Fred Bass, Who Made Strand Bookstore a Mecca, Dies at 89
Posted January 3, 2018 4:56 p.m. EST
NEW YORK — Fred Bass, who transformed his father’s small used-book store, the Strand, into a mammoth Manhattan emporium with the slogan “18 Miles of Books,” died Wednesday at his home in Manhattan. He was 89.
The cause was congestive heart failure, said Leigh Altshuler, the Strand’s director of communications.
Bass was 13 when he began working at the Strand, founded by his father, Benjamin. At the time, it was one of nearly 50 such stores concentrated along Fourth Avenue.
Except for two years in the Army, he never left, until retiring in November 2017.
A year after taking over as manager of the store in 1956, he moved it from Fourth Avenue to its present location, on Broadway at 12th Street, where it occupied half the ground floor of what had been a clothing business. He set the Strand on a path of unstoppable expansion, taking over the entire first floor, then, in the 1970s, the top three floors, adding an antiquarian department along the way.
Following his father’s playbook, he pursued a policy of aggressive acquisition.
“At first I used to think he was crazy,” Fred Bass told the cable news channel NY1 in 2015. “Why are we buying extra books? We haven’t sold all these. But we just kept buying and buying. It was a fact — you can’t sell a book you don’t have.”
The 70,000 books in the Fourth Avenue store swelled, at the Broadway site, to half a million by the mid-1960s and 2.5 million by the 1990s, requiring the purchase of a storage warehouse in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. By the time Bass bought the building for $8.2 million in 1997, the Strand had become the largest used-book store in the world.
Into his late 80s, Bass stood behind a counter, appraising books and authorizing payment on the spot to book-laden sellers cleaning out their apartments, critics offloading surplus review copies and the down-at-heel looking to collect a few dollars.
“We’re the last place left besides a pawnshop where you can walk in the door and sell stuff,” he told the newspaper The Villager in 2010. When he was not behind the counter he sat on a stool at the front of the store, a perch that allowed him, as he put it, “to promote smooth traffic flow.” On weekends he attended estate sales, amassing even more books.
“It’s a disease,” he told New York magazine in 1977. “I get an attack, something like a panic, of book-buying. I simply must keep fresh used books flowing over my shelves. And every day the clerks weed out the unsalable stuff from the shelves and bins and we throw it out. Tons of dead books go out nightly. And I bought ‘em. But I just have to make room for fresh stock to keep the shelves lively.”
Fred Bass was born on June 28, 1928, in Manhattan, a year after his father, an immigrant from Lithuania, had opened the Pelican Book Shop on Eighth Street, near Greene Street. Ben Bass had developed book fever browsing the stores on Fourth Avenue during lunch breaks from his job in a nearby fabric store. Fred’s mother, the former Shirley Vogel, was an immigrant from Poland who died of cancer when he was 6.
Ben Bass, who died in 1978, did not thrive in his new occupation. He was forced out of his Eighth Street premises in 1929 and opened the Strand on Fourth Avenue with $300 in savings and another $300 in borrowed money. The cash register was a cigar box. In the early days, to keep expenses down, he slept on a cot in the back of the shop.
It was not a successful concern, and the onset of the Depression made it even less so. Destitute, he placed Fred and his daughter, Dorothy, in foster care with a couple in the East Village.
After graduating from DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, Fred enrolled in Brooklyn College, earning a degree in English in 1949. He attended classes by day and worked for his father in the afternoons, as he had since the age of 13. He swept the floor, organized the shelves and visited private homes to scout out books, which he carried on the subway to the Strand, by then at 81 Fourth Ave., between 10th and 11th Streets.
“I got the dust in my blood and I never got it out,” he told McCandlish Phillips, a reporter for The New York Times and the author of “City Notebook: A Reporter’s Portrait of a Vanishing New York” (1974).
Bass was drafted into the Army in 1950 and posted to West Germany. In 1952, while serving stateside in New Jersey, he married Patricia Miller. She survives him, as do their daughter, Nancy Bass Wyden, who now owns the business; a half sister, Eleanor Allen; and three grandchildren.
Wyden, whose husband is Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., took over the store on her father’s retirement.
The Fourth Avenue book district, which ran from Union Square to Astor Place, was flavorful, its dozens of bookstores run by eccentrics who often seemed to regard customers as an intrusion. Many a patron left with the distinct impression that his or her purchase had been grudgingly tolerated rather than encouraged. Rising rents inexorably thinned the ranks, leaving the Strand the sole survivor of what had been one of New York’s most distinctive neighborhoods. Bass offered another reason for the demise of Booksellers’ Row to NY1. “What happened to Fourth Avenue, essentially, it was run by a lot of very interesting, strong, self-centered individuals, including my dad, and very few of them imparted knowledge to the younger generation,” he said.
Competition was not friendly. When the Strand moved to Broadway, booksellers on Fourth Avenue refused to tell confused customers where to find it.
After taking over management of the store, Bass introduced a number of innovations. He established satellite Strands in kiosks outside the entrance to Central Park on Fifth Avenue at Grand Army Plaza and downtown in the South Street Seaport. In 2013, the Strand opened an outpost in the Flatiron district. In 2016, the Strand opened a summer-season kiosk in Times Square.
Most famously, Bass created a literary quiz for prospective Strand employees to take when filling out their applications. “I thought it was a quick way to find if somebody had any knowledge of books,” he told The Times in 2016. Applicants had to match 10 authors with 10 titles, and maneuver around one trick question, in an exercise that became a cherished bit of New York lore.
Prodded by his daughter, who joined the business in 1986, Bass consented to a major renovation and expansion of the store in 2005, adding an elevator and air-conditioning and streamlining the floors to make browsing easier. The Strand began selling merchandise like T-shirts and tote bags, which now account for about 15 percent of total revenues, and, tentatively at first, began offering new books at a discount. Bass was fond of telling journalists that the Strand, just one of many bookstores in its infancy, contained more books and had more employees than the rest of the stores along Booksellers’ Row combined in that district’s heyday.
“My dream was to get a big bookstore, which I’ve achieved,” he told NY1. “I’m very happy about that.”