On Friday, New York City’s legendary Strand bookstore announced it was in trouble. With revenue down 70 percent because of the pandemic, owner Nancy Bass Wyden warned in a post on social media, the “loans and cash reserves that have kept us afloat these past months are depleted,” and the 93-year-old landmark is fighting for its survival.
Just as so many businesses and institutions have since March, Bass Wyden turned to her loyal customers for help, asking them to spend their money and spread the word, using the hashtag #SaveThe Strand. But alongside encomia from celebrities and Slate’s former editor in chief, another chorus arose, asking why Bass Wyden, a multimillionaire who is also the wife of a U.S. senator, was passing the hat rather than raiding her own piggy bank. As an article in the Baffler laid out in detail last month, the store received a Paycheck Protection Program loan of between $1 million and 2 million in April with the purpose of protecting the 212 jobs spread across its three locations, including the 188 workers Bass Wyden laid off in late March. Ultimately fewer than two dozen union jobs were restored, and Bass Wyden put her personal fortune to work purchasing stock in Amazon, a mortal enemy of brick-and-mortar booksellers she described as a necessary step toward keeping the Strand afloat.
The Strand is a literary mecca, so beloved that the novelist in Sofia Coppola’s new movie On the Rocks sports two separate tote bags with its logo during the course of the film. But bad bosses suck, especially ones who use economic exigency as an excuse to gut union staff. Yet the infuriating thing about the Strand controversy isn’t not knowing which side to pick. (As a union employee myself, that part is pretty easy.) It’s that we even have to have this conversation.
More than seven months after the first lockdowns, American small businesses have been left to twist in the wind. The PPP, as Slate’s Jordan Weissman wrote back in July, was a bust, a poorly administered half-measure. But that policy blunder pales in comparison to how badly the federal government has managed the pandemic as a whole—not to mention how many cultural institutions will likely be diminished or destroyed as a result of the government’s failures. The businesses and nonprofits that have managed to weather the storm thus far are mostly running on fumes: restaurants with capacities slashed to half or less, once-crowded stores that can only admit a few people at a time. Some of them have just made do with less, deferring payments and renegotiating rents, while others have held fundraisers or straight-up asked supporters to donate to help keep them alive. Businesses like movie theaters and music venues that depend on live audiences either haven’t been able to open at all or have had their capacity cut back to a point where it often makes no sense to open. And while Mitch McConnell had no trouble with the Senate working weekends to rush through President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court pick, he’s spent months effectively blocking further COVID relief, which would at least give all these struggling shops and venues a better shot.
My guess is that the Strand, with its iconic status and well-heeled supporters, will end up being fine. San Francisco’s similarly storied City Lights raised more than half a million dollars in April to help it get through the pandemic. But what about all the other bookstores who don’t have their name recognition or the ability to fundraise outside their own neighborhoods—or simply those in neighborhoods where people are too concerned with keeping themselves afloat to even think of giving money away? What about the movie theaters and music venues that still can’t open at all, and probably won’t be able to for months? The ones with corporate backing might survive, but the local ones, the ones that are based in and nurtured by their communities, and that nurture them in turn, are dying—if they’re not already dead. And the people who run our governments have decided that they’re basically OK with that.
It’s great that some places have managed to adapt: that, for example, the legendary Chicago music venue the Hideout is streaming concerts online and selling jigsaw puzzles to keep the lights on. But buying a jigsaw puzzle to keep a city’s live music scene afloat is like chipping in a few bucks when a friend of a friend sends around a GoFundMe asking to help fund their cancer treatments. Even if they meet their goal, I can’t help but think about all the people who didn’t have the time or the knowledge to set up their own fundraising site, or who simply phrased their online appeal in insufficiently viral terms. The result is that people who are down on their luck are asking for help from people who might be slightly less so, rather than being taken care of by a society that ought to be looking out for their well-being. And even when they succeed, these online giving frenzies can be ill-proportioned and short-lived. It turns out the same goes for cultural businesses and organizations: The summer’s drive to show solidarity by ordering from black-owned bookstores was hampered by the fact that everyone wanted the same small handful of books, and when those booksellers didn’t respond with Amazon-like efficiency, some of those fitfully well-meaning customers berated them for their slowness, or canceled their orders altogether. According to the American Booksellers Association, 20 percent of the nation’s independent bookstores are at risk of closing for good.
Apart from never emerging from this pandemic at all, what terrifies me most is emerging to a world in which so many of the spaces that have given me joy—the neighborhood bars, the theaters, the restaurants, and bookstores—no longer exist, and are just empty storefronts waiting to be colonized by chain stores. I order takeout when I can, stream the occasional movie through an arthouse theater, buy records I probably don’t need, in the strained hope that the world after COVID will be something like the world before it. But I feel like I do when I chip in 15 bucks to help a friend start a podcast or launch a website—like we’re all passing the same dollar from one person to the next, the way the schoolboys pass the conch in The Lord of the Flies. Giving is good, but it can’t be the thing a society runs on, especially when so much of the wealth is controlled by so few people. Government, which is meant to represent our collective values, is supposed to save the important things that can’t save themselves. So where is it?
Individual freedom has been warped into the idea that we’re all on our own, and if someone can’t afford chemotherapy or rent, or a business gets hit by the worst health crisis in a century, it’s not our problem—at least unless they put up a website compelling enough to convince us otherwise. We give a little and spread the word, and hope we’ve done our part. But we’re playing Whac-a-Mole, when we should be digging up the field.