‘For albeit the spirit be willing and ready, the flesh is frail and wavering, and, through your quietness, I shall be much more the quieter.’
So the ‘Good Duke’ beseeched the incensed and raucous crowd before him with the hopes that he could go in peace in prayer, that the gold sovereigns he’d handed the executioner would ensure a swift swing of the ax. Witnesses that chilly morning on January 22, 1552, said the end did come quickly to the soldier who had faced death on the battlefield many a time. Tower Hill was the last place it had seemed the life of Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset would end when his nine-year old nephew Edward VI ascended to the throne five years earlier, nearly to the day. Appointed Lord Protector of England, for nearly three years Seymour governed as king in all but name. Alas, usurpers pounced with a grab for power when his efforts to soften the authoritarian rule imposed by the king’s father, Henry VIII, to improve the poor’s wretched station sparked widespread rebellion.
Seymour’s legacy lives on today as an affront to Jeff Bezos’ infamous quote: “Your margin is my opportunity.” England’s Somerset House was started by the Good Duke in 1547. To this day, its namesake Studios housed there remain, “an experimental workspace in the centre of London connecting artists, makers and thinkers with audiences.” Literary luminaries such as Thomas Carlyle, Charles Dickens, John Stuart Mill, Ralph Waldo Emerson and the scientist Thomas Henry Huxley gathered there; book publishers naturally followed them to the intellectual hub. Blame Dickens for referring to Strand as “The Strand,” an error that became so ingrained “No. 1, The Strand,” which has since been replaced as No. 1, London, was the very first street address in London history.
An avid collector of rare antique books from a young age and thus inspired by the books bequethed by literary luminaries, in 1927, with $300 of his own and $300 borrowed by a friend, Ben Bass opened The Strand on New York City’s Fourth Avenue “Book Row.” The store became its own magnet to the era’s Greenwich Day avant-garde community, and ultimately the sole surviving storefront. Ben’s son Fred had embraced the family business by the age of 13. And it was he who moved the store just around the corner, to East 12th Street and Broadway where it, including its two million books on four floors that span a total of 18 miles, remains to this day thanks in large part to Fred’s daughter, Nancy, who joined the family business when she was 25.
The pandemic and NYC’s overbearing shutdown, however, changed things. In an October 23, 2020 letter, Nancy Wyden made an open plea to customers in the face of a 70% decline in revenues over the prior 12-month period: “We’ve survived just about everything for 93 years — the Great Depression, two World Wars, big box bookstores, e-books and online behemoths. Because of COVID-19, we cannot survive the huge decline in foot-traffic, a near complete loss of tourism and zero in-store events compared to 400 events pre-pandemic.”
The response was overwhelming. Per the Washington Post, 25,000 online orders and $170,550 were generated in in-store purchases, in two days. And The New York Times reported that the shop set a single-day record of 10,000 online orders, causing the website to crash as one woman purchased 197 books.