Fred Bass, the man who built The Strand into the largest used bookstore in the world (“18 Miles of Books”), died yesterday. He was 89. The shop, never afraid of modernity despite its age, tweeted an obit.
Fred started working at The Strand (trivia: it’s officially “Strand,” but that sounds infelicitous) when he was 13, when it was still on Fourth Avenue. Back then, there were dozens of used and specialty bookshops on the strip of the Village known as “Book Row.” Almost all are gone now. Fred’s father Ben, a Lithuanian Jewish immigrant, started The Strand in 1927, with $300 in savings and $300 he’d borrowed from a pal. Fred’s mother Shirley, a Polish Jewish immigrant, died when he was six.
As Fred’s obituary in the New York Times notes, the store wasn’t an instant success. During the Depression. Fred and his sister spent time in foster care in the East Village. But over time, Fred built The Strand into the mega-store it is today. In 1957, he moved the shop to its current location on Broadway, where it grew over time from 70,000 books to 2.5 million. The shop began carrying discounted new books, as well as the tote bags, socks, journals, postcards, magnets and hats that fuel bricks-and-mortar bookstores today. Fred retired just two months ago, leaving the store in the hands of his daughter Nancy.
The Strand’s history has not been without controversy; a few years ago during a frigid November, the store repeatedly sprayed water on homeless people who slept under its awning. That’s stopped. But throughout its long life, the store staff has been notorious for its hilarious lack of interest in being helpful to customers.
Still, the place is iconic. I can measure my adult life through time spent there. As a recent college grad in the early 90s, I spent hours in the stacks looking for used copies of Grace Paley and Carol Shields books. A perfect Sunday would start at the Strand and continue with a stroll down Broadway, checking out the wares at Canal Jean, Unique Boutique, Tower Records and the little flea market at Fourth Street. (All gone.) In my mid-20s, when I edited the books column at Sassy Magazine, I used to wheel a folding cart full of unsolicited review copies from midtown all the way to 12th Street – I couldn’t afford a cab, and couldn’t lug the cart up the subway steps. I’d arrive with my haul, sweaty but triumphant, and exchange it for cash instead of bookstore credit. I really needed the cash.
Like Fred Bass, I spent a few years in exile from NYC. (He served in the Army in 1950s West Germany; I worked on web startups in late-1990s San Francisco. Same same.) When I came back to the city, I had a job in TV and went to The Strand after work to get back in touch with books. And when I had children, we went to author visits. Maxie did storytime and crafts; Josie got a treasured sketch of Athena from cartoonist George O’Connor. Before long, both kids were roaming the stacks on their own. Now they go with their friends after school, in search of discount treasures.
And when it came time for Josie’s Bat Mitzvah, her party was in The Strand’s Rare Book room. We clipped Edison light bulbs to the bookshelves and put little vases of flowers on stacks of vintage children’s books (our own – no Strand books were harmed) on the tables. The kids all got books as favors, and lay around on their stomachs in their fancy dresses and proper button-down shirts, reading. I wrote about it for Tablet and for my own blog. (Trigger warning: Graphic depiction of excessive kvelling.)
This Thanksgiving, in The Netherlands, we saw a giant, crowded, cartoon-y, amusing mural of Amsterdam by Jan Rothuizen in the Stedelijk Museum. In one corner was a drawing of two hugging women. “PRETTY GIRLS WITH WHITE COTTON BAGS WITH PRINT,” Rothuizen labeled them. One girl’s bag said “RIJKS.” The other said “STRAND BOOKSTORE NYC.” “THEY GREET EACH OTHER LIKE LOVERS DO BEFORE GOING INSIDE,” the text continued. The Strand is everywhere we go, it seems. For cool girls in foreign cities, a strand tote bag is a symbol of artiness. For my family, The Strand means home, and books, and love, and those three things are hard to separate.
Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.