Historic Landmark Status Punishes Manhattan’s Iconic Strand Bookstore

It has never been easy to own a bookstore, but in recent years things have gotten more difficult with the emergence of Amazon. Already slim margins have tightened even more as customers increasingly choose online shopping over the local bookstore. But for one bookstore in Manhattan, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission is another threat to its bottom line and possibly its existence.

The Strand Bookstore in the East Village is a New York City icon and, according to its website, the “home of 18 miles of new, used, and rare books” or 2.5 million books to be precise. After the Strand’s 92 years in business, the Landmarks Preservation Commission voted 8-0 on June 11 to designate the building a historic city landmark. According to the bookstore’s owner, this decision is nothing to celebrate.

“Some people have congratulated me, and I said, ‘No, this is no congratulations. This is a punishment,’” Strand owner Nancy Bass Wyden told NPR’s Scott Simon. Ms. Wyden’s grandfather started the bookstore in 1927, and her father carried the business forward until his death in 2018 when she inherited it. The family clearly understands how to run a successful bookstore. But now the family has a new business “partner,” the Preservation Commission, which has authority to block, alter, and delay business decisions, driving up its costs.

“They get to decide what color our sign is, our awning is, what material we use,” Wyden said. “They get to decide what kind of windows we have, what kind of metal we use on our doors. Anything that has to even be put on the rooftop, they get the decision-making on that and it’s just wrong. It’s just unfair.”

Ms. Wyden said that going through the Commission to get necessary permits will increase certain costs by two or three times. “We just don’t want any more expenses. We don’t need it. It’s a brutal retail environment, and now we’re under siege,” she told the New York Post. “We don’t need the city to come in and just put red tape and bureaucracy and take control over decision-makings of the store. . . . It’s really no honor.”

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, a presidential hopeful, says he’s a big fan of the bookstore. (He tweeted: “I’ve been shopping at @strandbookstore since college. I know it’s one of the most special places in our city.”) But he thinks Ms. Wyden is over-reacting. He said in a press conference, “We think she’s interpreting [regulations for city landmarks] wrongly and that we can show her where this is not going to add cost to her operation.” It is worth noting that the mayor appoints the Commission members.

Similarly, Sarah Carroll, chair of the Commission, which regulates thousands of buildings in New York City, weighed in against Ms. Wyden, “Our regulatory system is efficient and flexible, and I am confident that designation will not impact plans for the Strand Bookstore.” But no NYC regulatory body is “efficient and flexible,” so immediately Carroll lacks credibility.

These responses are the predictable “we know better” claptrap from socialist politicians who regularly use force to make people live their lives or run their businesses according to the political elites’ vision. They purposely downplay the burdens of government regulation and oversell any potential benefits, although the benefits here are hard to image since the Strand has been a loyal neighborhood friend for 92 years and had no plans to damage the building, which they own.

To her enormous credit, Ms. Wyden has fought back, calling the designation “eminent domain” and “a bureaucratic straitjacket.” “We run on fragile margins and we employ a lot of people—we have 288 employees, most of which are unionized—and we’re known for our good value in books,” Ms. Wyden told NPR. “So it’s just another city cost pounding on us unnecessarily.”

Ms. Wyden, the third-generation owner, understands the book-selling business better than de Blasio or Carroll, understands her customers better, understands her building better, understands her neighborhood better, and, clearly, better understands the hardships of government harassment that come with historical designations. She has every right to be concerned and fearful that this designation could drive her bookstore out of NYC or out of business entirely, which would make her business yet another casualty of burdensome and meddling regulations.

Rather than pounding on a loyal 92-year friend of the city, New York City officials should instead focus on improving the business climate to make NYC a welcoming place for all businesses. Officials could start by lobbying the state government to improve conditions. Currently, New York State has the third worst business tax structure and is ranked dead last among all 50 states for its economic outlook and level of economic freedom. Bill de Blasio should focus on fixing these problems, not pounding on the Strand Bookstore.

Lawrence J. McQuillan is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Entrepreneurial Innovation at the Independent Institute. He is the author of the Independent book California Dreaming.
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