says, “we would argue, and somebody would be unhappy coming out of it … but we would settle our shit.”
With its four retail floors and vaunted “18 miles of books,” the Strand is a collector’s paradise, a nerd’s sanctuary. The past year, though, has laid bare just how perilous a job you like, or even love, can be when you’re working without the most basic of safety nets. This fragility is something Strand employees have always been aware of—they work in retail, after all. Before, however, the job had just enough perks, just enough meaning, to make it worth the struggle. Working at the Strand was like a microcosm of living in New York, a city that absolutely does not need you. Without the good, the bad takes on new weight.
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