If New York City moves ahead with a proposal to landmark the home of the Strand Book Store, it would be putting a "bureaucratic noose" around the business, says owner Nancy Bass Wyden. "The Strand survived through my dad and grandfather's very hard work," Wyden says, and now the city wants to "take a piece of it."
Opened by her grandfather, Benjamin Bass, in 1927, the Strand is New York City's last great bookstore—a four-story literary emporium crammed with 18 miles of merchandise stuffed into towering bookcases arranged along narrow passageways. It's the last survivor of the world-famous Booksellers Row, a commercial district comprised of about 40 secondhand dealers along Fourth Avenue below Union Square.
On December 4, 2018, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission held a public hearing on a proposal to designate the building that's home to the Strand as a historic site. If the structure is landmarked, Wyden would need to get permission from the city before renovating the interior or altering the facade.
"It would be very difficult to be commercially nimble if we're landmarked," Wyden tells Reason. "We'd have to get approvals through a whole committee and bureaucracy that do not know how to run a bookstore."
Wyden's outrage derives in part from her family's decades of struggle to keep the business alive.
The Strand survived, she says, because of "my grandfather and my dad's very hard work and their passion…Both worked most of their lives six days a week" and they "hardly took vacations."
Why can 11 unelected individuals of the Landmarks Commission curtail Wyden's property rights? Signed into law in 1965, New York's Landmarks Act was challenged as unconstitutional 13 years later by the owner of Grand Central Terminal, which sued the city for preventing it from building a skyscraper on top of the train station.
The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the law in a 6–3 decision, setting a precedent that in the dissenting opinion of Justice William Rehnquist undermined constitutional protections. As Rehnquist wrote, the city had "in a literal sense, 'taken' substantial property rights" from the company without offering just compensation, as required by the Fifth Amendment.
Wyden (who is married to Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden) has a big platform, as the owner of a literary landmark in the media capital of the world; The New York Times, The Guardian, Fortune, and the New York Post have all written about her fight with the Landmarks Commission. "I think that there are other business owners like me that ended up just kind of getting trapped in this situation without much of a voice," Wyden says.
In her simple message to the city—"leave me alone"—Wyden is unwittingly echoing the line of retired public school librarian Ella Suydam, owner of a Brooklyn farmhouse built by her Dutch ancestor, which the city first tried to landmark in 1980. "Who the hell are you to tell me what I can do with my house," Suydam told the Commission in 1980, intimidating its members into backing off.
The city waited until 1989, when Suydam was dead, to landmark the house.
Most building owners are less successful in their dealings with the Landmarks Commission. When the city proposed designating Manhattan's former meatpacking district—a neighborhood comprised of 104 buildings—one property-owning family opposed the plan, testifying at a March 13, 2003, public hearing.
"If the buildings become part of a landmark district, this will essentially eliminate new construction," said Richard Meilman, whose grandfather, a Russian-born butcher, had purchased multiple properties in the area in the 1940s.
The Landmarks Commission designated the properties later that year.
Wyden is committed to preserving the Strand. "I want to continue the Strand forever," she says. "That's my legacy and my goal in life." She just objects to the loss of control.
"Our family's been a great steward to the building," Wyden tells Reason. "Two years ago there was a massive sewer fire. It blew out two stories of our windows and rocked the foundation. We restored the windows to the prior look and we restored the pillars to the way they originally had been even before we bought the building."
The Landmarks Commission will vote on designating Wyden's building next month. She's not optimistic.
"I've been told that nobody wins with Landmarks, but I want to fight them because it's just so wrong, and so unjust, and so unfair, and we can't let them keep running over everybody in their way."
Written, shot, and edited by Jim Epstein. Hosted by Nick Gillespie. Additional camera by Kevin Alexander.
Music: Eubie Blake, "Charleston Rag" and "Chevy Chase"; Johnny Otis his Drums & his Orchestra, "Harlem Nocturne"; The Charlie Shavers Quintet, "Dizzy's Dilemma"; Sharkey & His Kings of Dixieland, "Peculiar Rag." Source: The Great 78 Project, Archive.org.