Strand Books, the Homeless and the Left

So much for a place where bearded Marxists once used to browse for radical tomes.

Long time New Yorkers may remember Strand Books for its past as an edgy bookstore that carried off the student and oddball intellectual vibe with a maze of metal bookshelves full of used dusty tomes, locked glass cases of first editions and an oddball staff with a tendency to write its own graffiti on the walls.

That's mostly past tense. Under the influence of the owner's daughter, who also happens to be married to Senator Ron Wyden, raising some questions about whether he really lives out West, Strand Books got a Barnes and Noble makeover with lots of polished wood, open tables of books and tons of souvenir nicknacks.

The 8 miles of books slogan has been deemphasized. Strand isn't really a place to browse for hours anymore. It's more of a place to buy the latest bestseller.

The change coincided with the gentrification of the area. (What will happen now in De Blasio Time is an open question. If the Village reverts, Strand may have to return to its roots.)

The new store has run into the ire of the left even though it's one of the few independent bookstores left in an area that once used to have a ton of them.

First there were the usual accusations of racism. Strand Books used to pride itself on an overeducated and underpaid staff that knew everything about books. That staff is mainly an ornament when the usual shopper is there to pick up 50 Shades of Grey or something by the latest New Yorker celeb author, but it got flak over diversity.

And now there's the homeless thing. Strand Books dumps a lot of its used books into carts that it sells quickly and cheaply out front for a quick turnaround. And those carts stand under its giant awning.

Signs reading, “Warning: Sprinkler System Will Run Periodically From 10:30 PM-9:00 AM” were placed on the wall of the bookshop at the corner of East 12th Street and Broadway. Some homeless people said they were doused when they tried to sleep on the sidewalk in front of the store, store employees and the homeless said.

“It was to keep people from sleeping out there,” said a Strand bookseller who asked that her name not be used. “People used to sleep over there and in the morning we have to put out the book carts, so it was a little bit difficult and uncomfortable for some people."

Strand co-owner Nancy Bass Wyden — who is married to U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) and is the granddaughter of Strand founder Ben Bass, who opened the shop in 1927 — said in a brief phone interview Thursday that she was “not sure” about the reason for the sprinklers.

Strand manager Eddie Sutton denied the sprinklers were intended to disperse the homeless, saying they were there to clean the sidewalk.

Both are probably true. Homeless sleeping habits don't exactly make for a clean sidewalk. But the sidewalk over there is a mess anyway. And homeless people can often be found browsing the carts.

Still Strand Books never used to be that finicky. Neither did its employees who used to embrace the slumming. But the bookstore wants a different image now.

And it's running on some old practices in a much more liberal time. Strand Workers are unionized (by the United Auto Workers), but there are constant threats of strikes. And the racial issues won't leave the store alone. Now it's got a homeless problem too.

So much for a place where bearded Marxists once used to browse for radical tomes.

Tags: New York