Wife of a Liberal Senator Gets ‘Mugged by Reality’

Mecca. The Holy Land. Sacred ground.

I feel sacrilegious for invoking such numinous phrases, but it’s hard to think of a better personal metaphor for the Strand, New York City’s iconic bookstore located in Greenwich Village. Visiting the store is its own pilgrimage for any starved bibliophile. In a world of Amazon shipping and the $.01 paperback, Strand is an oasis, offering a rarified shopping experience that slakes our need for spontaneity through the adventitious wandering of stacks. The atmosphere begs for browsing books, both old and new. It’s anonymous and crowded, like a self-contained city.

Photo crdit: Brianne Sperber

And, as everything else in our harried age, it’s in danger of going under; but, thankfully, not for lack of business. Rather, it’s meddlesome government regulators who are threatening the Strand’s financial viability.

The city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission is considering whether or not to designate the Strand a city landmark, protecting the store from financial marauders who want to scoop up its valuable real estate. But, in a bit of Shakespearean irony, the iconic bookstore is threatened by those charged with its preservation.

Strand’s current owner, Nancy Bass Wyden, wife of Oregon senator Ron Wyden, is not letting her liberalism balance the books. “By landmarking the Strand, you can also destroy a piece of New York history. We’re operating on very thin margins here, and this would just cost us a lot more, with this landmarking, and be a lot more hassle,” Wyden told the Commission during a public hearing.

Wyden also took a shot at Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, owner of the great scourge of brick-and-mortar bookstores everywhere. “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,” she explained, appealing not to the Commission’s egalitarian instincts, but to the principle of privacy. “Just leave me alone,” Wyden beseeched her would-be viceroys.

Her reluctance to accept preservation status must have come as a surprise to the Commission, which has the closest thing to god-like power of establishing permanence this side of heaven and Fifth Avenue. Making the Strand a historical landmark would prevent it from becoming a yoga studios for toy dogs, a craft cidery, or some other inane commercial activity exclusive to our time.

Wyden’s desire to keep Strand not just a business but the business her father and grandfather worked painstakingly to create, and not just sell it off to Barnes & Noble or cede the reins to NYC’s historical designators, is admirable. It’s also revealing: As liberal as Wyden presumably is, she’s been mugged by reality, in the great Kristolian phrase. Accepting the government’s protection means accepting the government’s terms, which would interfere with her ability to keep Strand financially viable. The much-coveted preservation status suddenly doesn’t sound so appealing.

It’s all so pregnant with irony because Wyden is adopting the ethos of an author I’d bet a stack of Dickens first editions she finds detestable: Ayn Rand.

The libertarian philosopher wrote two popular (and mind-numbing, depending on your tastes) novels about industrialists standing up to onerous government decrees and fighting for the right to operate their businesses as they please. The way Wyden talks, you’d think she was Dagny Taggart in the flesh, incarnated from the dusty pages of a much-used copy of Atlas Shrugged, sitting lonely on one of Strand’s discount tables, battling it out with cruel and conniving state functionaries to preserve her family enterprise.

It should go without saying that, in this particular case, Wyden, not Empire City bureaucrats, is best suited to know how to preserve the Strand. City-designated historical landmarks aren’t a bad thing. Sometimes, they can make the difference between a historically significant building being razed to put in a mini Target and boutique hair salon.

Strand is different. It’s not a centuries-old house that George Washington once slept in overnight. It’s a bookstore that has, remarkably, outlasted its competitors in the most commercially demanding city in the country. More so, it’s in the business of selling literature, a good that doesn’t go out of season nor will ever be surpassed by technological improvement. (E-readers, I’m not sorry to say, don’t hold a candle or artificial light to the haptic experience of turning sallow, grainy pages in an actual book.)

If the Landmarks Preservation Commission really wants to save the Strand, it’s best letting that job stay with the one person most capable of doing it: Mrs. Wyden. Owners of other preservation-worthy locales in the city should take note.